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Finding Your Invisible Backlog

Does your team have one? Is it causing them anxiety? Here’s how to find it.

Most teams suffer from unplanned work. Unplanned work is just that; work that your team is doing but was never planned. (If you want to know who invented this kind of evil, read all about it here)

It can range from live defects, ad-hoc requests from another department (*cough* probably marketing) or an indecisive PO (or groups of POs) that keep changing their minds.

Scrum demands teams to commit to a pre-defined backlog of planned work to achieve the sprint goal. Unplanned work is one of the major culprits of sprint disturbance.

The problem with unplanned work is three things:

  1. The work to be done is vague or at best tactical, usually a quick fix for what potentially might be a larger underlying problem. Vague, because it never had time to go through rigorous design and analysis to figure out how it will impact the rest of the product experience
  2. The sense of urgency that naturally accompanies unplanned work means that it usually doesn’t get prioritised against the rest of the planned work. Nobody bothers to ask, is this actually more important than what we’ve planned for the sprint?
  3. Lastly, unplanned work usually takes precedence over your beautifully planned work, which throws your schedule, and any related promises you’ve committed to, out the window. Unplanned work is like that asshole who jumps the line in your supermarket queue.

Unplanned work is rain. Unpredictable, ruin picnics in the garden, causes floods and wet feet.

But unlike rain, we can control unplanned work.

We just have to find it.

The work is there, trickling in the form of email threads, buzzing slack channels or rendezvous phone calls and IMs.

One must put on the detective cap to trace the source of the leak and put a plug on it.

The plug could be a process; to turn unplanned work into regular planned work. Because the work itself is not evil, just the circumstances of its conception.

Or maybe you need to set time aside to investigate those defects no one can reproduce, yet becomes a high urgency defect every bloody sprint.

Every team will need to find their own way in managing unplanned work.

The most important thing we all must acknowledge is that unplanned work is in itself a backlog of work. Albeit an invisible backlog that threatens your team’s sanity and renders all planning futile.

Find your invisible backlog so that your team may finally have only one backlog, like they’re meant to. One they can groom, estimate, and most importantly see.