How Yesterday’s Weather Whisked Us To Better Focus
Welcome to the next installment of the P.A.C.T. - A place where we share some of our experiments in fostering an inclusive culture, innovations in people operations, and real-world agile learnings!
As I sat down to ponder this month's theme of prioritization, I started to think about how difficult it can be to prioritize in a world filled with interruptions.
You and I both know that supporting people means we answer tons of questions. Things fall onto our lap that we didn’t anticipate and could never plan for (ahem - ever-changing COVID requirements ring a bell to anyone?). In Scrum and Agile, we refer to this unplanned work as an interrupt because it takes us away from the planned work we have pulled into our Sprint.
These days, interruptions might be coming from all sides, and not just work! On one hand, we have texts and emails. Scope changes. Surprise phone calls. Emergencies. Questions to find answers to that don’t even relate to People Operations. On the other, we have homeschooled kids. Barking dogs during our zooms. As I write this article, my hungry stomach is starting to pull my mind away. Even my own body interrupts my work!
Problem: As Human Resource or People Operations folks, or as folks in any type of operational role for that matter, LOTS of unplanned work is a reality and a necessity. But, it takes away our focus. It drives us to multitask, which we know, from lots of research, decreases our productivity. All of that context switching slows us down.
We have projects to get done! Change to manage! People to onboard! Pain points to resolve (which may contribute to our interruptions!) How can Agile thinking help us regain our focus and get stuff done while enabling us to handle all these interruptions as effectively as possible?
Experiment: If we start with a simple goal of understanding our unplanned work better by collecting some real-world data, we can use this information to prioritize the right work and maybe find ways to decrease interruptions.
Our experiment had 4 steps:
- Track and make visible all interrupt work overtime.
- Use the data you track to understand the relative size of your interrupts.
- Use yesterday’s weather to build an interrupt buffer in the project backlog to account for this unplanned work and determine the right balance between planned and unplanned in the sprint.
- Use patterns and root causes to decrease interrupts over time and drive behavior toward better prioritization of unplanned work.
At this point, I know you are thinking, “NOW WAIT JUST ONE MINUTE! Yesterday’s weather? What? It snowed! Interrupt buffer? What the…?”
Super valid questions! So, let’s slice them into digestible chunks and all will become clear.
Step one - Track and make visible the interrupts.
When we did this with one of our operational clients, we started by first categorizing all of the types of inquiries and interruptions they were getting in a week. For People Ops, these might include things like policy questions, responding to recruitment questions, COVID changes, safety concerns, etc. Or you might take the approach of emails vs. phone calls vs. the number of people that just show up at your virtual desk. There is a myriad of ways to think about categorization. Create a list that makes sense for your team - they can be as detailed as you want.
Once we had “buckets”, we set up a simple way to track these items with tick marks. JUST TICK MARKS! Why? Keep it simple, sweetie! If we start to add a whole bunch of extra work, people won’t do it, but adding a tick mark, even if you have a piece of paper by your hand or a spreadsheet in a tab is really fast and easy. And then oh! How those ticks will start to add up.
For example, let's say our buckets were safety events, general inquiries, employee drop-ins, and unexpected hiring activities. Week 1 might have looked like this:
- Safety events - 1
- General inquiries - 40
- Employee drop-ins - 6
- Unexpected hiring activities - 3
At the end of each week - we got together as a team and take a look at the numbers. This is where making work visible becomes uber helpful. When you see just how many emails, calls, changes, questions you handled over a week, you will be shocked. No wonder we struggle to get projects done! And oftentimes, the other members of the team don’t realize how many of these items you are doing and vise versa. You do get things done! But are they the right things? And at what cost to your bigger initiatives and your speed?
We all know some weeks are packed with unplanned work, others no so much. So, we collected our ticks for 3 weeks so that there was more than one data point to work with. Now we have some awesome real-world information to use in step 2.
Step 2 - Use the data you track to understand the relative size of your interrupts.
