Work In Progress Limits Cause Pain

My team recently instituted a work in progress (WIP) limit to stop things from feeling chaotic and getting out of hand. It’s a good move.

But three days in, they’re crying out “These WIP limits are causing pain! We need to relax them by bringing in special rules as to what defines a work in progress task. We need to be busier than we are”.

No, stop! This is good pain. It’s the pain that is stopping you from being busy, and forcing you to be effective.

If everyone is busy but you aren’t achieving the sprint goal, what the hell is the point?

One of the key metrics behind a high performing team is an understanding of their cycle time and how tasks progress from left to right. WIP limits prevent the team from starting new work before existing work is finished. Understanding cycle time allows you to experiment with your process and see if the changes are impacting the flow of work positively and negatively.

OK, so the two metrics aren’t directly related, but taken out of context, WIP limits seem obscure and limiting. However when you look at WIP limits in the context of improving flow (i.e. getting shit done instead of just being busy), they make complete sense and are a powerful tool for a team’s self reflection.

Here are some common scenarios, and potential solutions:

We’ve hit our work in progress limit, but not everyone on the team has something to do.

Maybe your work in progress limit is too low? If you consistently finish all the work in your sprint, maybe it is. If you finish all your committed stories for the sprint, experiment with increasing it in the next sprint.

We’ve hit our work in progress limit, but the tasks in progress are blocked!

If you can’t do the work on your board and push it through, something is wrong. Should the story even be in progress? Why start a story that you know will likely be blocked by another team? This isn’t a problem with work in progress, this issue needs to be escalated and management need to take action. There is a problem somewhere else, and work in progress limits are highlighting it. Don’t hide the problem by increasing the work in progress limit.


Meeting Sprint Goals is About Saying No

stop sign
Stop adding extra work without considering capacity https://flic.kr/p/cM1FCS

You can’t prioritize without saying no.

For the sake of this discussion let’s define pod performance as the ability to consistently (or relatively frequently) meet sprint goals, which should be aimed at the most important thing.

I think one of the biggest predictors of a team’s performance is their ability to say no to new work during a sprint. It’s especially important to say no to the product owners requests for new work during a sprint, or re-negotiate the sprint commitment. Product owners will always ask you to do more work than you can do. If you think about it from their perspective, they only see the stories, and not the hundreds of tiny tasks it takes to design, plan, code, test, and automated test every code change. Don’t look at it from their perspective.

Saying yes is a commitment. “OK” is saying yes. If you say yes to things that come into your sprint after you’ve started it, you’re committing to more work. You are going to feel stressed out. Your batch size will increase, life will feel crazy.

Start a sprint with only the stories you believe you can finish, and don’t work on anything else unless you re-negotiate the terms of the sprint.

Some people believe that you should never change the stories in a sprint once the sprint is started. There are good reasons for that. Personally I think you should never increase the amount of work in a sprint (unless you’ve finished all the sprint work of course). If something else becomes “the most important thing”, you need to focus on that thing. It doesn’t mean you can do more work! Take something out, put the new thing in.

Not increasing the amount of work in a sprint is the key. You can’t increase the amount of work you can do by saying yes. You still have the same capacity, but now you’ve overloaded it, so prepare to feel overloaded.

It’s hard to say no. It’s also hard to feel stressed out all the time because you have more work than you can finish. So you get to choose, you can feel the discomfort of saying “no” to extra work, or you can feel the discomfort of having too much to do.

Taking Time Out To Think

In a world where being busy is the norm, taking time out to think is one of the first things to go.

https://flic.kr/p/4XuSdV

You are a leader, if not of others then at least yourself. Staying busy is easy. Spending hours responding to emails is easy. Going from meeting to meeting may be tiring, but it’s easier than setting aside a block of time to think.

Taking time out to think isn’t easy. It’s a habit, good habits can be difficult to form. But like any productive activity, it’s a skill that you need to forge if you want to make progress.

So what do I mean by taking time out to think? I mean a focused, undistracted block of time during which you are able to consider a problem and wrestle with it mentally. When was the last time you came up with a solution that wasn’t just the first thing that came to mind.

The aim is absolute clarity of thought, peak mental performance.

The thinking process doesn’t need to be mental only. You may create a mind map, or simply write things down as they come to mind. Perhaps you already have a course of action, and you need to consider whether it is the right one. Perhaps it will resolve the situation, but have you considered the implications it will have on others?

For myself, I have recognized that I need to take more time out to think. There are certain management problems that I have floating in the back of my mind, but getting a firm grasp on them during the day to day has been near impossible. Mentally, I know the framework I use to manage people and projects, but I need to write aspects of it down, and revise them. Very time consuming, impossible to do well during regular daily back and forth.

