Four Productive Things to do When You Have Developer Downtime

As a product owner, you typically have a pretty packed schedule when it comes to your development teams. Often, there will be multiple projects going on in parallel. Downtime is a rarity, although on occasion it can come up for some or all of your team. When you do have downtime, it’s important to make the most of the opportunity. If you’re organized and prepared, you can turn downtime into productivity. Here are four things you can have your team do to stay productive between projects:

1. Attack the Backlog

Having a well-groomed and detailed backlog is useful for planning your future sprints. But when your team has extra bandwidth, the backlog can be even more powerful. ZenHub does an excellent job of outlining how to master a product backlog. Assuming you have the scope and sizing ready on at least a handful of tasks, put your team to work on the next project early. In essence, attacking your backlog during downtime can simply defer the downtime to a later point. However, there are always risks and unknowns with new projects, so starting early will allow you to reduce the potential impact of those unknowns. The head start will enable your team to meet future deadlines more easily.

2. Address Technical Debt

Depending on how your organization handles technical debt, this may be a good opportunity to address some of the longer-standing issues. Technical debt simply refers to aspects of a system that were implemented ‘fast’ in favor of ‘right.’ In many cases, working on technical debt will have impacts on your product down the road. It might not be mission critical, but optimizing the product now will speed things up or reduce waste in the future. In many of the organizations I have been in, technical debt was a somewhat neglected area, so whenever I have development downtime, I try to find some technical debt to clear out.

3. Do Some Exploratory Work

Perhaps you have a product feature in mind that you’re not certain about. Maybe you can’t determine whether something is technically feasible. With free time for your developers, it is a great chance to explore something new. You can construct these tasks as spikes or research work, but the end goal should be to figure out whether a new product or feature is worth spending further time on. As an added benefit, I often find that developers enjoy this change of pace. If they have been heads down on the same project for a while, a new challenge dealing with feasibility can be a welcome break.

4. Promote Rest & Relaxation

One thing that can easily be overlooked, especially in a start-up, is the need for rest and relaxation. Some organizations are better than others at striking the right work-life balance. Despite this, specific projects often create an atmosphere of pressure and hard work. With the blessing of management, giving time back to developers can be vital in getting the most out of your team. Depending on the amount of time you have, rest and relaxation can mean anything from taking a long lunch to cutting out early for a long weekend. Even a team building event, such as bowling or an escape the room game, can have very positive effects with a minimal time commitment. I usually find that a well-rested team will come back hungry and energetic as we delve into the next project, which more than counteracts the “lost time” during a resting period.


What do you do with your development team during downtime? Share your thoughts in the comments or find me on Twitter.

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