Overwhelmed with work? A simple Agile antidote

by May 6, 2021Agile Thought Leadership

Overwhelmed with Work? A Simple Agile Antidote

Do you and your team sometimes feel super-busy, but not sure that you’re doing the right things?  Or do you sense that you’re not doing all the things that need to be done?  Does your work feel disconnected? Do you feel swamped with work but lacking a sense of achievement? 

Creative Agile Planning may help you to feel more proud and more excited about your work..  

We suggest a simple three-step approach 

Step one:  Create your Level 1 goals – one or a very few. These should be broad statements of your biggest goals. They should be framed in simple language in your native tongue. We like to suggest that you express them in five lines or less, using language that anyone can understand.  They need not be timebound or full of metrics. If there are key milestones or deadlines or parameters that you really need to capture, feel free to include them.  Make these Level 1 goals visible to everyone.  Get your whole team to contribute to drafting them. 

Step two..  Divide each Level 1 “big goal” into workstreams.  What are the main areas of work that will need to be done to accomplish the big goal?  Create a record of these, and keep them also visible.  The workstreams, taken together, should be enough to accomplish the big goal or to make continual and crucial progress toward it. Find quantifiable and measurable goals that you can achieve within each workstream over a period of a few months, perhaps, say in one quarter and record these. Set these period goals at the beginning of each quarter

Step three.   Define actions – Level 3 – that will deliver real value in each workstream – actions you can deliver within a few days or a few weeks.  What are you doing today to advance the big goal?  Are all the workstreams covered?  Does everything you’re doing relate to achieving a defined goal within a workstream. 

Make the whole system – all three levels – totally  transparent – put all these work items on some kind of a workboard or information radiator – physical or digital –  where everyone can see it. 

Now, do your work every day, completing Level 3 work items one by one.  As you complete each work item, make clear to everyone that it has been done and accomplished.  

As you plan your work over your shortest planning cycle, say every week or two, make sure that each work item you plan delivers real value against a Level 2 goal.  Try to avoid just being “working on it”.   What real value will we deliver today or tomorrow?  Over the next week or two?  

Work toward your Level 2 goals iteratively and incrementally.  As you deliver value, make delivery clear and transparent to everyone. Celebrate!  At the end of your near-term work cycle, whether it’s a week, two weeks, whatever you use, demonstrate to your team and to stakeholders the value you have created.  Then plan for more of the same in the next cycle, identifying concrete actions that deliver value toward your goal.

You can add as much detail as you need about specific milestones at Level 2, things that will be needed to achieve or move toward your big Level 1 goal. You can plan for future Level 3 value delivery in future work cycles in detail to the extent you need to. Our invitation to you, however, is not to overplan the future.  Leave as much room as you can for learning and improvement based on today’s value delivery.  Keep your options for growth and improvement open.

Why is this approach valuable?  

First, it establishes a clear and obvious linkage between today’s concrete work and your big long-term objectives.  That link is often lost in the organisational work we’ve witnessed in our professional lives. Keeping that link strong and transparent adds a tremendous sense of purpose and motivation for every member of the teams doing the work.  

Second, this approach helps us focus on delivering real value today and every day, so we learn, in partnership with our customers and stakeholders. Too often, we see people we work with just “working on it,” sometimes for months and months. Delivering value now, and sharing it with customers and stakeholders through short feedback loops, allows for rapid learning and adaptation. When we deliver value early and often, and learn from putting our deliveries into practice with customers and stakeholders, the quality and usefulness of the things we “make” rapidly improves. 

Third, this approach is simple, easy and quick to use. Like any good piece of productivity “software”, we can get started with it and get value from it in an hour or less. And … also like a good piece of productivity software, it has an almost unlimited range of nuances and skills that can grow with practice and commitment.  We can start now, get value immediately, and get better at the process for the rest of our working lives. 

Finally, this simple approach lightly and easily opens the door to many healthy and beneficial Agile practices. The plans we describe can be owned by teams. The regular practice of planning together, delivering together, and learning together helps to build great teams. At their best, plans of this kind are highly transparent; they encourage communication, shared learning and decision-making, and collective intelligence. In their transparency, they encourage “inspection and adaptation”. We study our results, seek improvements, and then bring those improvements to life. These practices help teams hone the flow of their work so that they deliver quickly and frequently, with minimal waste. 

This kind of transparent planning can be a great way for product organisations and others acting as the “voice of the customer” to share their product visions and work with colleagues in a spirit of collaboration and dialogue. At many levels, teams can bring those visions to life. Plans like this allow teams of teams, working at scale, to see how their work fits together across large organisations to deliver great outcomes for customers and stakeholders.

We dare to call this simple joined-up approach “Agile Planning.”  It helps people deliver value early and often, it fosters learning and it encourages sustainable cultures in which people flourish. It promotes transparency and teamwork, inspection, adaptation and learning. It allows the voice of the customer to be heard loud and clear.  

Those of you who are Agile practitioners will recognise elements of Scrum, Kanban and Agile scaling practices in what we have described. As it fits the context, going deeper into those disciplines is, of course, a great idea from our perspective. People will also see the application of various workflow transparency tools, physical or electronic, to these approaches. We agree; we often use those tools as part of the introduction and applications of these approaches. 

With all of these things as emergent possibilities, we like this simple three-stage framework as a way to get started quickly toward an emergent, generative approach to planning. 

What are your best, and most painful, stories on the road to great planning?

Please share your thoughts in the comments – or directly with us.

Fractal Systems Consulting, is an agile consultancy run by a group of Professional Scrum Trainers, change agents and agile delivery coaches who have deep experience and know-how in creating behavioural change, come and find us at Fractal Systems

Additionally, if you’re interested in learning in a fun application rich environment that focuses on real world applied approaches, come along to one our training sessions – Agile Scrum Training.