The goal is come up with more strategic solutions, less reactive ones. I don’t want to just keep this thinking in my mind or notebook, the end result should be a plan or knowledge base article that addresses a problem.

For me, the process is going to look something like this:

  1. Set aside a block of time. 25-55 minutes seems appropriate. Any longer without taking a break and I think mental fatigue could impact results.
  2. Check-in at the start of the block. Am I tired? Am I able to focus? Am I hungry, thirsty or emotional? If you’re aiming for peak performance, these issues must be addressed.
  3. Set a soundtrack. Piano Sonatas are a particular favorite of mine. Even searching “music for thinking or studying” yields results on YouTube.
  4. Have pen and paper ready.
  5. Set a timer.
  6. Go.

The Social Media Update

It’s only been three days since my post about why it would be beneficial for someone to quit social media, and how I was looking at changing my own behaviour.

Thus far, I have deactivated my Facebook & Instagram accounts. I have also made my Twitter account private, and turned off all email notifications from it. The best part of all, is that when I told those whom I interact with the most (people I know and meet up with outside of Twitter, but don’t have any contact details for) that I was going offline for a month, they reached out to me immediately with alternative contact details, their phone number and email addresses. Skipping Twitter is in no way going to reduce my ability to interact with these people in a meaningful way.

I’ve deleted all social media apps from my phone, and to go one step further, deleted all unnecessary applications from my phone including those I use for online shopping. The number of notifications I receive daily has reduced drastically, and it’s wonderful!

It’s tempting to believe I’m missing out on something, but simply visualizing what I would see if I opened Facebook right now is enough to make me want to swear off the website for good.

Not So Social Media

I am currently reading Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is a wonderful book which I highly recommend. On the whole, it is very much concerned with something that has come to the forefront of my mind in the last two years – quality over quantity.

One area in particular where this is a huge issue, is social media services, and he has devoted a chapter to it, quitting it, or most of it.

Its worth a read even if you don’t find my explanation compelling, I can’t do it justice in a few paragraphs, but he uses some excellent examples of modern, successful people that have explicitly decided not to use it because the trade off is not worth it to them. I’m sure you can point to a few who use it regularly, but personally I really think they are the exception not the rule, and either have a press team or do not use social media in the same way that you or I would.

He says that if you really want to do something amazing, some sort of work that is worth something, you need the ability to focus and think deeply. Social media is not only the antithesis of this because it preys on your ability to be distracted, but will also in the long run, actively work against your brain’s ability to do deep work.

To do deep work, your brain MUST become accustomed to NOT being entertained, but still constrained to and focused on the task at hand. I feel I must do something about this for myself, not because I use social media excessively or as much as others, but because I know every time I use it, I am telling my brain that it is allowed to be distracted by trivial things.

I have decided to start with a culling of people I follow inside the services themselves, and then to take a break from the services for a period of time. It’s hard to unfollow people that I know and like, so the criteria I am going to use for keeping them are:

  1. People that I engage with the most
  2. People that have used the service within the last month

That way even if I do come back to some of them, the experience will be very different and not as distracting.

The services that occupy my time in order of time spent:

  1. Twitter
  2. Instagram
  3. Facebook
  4. LinkedIn

Twitter: My favorite thing about Twitter is being able to choose who and what comes through my feed. I also feel like I can justify unfollowing people that I know but don’t use the service frequently. Rather than try to moderate this service, I’m just going to quit it for a few weeks.

Instagram: Some of my favorite people that I know post things that I really like on Instagram. I’ve culled it already. I usually cull my Instagram follows on a regular basis as my interests change from over 200 to under 200, but this time I went down from around 150 followed to only 23.

Facebook: The primary reason I haven’t quit Facebook is that its nice as a platform for having a conversation with my family about family photos, that’s it. There is probably something worth talking about once every month, and this should be a warning sign.

Here’s what I “have to” endure every day and sift through to get that small bit of value once a month:

  1. Hundreds of viral news articles of funny but worthless anecdotes and videos of cats and dogs, and a menagerie of other cute animals and children.
  2. Hundreds of old news articles shared as if they happened this morning.
  3. Photos and life events from people that I don’t speak to anymore, and probably never will. This becomes incredibly apparent once you move countries as I have. I even realize now many of the people I’ve met since arriving in New Zealand I will probably not see again.
  4. Photos and life events from my family, very extended family (people I haven’t seen in 15 years or longer), my ex-wife’s family, my ex-wife’s extended family, my girlfriend’s family, friends of my friends, friends from high school, and other people that I may have spoken to once in my lifetime.

Life is short. If I look at it from the point of view of VALUE, I would be much better off having a proper conversation with family members and friends that I very much like and want to spend time with on a regular basis,even for a few minutes as opposed to just being bombarded with trivial and worthless things in their and everyone else’s lives.

