Unplanned work puts stress on development teams. Over 70% of technology staff are negatively impacted by unplanned work. This may look like heightened stress and anxiety, reduced work-life balance, and less time to focus on important work. The continuous push for software development has created an overflow of unexpected work landing in the inbox of development teams in virtually every industry. A chief technology officer may feel the pressure of meeting increasingly large expectations, while the VP takes on the burden of managing full workload capacities, all while maintaining the talent to do the work. While unexpected or unplanned work is sometimes built into agile team schedules, how do you identify a perpetual cycle that could ultimately set your team’s productivity back? Here are a few signs that there may be a bigger problem at hand:
Unimportant Tasks Are Urgent
When everything takes priority, nothing can truly be a priority. While the occasional crisis pops up, your team may not have the capacity to take on more work. Not being able to forecast your schedule because you’re constantly putting out fires doesn’t allow your team to work on the planned revenue-driving projects that are a part of the bigger picture.
Technical debt is a concept in software development that represents the cost of additional rework as a consequence of choosing a quick and easy solution to a problem instead of a better solution that would have taken longer. Unplanned work is one of the biggest side effects of Technical debt. Taking shortcuts can incur technical debt, and just like regular debt, it can be hard to get rid of once it has been accumulated.
When team members aren’t able to have enough time to create solutions, they use bandaids to get them from day to day. Constantly having to be reactionary to today’s problems, doesn’t allow you to prepare for the future, and impacts your team’s capacity to handle unplanned work. Instead of wasting time to fix a makeshift solution, the better approach would be to focus on the quality of work at home.
Other Teams Are Effected
Unplanned work can affect more than just your team members. When other teams’ productivity becomes affected by your team’s inability to meet deadlines, your team becomes a liability to the entire company.
When your clients are unhappy, there is a big problem at hand. If your team is not prepared for any amount of unplanned work, they will likely fall behind in other areas, which may result in unhappy customers and lost revenue.
Team Members Moving On
Lastly, while someone may make changes in their career for various reasons, team members that are overwhelmed may start to look for new opportunities with their desired work-life balance. The quick turnover cycle not only affects your ability to take on more work but also creates a culture of imbalance and frustration. This can add to the mounting amount of unplanned work if a team member decides to leave mid-sprint, costing other team members time dealing with new work that wasn't initially assigned to them.
Solutions and Delegation
How do you combat the vicious cycle of your teams taking on more work than originally scoped? Creating a plan for these types of problems to be delegated, automated, and analyzed to optimize future team performance to ease the stress of tackling unexpected projects. Here are some steps to follow for successful sprint planning:
Create a Team
If one team member doesn’t have the capacity to take on the project, can you identify someone else who may be able to take ownership of the project? You could also identify a vendor partner that can help complete the project. Ask yourself if this person needs to find an entire external team to take on the project, or does your team need to be augmented to create the needed capacity?
Analyze Your Tasks
Use project management tools to create a task breakdown of what needs to be done to complete the project. Use these tools to determine if there is any work that could be moved to the next sprint. Project management tools will reduce uncertainty by clearly displaying project owners, deadlines, and clearly outlining whatever the sprint goal may be. When analyzing the work, it's important to think about the communication aspect. How do you communicate to your team the impact of unplanned work or the execution of planned work? Are you using project management tools to create clarity and accountability? Creating channels of open communication about change is critical. Weekly meetings to discuss changes, evaluate progress and discuss new findings help to keep everyone aligned on sprint goals. Find a communication channel that fits your team, and communicate as often as you can.
Make sure that your project managers and team leads have all the tools and information that they need to get the job done. Once they’ve created a project workflow, do they have a concrete budget and timeline to meet your expectations? Are there any other stakeholders that need to be considered while making project decisions?
Additionally, a certain amount of team effort should go into preventive work like reducing code complexity, reducing compile times, refactoring, creating proper documentation, or any other task that may help in improving the code quality and in turn changing priorities of the development team.
Once your team has completed a project, invest time into reviewing the process and how solutions were made. Are you able to identify certain tasks within the project scope that could be automated? Whether it’s hiring an outside vendor to automate the process, or making capacity for team members to create these new processes themselves, the return on investment can be crucial to the success and future of your teams. With these adjustments, you can minimize the negative consequences of technical debt and assist in preparing your dev team for unplanned work. The next time you're dealing with unplanned work popping up mid-sprint, remember that delegation, analysis, prevention, and automation can positively impact team performance and reduce the stress related to unexpected work.