New work coming in constantly! 😩

And how to deal with it

Your team has more work to do than it can get done. New work comes in constantly. You sometimes don’t know where to start!

Does this describe your situation? If so, then this article is for you.

Utopia

First let’s create an utopia 🌈 🦄 of how we would like the world to be. A future in which everybody — you, your team and the business or product management — would be happier and more productive!

Imagine there was a process of when and in which form new work is introduced. A world in which new work was not a random mix of tasks, but rather a coherent package that supports a common goal and vision. Wouldn’t that be great?

It gets even better. You and your team always know where to start! Even with thousands of tasks to do, you always know exactly which work item to pick. And to top it all off, you always know exactly why you work on a task — its value for the project goal and vision is always clear to see.

For many battle-hardened practitioners this sounds like a fairy tale 😩! But let’s see what we could do to turn this utopia into a reality.

Making it real

Stopping the barrage of new work

For starters we need a mechanism to protect the team from a constant and seemingly random barrage of new work items! At the same time, such a mechanism should not limit the valid desire of business or product management to add new work items constantly. Sounds paradoxical? Wait for it, because I ask for even more: In fact, this mechanism should even help business or product management to add new work.

To solve this paradox, we have to look for the common goal of the team and business. And there is at least one big common goal: both parties want to maximize the value of the project. The team wants their work to have impact and to be appreciated, while the business and product management want to an outcome with maximum value to them or their customers.

It works with a simple deal between team and business: the team agrees to take on totally new work every two weeks, while business agrees to not disturb the team for two weeks. This concept is called sprint and is part of the Scrum framework.

A sprint is a protected container of commonly two weeks, in which the team can work in peace and requirements won’t change. Scrum also has a “bouncer“ to really protect the team from new work: the scrum master. Before each sprint, business or product management can freely introduce new work in a session called sprint planning. Here they also state a clear goal for the next sprint and connect it to the overall project goal and vision.

Weeding out work with less value

Next we need a mechanism to have the long list of work weeded out regularly. Even as this list might grow, we always want it to stay focused. This works by forcing business or product management to not only dump new work, but also remove old work, so that everything always supports the project goals. This concept is called grooming or backlog refinement in Scrum. In regular sessions, we look at the list of work and check, whether it still serves the project goal and vision. We might have to add, remove or update work items. We also have to assess the priorities to make sure we get maximum impact towards our goals.

Knowing what’s important

And then we always want to know exactly, which work is most important and should be approached next. Imagine, there would be only one important work item to pick. Sounds impossible? It’s doable, if you demand that each work item has a unique priority — there cannot exist two work items with the same priority. It seems like a lot of work, especially when priorities change, but it is quite simple in fact. The solution is an ordered list. The higher up in the list a work item is, the more important it is. So picking the top item from the list becomes a no-brainer! This concept is called backlog in Scrum.

Improving on it

To ensure that these concepts really bring value to you and your team in the long run, there are a few tricks you can follow.

A sprint — the protected container — should always have the exact same length (common is two weeks). That way a rhythm is established, to which the team can accustom. After some time, sprints will become the heartbeat of the project. People will feel it naturally and not even have to think about when a sprint will end and a new one begin.

Teaching business and product management how to groom remaining work on a regular basis will allow them to incorporate grooming into their daily routine. After some time, it will become second nature and not be forgotten or omitted.

Prioritizing work as an ordered list takes some getting used to. But then you will never look back. A list of work items ordered by priority towards the projects goals is insanely valuable. Prioritizing also becomes a lot easier (learn about various prioritizing methods in the book How to Prioritize Stories 📕).

Summary

If you and your team feel bombarded with new work constantly, there is a solution:

  • use sprints as a protected container for the team
  • groom the list of work regularly
  • use an ordered list to prioritize work (known as a backlog in Scrum)

Read up on these concepts and try them! They will most certainly improve your project and your life 😃. And if you need help with implementing this stuff, feel free to contact me! I have been an agile coach at Dreimannzelt for many years and I ❤️ to help.

Cheers!