Sustainable Pace For Everyone (Including Agilists)

By: Reese Schmit | Dec 12, 2016 |  Article,  Scrum

Nod your head if you have said the following:

  • “I need a day off so I can get some work done.”
  • “I’ve been in meetings for the last 6 hours solid.”
  • “It feels like I haven’t been at my desk in two days.”
  • “I’ll get to that this weekend.”

You’ve likely heard phrases like this around the office or said them yourself too many times. According to a Families and Work Institute study, one in three American employees is chronically overworked. Multitasking, interruptions, too many meetings, and an overwhelming workload are cited as some of the main contributors to their inability to maintain a reasonable work week.  As Agilists we drive home the concepts of focus, prioritization and sustainable pace for our teams but the rest of the company is left out to dry, including ourselves.

Why is this?

It’s time to start applying the same limits and principles to our OWN workloads so we can reap the benefits. It’s time to start walking the talk.  It’s time to start using Agile techniques to foster a much more sustainable workplace outside of our dev teams.

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Create a Backlog

First, get it out of your head. I repeat this over and over to friends and colleagues when I can see they are hitting their limit. You spend so much energy trying to make sure you remember all the things you need to do, you have little energy left to actually do said things. That fear of forgetting can also be quite stressful. Let’s rebalance that. Grab a pad of post-its and a sharpie and get it out. One task per post it. Why post-its? Well, they stick to most any smooth surface, so anything can become your board.

Make it Visible

A visible board for your workload is just as important as a visible board for your teams. Think “information radiator.” Another option is to jot the list down in a spreadsheet but it does not have the same visual impact as 10 post-its preceding a new request. Having a quick visual reference for what’s in progress, what’s coming up and (maybe most importantly) what is NOT being worked on, helps guide conversations and set expectations.

Groom your Backlog

This leads me to the next powerful technique: Prioritization. A jumble of random post-its on a board doesn’t quite lead to a decreased workload on its own. It requires some input from you on what is most important to get done soonest. There are going to be a ton of things that weigh on those priorities. Yes, HiPPO (Highest Paid Person’s Opinion) does usually factor in here, as well as external deadlines, and ROI (Return on Investment). Use the prioritization method that works in your situation…the method doesn’t matter. The important thing is to walk away with a prioritized list. Prioritizing helps you focus on the most important things and makes those conversations around adding to your queue much more straightforward. “Sure, I can do this, but it means these things are going to push.”

The Power of “No”

You must say “no” on a regular basis. This is a hard one for a lot of people, but it is absolutely necessary for setting realistic expectations. It is not enough to say that you will add it to the backlog; saying this will set you up for even harder conversations in the future. If you are courageous and say “no” two things happen. One, expectations can be set early and the task can be requested by someone else. If it is truly important, someone will do it, but it doesn’t need to be you. Two, you don’t end up with a never-ending backlog full of items that will only clutter your visibility really valuable things.

Visualize your Workflow

As you start knocking out tasks, making your workflow visible is also imperative. You can start simple with To-Do, In Progress and Done, but you may discover “In Progress” becoming busy and convoluted.

Are there times you aren’t actually “working” on something but it’s in progress? Maybe you need to get approval from legal on any blog posts you put out. Or you have a copy editor that you send things off to. It is valuable to add repetitive steps in your daily workflow as another column. You can make it very specific (Copy Editing) or generic (Waiting on External).

Specificity allows you to start identifying bottlenecks (or where you like to procrastinate most). If things are constantly piling up in the editing step, it’s time to have a conversation about how to get things flowing. Are there improvements you could make to your process to enable faster editing? Do you need more editors? Whatever the reasons, having a visual indicator of these backlogs can help you identify and resolve them more quickly.

Limit your Work in Progress

Speaking of focus, one of the best ways to do that is to implement Work In Progress (WIP) Limits. Every column on your workflow can have a limit or you can just slap a limit on one or two. Your call. Do what feels right to you. I like to limit my “In Progress” column to two. Two is the most I can manage before I start to lose track of what I’m doing, and it gives me the flexibility to shift focus if something is temporarily blocked or I need a brain break from one thing to catch that “ah ha” moment. You may be able to juggle three with ease or may have to buckle down to only one. The choice is yours.

I find it’s also helpful to impose a WIP limit on the “On Deck” column. This is that “Sure! We can start having conversations about this” section of your backlog where things have started to require a bit of your brain. For me, 3-5 is a solid queue.

But there are still so many meetings

Treating meetings just like another backlog items allows you to prioritize and say “no” if necessary. If the meeting is not directly related to one of your In Progress or highest priority tasks, decline the invitation. If the meeting is around something that is coming up next quarter, is 15 items down in your backlog, or not even on there, ask the host if it can be pushed closer to its designated time. Going to a meeting about something that is far away from the present is like grooming deep into the backlog. Once it rises, it gets the attention. Until then, don’t split your time. Focus on the tasks at hand.

When you start to truly focus and set realistic expectations your stress levels will go down and your quality of work will go up. Why do our teams get all this sustainable pace goodness? Socialize these techniques that we use every day inside our dev teams so that the whole company reaps the benefits. Remember, Agile isn’t only for dev. If we want truly Agile organizations, let’s act like it, let’s live it. Now go enjoy your weekend.

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