Everyone is super busy, yet things take forever to get done. I encounter this at organizations that are scaling up with scrum. All too often, leaders want to jump to a solution, such as implementing a scaling framework. Sadly, implementing a ‘fix’ without a deep understanding of the causes of the problem will likely make things worse. Blindly implementing the framework will make people even busier and things will take even longer to get done.
Exploring and understanding the root causes of the problem is a better starting point. Causes are like onions, they have layers (Or maybe they are like parfaits). One approach to finding root causes is to repeatedly ask: Why is this happening? Let’s try this out.
Why is everyone so busy, yet nothing is getting done?
The answer is likely we have too much work in progress. When we pursue too many goals at once, we do more task switching. We work a little bit towards one goal, then a little bit on another, and so on. Progress on each is slow.
But wait! There’s more. As the number of items in progress goes up, we spend more time talking about the work and less time actually doing the work. We have meetings. We create and read: emails, chat messages, reports, and dashboards. Everyone in the organization is very busy, yet progress on each goal is getting slower and slower.
Why do we have too much work in progress?
Often, the problem is a lack of prioritization. Too many people are asking for too many things, and there isn’t clarity about which goals should be deferred so that other goals can be completed quickly. True prioritization results in a strictly ordered list. No two goals can have the same priority.
Why aren’t our goals effectively prioritized?
Frequently, I find that leaders have surprisingly little visibility into what people are working on and why they are working on those things. The goals that are driving work aren’t visible. Without this visibility, leaders can’t effectively prioritize them.
Why aren’t our goals visible?
Most organizations aren’t properly using the product backlog to make all of the work (goals) visible. Frequently, people are actually working from multiple pseudo-backlogs. This makes it very hard to see all of the goals that are driving people to do work.
Root Cause & Solution
We can pause our analysis here and declare that we’ve found a root cause and a solution. The original problem was that everyone is super busy, and yet things take forever to get done. A root cause appears to be that people are working from multiple pseudo-backlogs instead of a single product backlog as scrum intends.
The product backlog is an open and transparent artifact – everyone involved can easily inspect it to know what goal is top priority, and what goals will be deferred so that the top priority can be completed quickly. It’s worth mentioning that the product backlog might actually contain goals for multiple products, or even things that we might not think of as products. (The terminology of scrum is imperfect, alas.) The key thing is that a scrum team works from one product backlog and it is the single list of goals for the team.
All we need to do is identify the pseudo-backlogs, and move those goals into the product backlog. Each team will work on goals from a single product backlog. We’ll be able to see the goals, prioritize them, limit work in progress, and the problem will be solved. People will be more focused, less overwhelmed, and things will get done much faster.