The power of a small WIP

Delayed Delivery of Value

For the purposes of this discussion, let’s say there are 10 things that we want to accomplish, and each thing takes 1 work day to deliver, and delivers 1 “unit of value” to the organization. Let’s further assume there is no switching cost between projects — a poor assumption that we’ll attack later, but we’ll allow it for now. Whether we do one project a day, or work on all 10 projects concurrently, the result is the same, right? After 10 days, we’re delivering 10 units of value for the organization.

Full Concurrency — All 10 projects are worked on concurrently
No Concurrency — 1 project complete each day

Poor Organizational Alignment

If the organization is trying to get 10 things done concurrently, coordination becomes a challenge. At any given time any particular team may be blocked by work that’s waiting to be provided by another team, may be blocking another team, or may have their work interrupted by a request from another team.

Teams need each other for project delivery. The more concurrent projects, the longer the concurrency delay, and the more interruptions.

Poor Prioritization

If we are “trying to do too much” it’s likely a symptom of poor prioritization. Unfortunately, it’s a symptom that exacerbates the disease; each makes the other worse. It’s simply not possible that all of the things that we’re trying to do will produce the exact same value for the organization.

Having multiple projects concurrently means that lower priority projects can distract from higher priority ones.

Switching Costs

Humans like to think we’re good at multitasking. We aren’t. This article from Wrike accumulates lots of good resources on the topic. One of my favorite cartoon observations of this for programming is here. Regardless, it’s true for all creative work. Good creative work requires focus. Cal Newport’s Deep Work is an excellent exploration of the importance of making the space to deliver value based on limiting distractions.

Smart Limits

Ideally, we would have a WIP limit of 1. We’d pick up a task and work on it until completion and pick up another one.

Summary

“Trying to do too much” hamstrings organizational productivity. It delays delivery of value, causes interruptions, and represents poor alignment and prioritization. It’s bad for our mental health and even for the value we’re trying to produce.

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AC Capehart

AC Capehart

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AC Capehart is the CTO for Pearl Certification. He cares about, and writes about, the intersection between business, technology, and people.