All teams and programs must have a process for gathering and excepting work. In Scrum, a typical team’s work entry process might be:

  • People write stories or requirements of varying quality,
  • Those stories are evaluated and cleaned up,
  • Updated, well-formed stories are added to the backlog,
  • Once on the backlog, stories are prioritized (and re-prioritized), and
  • In time, stories are pulled into a sprint.

The product owner owns the backlog and the prioritization process. He or she works with the team to determine when an item is to be done. A very poor work entry process allows anyone to give work to the team at any time, work they tackle based on their perception of value, urgency, and importance. While this sounds crazy, ad-hoc work entry is more common than most leaders know.  Just to be clear, when work is pulled into the team in an uncontrolled manner the team will not be able to efficiently or effectively deliver value to the organization. The same issues occur at a program and portfolio level. Disciplined programs and teams fiercely control how work is accepted. No individual, team or organization can support an ad-hoc work entry approach over the long run without having to accept enormous risks. A disciplined approach to work entry evaluates and prioritizes work to ensure that the most important and urgent work is done before other work. At a team level undisciplined work entry many effects.  The top three are:

Disrupted work – Pushing new work into the team after planning is an interruption. Interruptions disrupt the current flow of work and thought within a team. Consider how you are impacted if you are in the middle of a piece of work or concentrating on reading this blog article and someone asks you to do something else. Interruptions reduce effectiveness and efficiency because they require re-work (maybe not re-work in coding or testing in every case), but always there is a disruption in the process of knowledge work (thinking, creating, considering and collaborating).  Interruptions cause knowledge workers to have to remember where they are in diagnosing the problem, how they were thinking about solving the problem, and what you were going to do next. The longer the interruption the bigger the impact.

Everything else is late – When a team is asked to deal with the new piece of work outside of a standard work entry process, other items that are currently being addressed will have to be stopped for some period of time. Just stopping one piece of work often will cause ripple effects unless each developer can perform all of the tasks needed without support or collaboration.

Reduced trust – The worst impact of an undisciplined work entry process is a loss of trust between team members, teams, stakeholders, and leadership.  Loss of efficiency and late deliveries on committed work breaks the bond of trust between the team and the rest of the organization. In the long run, this causes huge side effects.

Teams and organizations need to obsess about controlling work entry. Not to be too Pollyanna’ish about just doing the work on the backlog, there will always be urgent and important items that appear on the horizon that need to be dealt with. Unplanned work should be RARE for most development programs or teams. The work entry process needs to be tuned to be able to deal with these types of items without causing undue disruptions to the team with the program.

Next:  Diagnosing Work Entry Problems