Is “It Depends” an Acceptable Answer?







I was in an agile class last week trying to learn another agile scaling framework. Something happened that really bothered me. And, if you’ve come to know me at all, I usually share about things like this that perplex me and cause me to think more deeply.

The Situation

We were talking about communicating with leadership teams about project dates and commitments. The context was in agile at scale. So, how would we respond to an inquiry for a project date surrounding a set of five teams working to meet the release goal.

The situation revolved around aggregating x-team velocity and time to spin up new teams in order to meet an aggressive request on the part of our CEO.

We were using historical team velocity and team ramp-up velocity to forecast and respond to the leader’s request. That is:

  • Existing team velocity
  • New team hiring velocity
  • New team ramp-up velocity

were all in play to leverage in our forecasts.

But what about “It depends…”?

As the instructor walked us through the exercise, he made it clear that “it depends” was not an acceptable answer. I asked if we could say “I don’t know”. And that was unacceptable as well.

It seemed that his only view of a viable answer to leadership was to provide a historical, trended data forecast. To give them as specific a timeframe as possible and lightly couch the risks associated with the estimate.

His primary driver for this position seemed to be that:

If we didn’t give them a specific forecast, they would go to someone (another team, another organization, offshore firm, nearshore firm, outsourced, etc.) that would make a more specific commitment.

I.e., that because we’re afraid of losing the “bid”, we have to provide something to win their confidence and win the work. No matter the level of confidence or runway we have in our historical “velocity-based” data.

Tongue Tied

To say the least, I was tongue tied.

Now I’m all for forecasting based on historical velocity if three things are present:

  • We have sufficient historical velocity for the situation(s) we’re forecasting;
  • The velocity is relatively stable; with low variability;
  • And the leadership team understands agile principles and the level of commitment we ARE and ARE NOT making; I.e., they fully understand and share in the risks.

But that wasn’t the situation here. Here the instructor was recommending always leveraging the data for an answer. Even if there are HUGE holes, such as assumptions being made to hire several teams from scratch.

And the context was a classroom full of folks with widely disparate levels of experience. In other words, most of the attendees were taking this guidance as truth or gospel. While I personally thought the answer was fear-driven and single-minded.

Wrapping up

Getting back to the article’s premise. I would say that IF you have confidence in your velocity data and it aligns well with the context of the request, then sure, use it to provide forecasts to your leadership team.

But, if you honestly don’t know. Don’t be afraid to say – I don’t know. Then speak to what and how much time you need to gain more “knowing”.

And but, if you honestly think there’s so much variability that – It depends. Then speak to the variables, options, risks, etc. and expect your leadership team to be able to handle the complexity.

We’ve got to be able to get to a point where we can “speak truth” to our leadership teams AND where they are in a position to “handle the truth”. Otherwise, all is lost.

Stay agile my friends,


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Bob Galen

Bob Galen

Bob Galen is an Agile Methodologist, Practitioner & Coach based in Cary, NC. In this role he helps guide companies and teams in their pragmatic adoption and organizational shift towards Scrum and other agile methodologies and practices. Contact: