Is the difference merely perspective?

Jeremy Willets and I recently facilitated a workshop titled, Managing Work Entry: How the Mushy Middle is Killing Your Agility (Path to Agility). Work entry is how work gets to an organization or team…not the sexiest topic in agile but it’s impactful. In the run-up to the conference, we previewed a version with a group of trusted colleagues and friends. Amongst the feedback was a comment, “don’t you mean work intake?” The short answer is no yet the path to that simple answer is a bit longer. Understanding why no is the right answer is important to foster understanding for anyone who wants to embrace agile or lean principles.

The journey to the recognition that work entry was the right phase crystallized as I reread Chapter 3 of Lyssa Adkins’ Coaching Agile Teams. In this chapter, the author discusses the impact of violent language. As a coach the language we use to deliver feedback and messages can have negative overtones if we use violent language. In our estimation intake is a softer more neutral word than entry. Neutral has never been our intent.

The word intake, in this context, refers to the amount of work taken into a team or organization. The word “take” confers that the team or organization has the power to accept or pull the work. Agile and lean rely on the concept of teams pulling work rather than having it pushed at them. The idea of intake requires teams to have a real choice. Teams that pull work based on a capacity determined via planning, Monte Carlo analysis, or yesterday’s weather are examples of choice.

The ability to control and pull work requires leadership. Teams need leadership so they can self-organize and manage how they are approaching the business problems they are being asked to solve. Teams that control how work enters have an outward mindset. Teams with an outward point of view focus on doing the work that delivers the most value.

Along with leadership comes the need for bi-directional trust. Trust that the team will pursue the goals laid out by the product owner and that they will deliver. Organizations that promote or allow jumping the queue will never have trust. Trust occurs when actions are transparent and predictable.

When someone outside the team makes choices for a team about what they will do and how they will do it, control replaces trust. Command and control and micromanagement are two management styles used in low trust scenarios. These types of behavior are at odds with the philosophies of agile and lean.

The word “entry” is a forceful, aggressive word. Lean and agile philosophies embrace the idea that teams pull prioritized work based on their capacity and capabilities. When teams live by lean and agile principles how they get work is work intake. Alternatively, regardless of professed philosophy, when work is “pushed” into the team the term intake sugar coats problems. Push or uncontrolled acceptance of work is not agile. If a team cannot control how they accept work, the proper phase is work entry.