In part 1 of this blog post I stressed the importance of visualization in planning work. In this post I will approach the planning of work from a different angle.
However, I must start with a disclaimer. The title of this blog post is slightly misleading. If you are looking for references to sticky tape and post-it notes, I have to refer you elsewhere.

The art of Prioritization

My mother-in-law, Gullvie, who is a recently retired midwife, has told me that the child delivery situation changed radically over the years she was active. When she started her career in the 70’s there was a focus on flow efficiency, rather than resource efficiency. When a mother was ready to deliver a child, the midwives and hospitals were ready as well. The midwives had plenty of idle time between deliveries (consequently, several of the knitted jumpers my wife was wearing as a child were produced at the birth clinic). Nowadays, regardless of occupation, it is rare to come across workers that are less than 100% occupied. There are exceptions, such as fire departments (I hope), but they are few.
This implies that work must be prioritized.

Prioritization is an ongoing, key activity for any organization. On several levels:

  • Organization – Strategic initiatives prioritized against each other.
  • Division and team – Tactical and operational work, on top of the strategic initiatives.
  • Individual – Navigating between short term, long term, training, emails, meetings, interaction with colleagues…

Given the importance and regularity of prioritization, why is it so uncommon with a structured approach?

The challenge

In this post I am going to focus on the prioritization taking place at team level. As an example, I will refer to a team that is responsible for delivering, supporting and maintaining an IT service. Type of work for the team includes enhancement requests, incidents, project work, operational activities etc.

In the picture below, the narrow part of the funnel represents the total capacity. It is not possible to push more work through than what the capacity constraint allows. No matter how hard you try. Hence, the challenge is to prioritize the work so that we focus on the work items that creates most value.

 

Taking a step back

As argued in part 1 of this blog post, it is important to visualize the work at hand. It is only possible to prioritize if you can get a clear view of what to prioritize between.

A first step for the team is to visualize and divide the potential workload into different types. This is important to ensure a healthy balance between proactive and reactive work items.

 

The figure to the right provokes a question – which work items end up in the To Do column and where do they come from? A person used to agile methods and Kanbans would answer that there is a column missing; Product Backlog. That is correct. The Product Backlog column is missing from the picture.

More than one backlog

A Product Backlog is a list of deliverables that is managed by a Product Owner. The Product Owner can be said to represent the customer in terms of deciding what to deliver and in which order. In a project this is relatively straightforward. The customer and scope are defined, and it is quite clear how to prioritize between deliverables. However, for our team it is less clear who the “customer” is and how to manage the Product Backlog. The primary challenge being the number of customers involved. There are in fact several backlogs, one for each customer, that must be merged into one.
 

 

Managing the backlog

Surely it must be the team’s leader or manager that is responsible for managing the workload. Right? Yes and no. The team lead must take responsibility for managing the workload for the team members, ensuring that each team member works on, and completes, the right thing. Translating this into a picture would mean that the team lead is responsible for aligning the potential workload with the capacity of the team, i.e. protecting the team members from being disturbed by work items that should not be worked on.

Should the team lead also be responsible for managing the workload that is overflowing? The answer may be no. It is probably better to push the unprioritized part of the backlog back to the customers. Why? Because prioritization, like fresh milk, changes over time. Just because a work item was highly prioritized a month ago, does not mean that it is of equal importance today. This implies that, if unprioritized work rests with the team, there is a huge risk that time and resources are spent on work that is no longer highly prioritized or, at least, not as highly prioritized as other items.

In many organizations, this may be a great shift in way of working. Work items are currently hidden away in project management, process management and various ticketing tools. Priority of these work requests are normally set at time of creation and then left unattended

What would happen if these work requests and tickets were actively managed by customer representatives rather than the team lead? It would mean more work on the customer side keeping the priority of each work item updated. However, that “cost” must be balanced against the value of the team working on the most important work items.

Fresh backlog but still too much to do

The team lead’s prioritization challenge is only partly resolved by pushing parts of the backlog back to the customers. There is still the problem of prioritizing between requests from different customers. The requests are “fresh” and relevant but there are still too many of them. Stay tuned for part 3 of this blog post series.

While you are waiting… check out our seminars and courses on related topics!

>> DevOps in a nutshell (free seminar)

>> DevOps fundamentals

>> The Phoenix Project simulation

 

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Ola Källgården is CEO, consultant and simulation facilitator at Olingo Consulting. ola.kallgarden@olingo.se or LinkedIn.