I’ve given the same advice to almost all of my clients — “you need a clearer product backlog”, “you’re working really hard but you’re not getting anything done”, and “you need to cut scope, launch your product with a more focused scope, launch it, and then get feedback.”
It’s always seemed so simple to me: “Just do X, Y, and Z and everything’s going to be perfect. Why are you having so much trouble with this?!?”
Well, I’ve been working on a product for most of the pandemic and I actually had a little agile coaching session in my head the other day. I was thinking “this product is promising. It does a lot. Why does it feel like a disaster? Is this thing ever going to launch? Why do I feel overwhelmed?”
The answer was all the same thing that I’ve told all my other customers. I’m making EXACTLY the same mistakes that my customers were making. Eyeroll. Why is this stuff so hard to remember?!?!?!
Well, partly when you’re in it, you don’t remember to stop and look around. And then there’s the stress. “I just need to get it done. I just need to grind my way through it.” Plus, there are all the distractions of life. I’ve got *A LOT* going on in addition to this. And a lot of this stuff is kinda hard to measure. All that stuff is slowing me down. I really rarely have time to focus.
And then I also get easily distracted and go start doing something else…like, for example, writing this blog post. (Ooooh! Shiny!)
And after a while, you just get tired.
Plus, when I think about it, do I really have a product? Or do I have multiple products? Answer: multiple. Guess what. That’s a source of distraction. Which product is most important? How do I prioritize feature development across products with limited development resources?
When I try to work on too many things at once, it’s all a mess.
When I bounce between products and leave work in progress, I always have to re-orient myself in the product when I resume working on it. That slows me down.
I’m trying to do too much stuff. I’m not focusing. I’m distracted. I’m not getting anything all the way done.
What do I do about it?
Scrum has something built-in to it that helps manage this problem: The Sprint. Lots of people think that the Sprint is there to create time pressure and that that time pressure is going to motivate the team. That’s not entirely wrong — some teams are motivated by a race to the finish line — but for most teams, that’s not 100% true.
A better way to think about it is that the Sprint helps to create focus and it helps you to notice what you’re achieving. Flipping that around, the Sprint helps you to notice what you’re NOT achieving. I don’t particularly care if the work I predicted at the start of the Sprint is the same work that ACTUALLY got done — but I do want to make sure the team got SOMETHING done. I want to know that there’s some progress being made.
(Pro tip: make sure that the Product Owner is happy with what’s being delivered. If the team is delivering stuff the Product Owner didn’t want it and doesn’t see the value of, well, that’s a whole other kind of problem.)
Anyway. In my case, if I were working in a series of Sprints, I’d notice that I’d been working my tail off (yes, I have a tail*) and not getting anything fully done.
Not Getting Anything Done? Why?
Ok. So I’m not getting anything done. What do I do about it?
First off, congratulations on noticing. Seriously. This is going to sound obvious but actually NOTICING that you’re not making progress is essential. Why is it essential? Because now you can do something about it! Trust me. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. Lots of teams work and work and work and work and give themselves credit for working hard but miss the key important essential fact that they’re not delivering anything.
“Done” can be a little squirrelly. “Done” can be a matter of opinion. “Done” can be elusive. So. Make sure that you know what “Done” means for your team. If you don’t have a written Definition of Done (DoD), figure that out or just steal my sample Definition of Done.
Next, ask yourself WHY you aren’t getting anything done. The reason usually falls into one of three buckets:
1) the problem is harder than you thought
2) multitasking / not enough focus
3) you don’t understand the requirements.
There isn’t always a perfect solution but here are some things to try.
Stop. Take a breath.
This is oddly easy. Stop. Take a breath. Look around. Ask yourself what your status is and what you’ve been up to. Ask yourself what you WANT to do. Try to break the cycle of frantic work.
The Sprint has a start and end date and at the end of every Sprint, you’re supposed to do a Sprint Review and a Sprint Retrospective. In Scrum, that’s your pause.
Make Sure You’re Tracking All (or Most) of Your Work
Having too many things to do ruins your ability to focus. Multitasking destroys productivity. You spend a little bit of time trying to do a little bit of work on a whole bunch of different things and in the end, you’ve gotten nothing all the way done.
Think about your workday. You worked the whole time. You worked on a ton of stuff. How many of those things were on your backlog or your Kanban board? If the answer was “not many” then you’ve got hidden work.
Hidden work is the stuff that you do that you didn’t plan for or just had to do or that just came out of nowhere.
Now I’m not saying that you should fully document your life and turn everything into a ticket that’s tracked and worked on. But maybe you’re getting more work done than you think.
Start looking for patterns. Are there things that keep coming up? Are there certain types of things that keep coming up? Are there things that you know you have to do that are definitely going to pull you away? If yes, then write it down and make that work known and transparent.
To put that in Scrum terms, you’re creating a more transparent Product Backlog.
Break the Work Down into Smaller Chunks
In my case, I pretty much just had one item on my backlog. “LAUNCH THE PRODUCT”. That’s way too big. I’ve implemented a ton of features already and I have a whole bunch of features that still have to get completed. Start trying to think smaller. Smaller might be at the feature level or maybe smaller ends up being at the use-case level. Or maybe smaller is simply defined as something that makes more sense for you.
Whatever it is, start making smaller chunks that you can actually move to done. Once again, perhaps you’ll realize that you’re making more progress than you thought.
Smaller more focused tasks can work wonders on teams. Try it.
Ruthlessly Prioritize the Work
You can’t multitask. You can’t. You might think you can but you can’t. And I know that people are going to email me or tweet at me and say that they’re spectacular multitaskers. You aren’t. And if you think you’re a good multitasker, you’re probably a TERRIBLE multitasker.
Just don’t multitask. The End.
But this means that you have to set priorities. Now I know that you’re going to say “but everything is a #1 top priority.” It isn’t true. That might feel true. But it isn’t actually true. There are almost always priorities relative between items — you just haven’t spent the time to think about what they are.
So. Figure out the priorities of the items that you want to work on. And if you can’t figure out what those priorities are, just pick some. Do it randomly. Pull requirements out of a hat. Roll dice to figure them out. I don’t care how you get to them but you’ve got to figure them out.
Finish One Thing at a Time
Once you’ve figured out the priorities, stick to the priorities. Work on one thing at a time and work on it until it’s done. Fully done. And then move on to the next highest priority thing.
No more multitasking.
Also, can you see why breaking things down into smaller chunks would help? Smaller chunks of work let you switch tasks more often. But you’re not switching between tasks (multitasking). Instead, you’re working one task, making it done, and then moving on to the next task.
Pro tip: in an organization that can’t make up its mind about priorities (“my priorities shift 5 times a day!”), small tasks are essential. Small tasks ensure that you’re achieving something rather than just flailing around between tasks.
From time to time, ask yourself if you’re getting anything done. Try to track what you’re getting done so that you can SEE that you’re getting something done. And in the reverse, track what you’re doing so that you can see when you’re NOT getting anything done.
If you’re not getting work done or you’re not happy with how much you’re getting done, start asking yourself if you’re multitasking. Start looking for hidden work. Try to break your work down. And above all else, start prioritizing.
But also, especially in these horrible times during the pandemic, try to remember to have some compassion for yourself and for the people around you. Exhaustion is real. Burnout is real. Depression is real. Sometimes, not getting stuff done is (ironically) an indication that you should take a break.
* – Disclaimer: and no, I don’t really have a tail