Why so busy?

While I was writing about there being no performance metric I got to thinking about capacity. Capacity is the total amount of work a team can take on. I see it being used as what a team should take on and I think that is a dangerous trap. If a team is filling their entire capacity with work there is no room for emergent work. It is also incredibly inefficient.

"In product development, we can change direction more quickly when we have a small team of highly skilled people instead of a large team. We can change direction more quickly when we have a product with a streamlined feature set, instead of one that is bloated with minor features. We can change direction more quickly when we have reserve capacity in our resources. It is very difficult to apply an extra burst of effort when people are already working 100 hours per week." (Reinertsen, Donald G, The Principles of Product Development Flow)

Holding capacity in reserve has numerous benefits:

  1. By not filling up each person's capacity you can deploy experts to emerging needs. Say there is someone on the team with special API knowledge that no one else has. Guess what, the API just went down. Everyone is panicking. Because our expert's capacity is full their options are to ignore the emergency, or drop other work in order to address it. What happens to that dropped work? What if the dropped work is on the critical path for the project? If everyone else is also at full capacity there will be no one to do this essential work.

  2. Higher capacity utilization results in longer queues. Imagine your work has two "In Progress" steps: Implementation and Review. If the entire team is filled to the brim with work there is going to be a build up work waiting to be reviewed (no one can review it because they are too busy implementing). Larger queues make work flow slower. So by filling the capacity of everyone on the team you are actually slowing that team down.

  3. Nobody can work at full capacity for a sustained period of time. People will burn out. People will leave. Nobody can literally sprint for months on end.

  4. Is that really the work environment you want to foster? Why does everyone need to be busy all the time. From what I've seen, the busier people are the less generous they become with their peers. They don't have time for ad-hoc conversations where knowledge is shared and they don't have time to learn new things. Google didn't implement 20% time out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because it was good for the business and it resulted in products like Google Docs.

Please add slack to your schedule. Add buffer to your sprints. Do less. You'll get what you need done faster and won't feel like crap at the end.

"First, one of the most universal numbing strategies is what I call crazy-busy. I often say that when they start having twelve-step meetings for busy-aholics, they’ll need to rent out football stadiums. We are a culture of people who’ve bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us." (Brené Brown, Daring Greatly)

So sometimes you need to put in those 100 hours of work. This should not be the norm, but it happens. If you haven't run your team ragged by over-filling their capacity they are much more likely to be successful when it comes to crunch time. You keep gas in the tank for moments like this.