I have no doubt that Facebook is an excellent place to work full of incredibly smart people, but Facebook itself is incredibly low value for someone’s life. This is the key to this chapter of the book, to focus on high value, not just some value.

Even Facebook’s company purpose “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” is meaningless. The world is not open and connected where dictatorial governments impose restrictions on information, and in these places Facebook is not free to operate. In countries where there are no such restrictions, people don’t need to be more connected, they need to live better and more balanced lives.

LinkedIn: Ahh, the social network where most of your contacts are recruiters. I’m not sure what to do about LinkedIn. I want an online presence that is somewhat professional. Not that I really use LinkedIn anyway, I just get pinged from time to time by someone trying to get me to apply for a job that I am not interested in or know nothing about.

Ideally, a much better and worthwhile professional online presence would be a personal website (this one) with a bio & resume. Network with past colleagues over a beer or coffee has yielded much more promising career prospects.

In that case I now realise LinkedIn is of very little value at all to me.

Appendix A: Compromise

I can see how it would be possible to compromise rather well, by unfollowing or removing ALL sources of noise within the service, and then perhaps turning on email notifications for just those specific people that you want to engage with. Have all the emails filtered so that they don’t show up in your inbox, and then check the filter once a week/month. But this works so hard to circumvent how these services are built, that it would just be better to find some other way to engage with these people online.

How Humans Handle Conflict

We often don’t consider that when something like conflict occurs, people already have learned behaviors on how they deal with it. Being more aware of how you respond to conflict, and how others respond to conflict can give you options in the approach you want to use to deal with a particular issue, rather than falling into your default response, which may be ill-suited to the method that the other party is using.

The Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument is a way of classifying conflict resolution styles.

If you value assertiveness (meeting your own goals) you rank high (towards the right) on the assertiveness scale.

If you value the relationship (keeping the other party satisfied) you rank high on the relational scale.

Let’s look at the model from the perspective of within an organisation. Everyone’s trying to make the organisation successful in the long run, but they all have different deadlines and priorities, that may result in conflict.

Accommodation

Accommodation is high relational, low assertive. This means you’re willing to forgo your own goals in order to resolve the conflict, let the other party get what they want and make sure the relationship stays intact.

Accommodation seems like a good approach when its something that’s not that valuable to you, and allowing the other party to get what they want will benefit the relationship in the long run. The downside is that if you continually invoke an accommodation style you’ll likely get walked over on a regular basis.

Avoidance

Avoidance is when you avoid the issue completely, valuing neither your nor the other party’s goals. Avoidance is even less effective than accommodation, it’s pretty much less effective than anything really.

Someone who is avoiding the issue completely can be incredibly difficult to deal with. They might not realise they’re not only refusing to deal with the source of conflict, but actually preventing both sides from reaching a positive outcome.

Competition

Competition takes you to the other end of the assertiveness scale. A competition style is willing to win, even at the cost of the relationship. Someone who continually uses this style may have a reputation for being difficult and unpleasant to deal with. When using this style you essentially don’t care whether or not the other party gets anything out of the exchange.

Competition should be used sparingly. Definitely not very often in an organisation where you will be relying on assistance from others in the future. People with this state of mind see every negotiation as a competition where one party wins, and the other loses.

Compromise

Compromise ensures that you get some of what you want, and other party gets some of what they want. Each side makes concessions, but neither is fully able to realize their original goal.

This is obviously better than no agreement being reached at all, but can be damaging in the long run if parties always just “settle” instead of working together to achieve an even better outcome. Continual compromise can result in a culture of “good not great”.

Collaboration

Collaboration is the style that’s most beneficial in the long run. Each party gets the things that are most important to them. Collaboration may even result in an outcome that was better than previously expected.

As you probably already expect, in a highly functioning organisation collaboration would be a common way of resolving conflicts. The downside to collaboration is that it’s difficult and it takes time to get everyone working together effectively to begin with.

Teams on opposite sides need to have communicated their own goals clearly, listened carefully to what the other side has to say, and then work together on forging a way forward. It relies on cool heads, and ego not getting in the way.

Increasing Awareness

As mentioned before these approaches may be learned behavior, but understanding that there are ways for both parties to win if assertiveness is exercised and some time and effort is put into the negotiation is worth keeping in mind.

Understanding the model is all about awareness.

It’s also worth being aware of instances in which you may be ceding too much power (accommodation, avoidance) and when you are putting the relationship at risk to achieve your goals (competition).

Also consider going the extra mile, if a compromise is reached there may be a way to turn it into collaboration, and have both sides benefit more than originally anticipated.

(originally published on the 14 Jan 2016, migrated from my previous blog)