Over the past few months, I have been in traffic jams on the highway several times when traveling to our weekly hike.  In more than one instance someone has decided to pull over and drive on the berm.  In more than a few cases the outcome of this technique for getting things done ends poorly. Despite the unpredictable outcome, jumping the queue is practiced by many in traffic and even more when funneling work to teams. The consequences in information technology are far more predictable than driving, and they are ALWAYS bad.

Jumping the queue happens because:

  1. There isn’t an effective prioritization approach,
  2. Starting is more important than finishing,
  3. Venerating getting stuff done without regard to the “how”,
  4. The impact is not publicly shared, and
  5. The end of the world is nigh if we don’t act now.

Without an approach for prioritizing work, it is easy to make a case that something on the backlog is more important than something you are currently working on. This is a problem at every level of an organization, from strategic initiatives to user stories and tasks, when there isn’t a clear goal and a pragmatic and repeatable approach to prioritizing work. Approaches, whether you like them or not, such as weighted shortest job first, cost of delay, and value ranking are approaches for prioritization. An organization should have a common approach for prioritizing each level of its portfolio because failing that everyone will have their own way of doing things and they will be apt to change whenever someone speaks loudly.

Starting every request is easier than telling people they have to wait until there’s capacity. In scenarios where jumping the queue is ok, waiting your turn in line is a bad idea because you may never get to the head of the line. I have traveled in several countries where queuing to get on a train or plane is not a thing.  The first few times I ended up sitting on my carry-on, now I jockey for position with the best.  I do better now, but those behind me lose out.

If you have ever seen the TV show MASH, you will remember the character, Radar O’Reilly. One of Radar’s claims to fame was that he could get anything.  He knew all the tricks. The same pattern of behavior happens in many organizations, the person that gets their project or enhancement delivered is a winner while those that wait for their turns are often considered wieners. Jumping the queue generates higher work-in-process, slower cycle times, and higher technical debt which reduces the value any team delivers to the organization.

The impact of jumping the queue is rarely measured let alone advertised when known. What gets talked about are the successes, not the cost. When a resource or behavior is thought to be free or doesn’t have negative consequences it will be overused until the pain is overwhelming. This is a form of the tragedy of the commons. One of the costs is that work that has higher value will be delayed or abandoned. Organizations take real money off both the top and bottom lines.

Sometimes jumping the queue makes total sense. I was recently talking to a friend when he got pinged that the corporate website had taken a hit and was down. He had to shelve plans for the day. I was working at a firm when their data center flooded; plans changed on the spot. When the end of the world is nigh, plans are going to change. I included this reason for fairness, but it is uncommon. Always remember that there is a difference between urgent and important make sure the work that gets into any workflow favors the important rather than the urgent.

Jumping the queues is one way even mature work entry processes get crushed which then cascades into other problems.   We will tackle dealing with queue jumpers next.