Musings of ls6

Prioritizing work

Are you sure you prioritize you work thoroughly? Are you sure you are not missing an important aspect?

Here’s an actual case I’ve heard about very recently:

  • an experienced software team of 4 in a much larger organization
  • must be responsive to requests coming from other 8 teams and develop (internal) tools at the same time
  • evolved from a random way of working through sort-of-Scrum to kind-of-Kanban
    • kept Scrum iterations (3 weeks long) as a heartbeat for reflecting upon it’s own work and reporting to the organization
    • kept Scrum planning sessions and commitment to deliver certain amount of work within the iteration.

I’m a proponent of agile approach over strict adherence to one methodology or the other so I don’t think there is anything wrong with this approach. The team have been developing and improving their way of working over a year and a half and reportedly arrived at a solution that was working fine. They have achieved the right balance between being responsive and having the time to keep working on their own projects—which was the major problem they were addressing throughout their agile journey—and overall it sounded like a success story. The only thing that kept nagging me was why, the hell, they were still having these planning sessions. Their progress on their products (the internal tools) was not tracked by the rest of the organization which seemed to care much more about their responsiveness. In my experience the planning session could be long and sometimes painful and they certainly didn’t need it to keep the responsiveness up, Kanban does not require it… I couldn’t let go of this question and approached the guy after the talk and asked.

I suspected that the planning sessions were just a left over form their Scrum days but, to my surprise, they were not and the guy actually knew exactly why they were left in place. It was a way for the team to be able to “smuggle in” certain items they wanted to work on even if the rest of the organization didn’t think it was important enough to bubble all the way to the top of the backlog. The situation was that all the requests that came from the other teams were marked by them as “must have” while the items pertaining to the tools the team was working about were all marked “nice to have” by the team itself. The problem was that a) the team knew that not all the backlog requests were really a must, and b) the team knew that working on the incoming requests only was deadening like hell and they would not be able to sustain it for longer than an iteration or two in a row so by at the beginning of the sprint they were picking from the backlog whatever combination looked fine at the time and, as Scrum suggests, refused to change it later on. Or not since some of the incoming requests were truly urgent and would be inserted into the sprint backlog anyway… making 60–70% of the tasks for any given sprint.

So, after we have discussed for a while what was really happening we figured out that the team was actually, although unconsciously, mudding the process of prioritizing work to be done just to feel better. Again, I’d say that’s not necessarily a problem as long as the result is fine but by doing it in this inconspicuous way the team have deprived itself of having an important aspect of their operation to consciously control and fine-tune.

It seems that the real problem at hand is a thorough prioritization of tasks. And by thorough I mean one that takes all important aspects into consideration, not only the urgency and importance as perceived by the “client” but also including team perspective since it is really important. Stick to clients opinion only and you will have a burned out (or worse: empty) team on your hands. And on the client’s hand too, by the way, so it is in no one’s interest. So if you know that there certain aspects that keep the team motivated, productive and sane bring them out to the light, inspect and deal with transparently. You don’t have do advertise it outside the team but on the inside you should act upon them consciously. Only when you manage transparently you have a chance to act when things don’t work anymore.