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Wip'ing up a storm

Claire has had by many people’s standards a strong career. Working in a variety of organisations People Directorates she has steadily developed and every couple of years taken on more responsibility. Life over the last five years has got increasingly harder for Claire. More (and more…) demands for her time, pressure on resources, and growing expectations of what good looks like. The approaches and tools that Claire has traditionally relied upon are becoming less effective. She feels like she needs to work harder and harder to just keep up let alone get ahead. Does Claire’s situation resonate with you?

Claire is not unique. It’s a common set of challenges she faces. One of the observations I’d make when working with people is the desire to make the more traditional approaches to getting things done work in this new environment. And on one hand, you can see the logic, “it’s served me so well in the past”. However, the world is changing, and like it or not that has implications. I’d argue it’s important to keep an open mind and objectivity about what you and or your team needs for continued success.

There’s a growing body of evidence to suggest organisations and individuals have things we can learn from the tech industry when it comes to managing our work. This can create resistance for some people e.g. “I’m not a tech giant working in Silicon Valley”. This for many is absolutely true. However, we can draw on the principles used to help manage our work and delivery. Here are three elements to consider:

What are you ultimately looking to achieve?

Nothing new here. It’s a great reminder that in order to get the most important work done and make the best use of our potential we need clarity about what outcomes or value we are looking to deliver. The scale and time horizon of the answer to this question will vary from person to person. The important thing is you have an answer with which to reference the day-to-day decisions against.

Set near-term deliverables and maintain focus

In many tech organisations they would set near-term deliverables for two weeks. What progress can we aim for in the context of 1 above in the space of a two-week period? It’s then important that this is reviewed frequently (for some people this means daily). This will ensure focus and a shared understanding of progress or problems. During this period other things are likely to come along. Using what you are ultimately looking to achieve, judgment and discipline are required to assess the need to change. There’s a high bar to changing as this will only increase your Work in Progress (WiP) and reduce the chance of things getting completed. For many, this element is challenging to accept and in some ways counter-intuitive given the buzz phrases like “we need to be more agile”. Agile doesn’t mean anarchy. In fact, done well, it’s incredibly disciplined.

Review WiP, backlogs, and new work for importance

So how do you handle new work that shows up? Rather than dropping what you are doing and starting another new thing, you will need to add it to your list of other future work to do. Then at the right time, you can undertake a more comprehensive assessment as part of your wider planning. With the aim of making a shift towards the delivery of the more important work. This is hard for many organisations and individuals as there is often a lure of the latest and loudest ‘urgent’ work that shows up. Yet, in the context of what you are ultimately looking to achieve it’s just not as important. Again, this requires judgment and discipline to keep your WiP and backlogs relevant and aligned with what you are ultimately looking to achieve and your capacity.

Many people, are more comfortable with and are doing variations of 2 above. However, struggle with the absence of 1 and 3. If that’s you, why not experiment over the next month to see if they can help you? Using a traffic analogy, the more cars you have on the road chances are the slower they end up going. And without traffic lights and road signs, gridlock occurs. Thinking of your WiP as cars on a road and the systems you put around them as traffic management can help.

One of the common mantras from agile delivery “stop starting, start finishing”. Managing your WiP will help you achieve this and hopefully get more of your important goals over the line. Which will lead to greater value and happiness. Sounds like something worth trying?

As always I’m interested in your thoughts.


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