Now that we had a few weeks of numbers, we attempted to figure out how big they were so that we could quantify the effort we used on them. This is a type of estimation using relative size to create a point structure. Points are very handy. As you start to up your Scrum game, points will become the key to understanding many things about how your team works. More to come on points later and in future blogs.
Remember - keep it simple! Continuing with our example... As you know, some emails might take 30 seconds to respond to while a safety incident could take hours by the time all is said and done. For each of the buckets we created in step 1, we ranked them by size. For example:
- General inquiries - extra small
- Unexpected hiring activities - small
- Employee drop-ins - medium
- Safety events - large
We then assigned a number of points to each:
- General inquiries - extra small - 1
- Unexpected hiring activities - small - 2
- Employee drop-ins - medium - 5
- Safety events - large - 8
Next, we related these points to the number of tick marks we had in each bucket to determine how much effort we used for this unplanned work each week. Simply multiply the points by the number of ticks.
- General inquiries: 40x1 = 40
- Unexpected hiring activities: 3x2 = 6
- Employee drop-ins: 6x5 = 30
- Safety events: 1x8 = 8
- Total: 84
Now we have an estimate of effort that we used on interrupts each week in the form of points. As you become stronger with Scrum and backlog development, you can use this method to quantify all of your work - planned and unplanned. This data can show us several patterns and help us become effective planners.
Step 3 - Use Yesterday’s Weather to build an interrupt buffer in our project backlog to account for this unplanned work and determine the right balance between planned and unplanned in the Sprint.
Finally! Yesterday’s Weather! What is it?
Yesterday’s Weather is a term we use to describe how we use what happened in the past (data) to forecast the future. Get it? Forecast? Weather? But how?
We take the last 3 weeks of totals that we tracked and create an average of points that we use as a blocker in our Sprint Backlog. This blocker is known as the interrupt buffer, but you can call it whatever you want. It helps teams to plan for the seemingly unplannable.
Going back to our example, let’s say our first 3 weeks looked like this:
- Week 1: 84 points
- Week 2: 93 points
- Week 3: 71 points
- Average: About 83 points
Thus, our team’s Yesterday’s Weather was 83 points. Great! So what do we do with that?
As we got better and better at adding points to ALL of our work, planned and unplanned, we could see each week how much we really got done. Then, we used our Yesterday’s Weather to set up a blocker (aka interrupt buffer) so that we don’t commit to too much work! As time passes, you’ll have more data that can be used to build efficiencies, identify pain points and get faster as a team.
Step 4. Use patterns and root causes to decrease interrupts over time and drive behavior toward better prioritization of unplanned work.
By quantifying the various types of unplanned work, we noticed negative patterns. So, the team started asking, “What things can we do to decrease these interruptions?.”
We developed FAQs that addressed the most common questions we were actually getting and referred folks to it as a self-service source of information. We delegated a different person each week to take on the bulk of unplanned work while the rest of the team swarmed on Sprint Goals. We noticed a bottleneck in our escalation path we were able to resolve. Employee engagement improved by increasing openness, focus, and commitment - which are three of the five Scrum Values. From there, we got faster and faster. Twice the work in half the time, folks.
Result: Understanding how much interrupt work REALLY happens helped the team see several patterns that they could weigh against project work. As a result, we could better prioritize our project work and live up to our commitments.
This is the outcome we wanted, but a few other good things also happened.
From a strategic perspective, making this information visible to leadership gave us the chance to start a dialogue about several opportunities. First, when we were delayed with one project, we could talk in a real way about why. We talked about ways we could empower other teams to make decisions and find answers. And what about hiring needs? A business case for additional support or dedicated Scrum Masters becomes much more logical with this level of detail. Finally, there was recognition for the hidden value we were providing that had gone previously unnoticed.
Key learnings: Awareness IS powerful.
Oftentimes we think we are prioritizing correctly, even when it comes to being interrupted, but we can only be sure by collecting the data and making it visible. Try it!
I’d love to hear about your experiences with unplanned work. How have you incorporated time in your backlog for unplanned work? Or, feel free to send any questions about Scrumming HR or People Operations. I’d be happy to address them in future blogs!
Have a fantastic March, friends!