Multiple Commitments and Multitasking in Agile Organizations and Teams

Episode 122

October 02, 2013


teams culture

The Agile Weekly Crew discuss the why organizations commit people to multiple projects and why individuals fall for the traps of multitasking in agile.

Jade Meskill: Hello, welcome to the “Agile Weekly Podcast”. I’m Jade Meskill.

Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.

Roy vandeWater: I’m Roy vandeWater.

Why Do We Fall for the Multitasking in Agile Trap

Jade: Today, we wanted to talk about the dangers of multitasking in agile and maybe a little bit about multiple commitments. Roy, we’ve been having some trouble with this lately.

Roy: Self-imposed trouble.

Jade: Yeah. We should know better but we still fall for the trap. Why do we keep trying to multitask?

Roy: I don’t know. I think it’s our arrogance and thinking we’re different, and that somehow it’s going to work for us when we know it doesn’t work for anyone else.

Jade: So, because we’re really good at this, we can multitask in agile when all other humans can’t.

Roy: Right, even though it’s miserable and no fun at all.

Jade: What do you think Derek? Have you struggled with multitasking in agile?

The Organizational Multiple Resource Trap of Splitting People’s Time

Derek: I’m too dumb to do one thing, much less two things at the same time. I see a lot of teams struggle with it or actually organizations. Well, I see teams and organizations. I see organizations do it with the multiple resource trap.

I think of somebody is this logical thing that has 100 percent. Because I think of them as this logical binary bit of 100 percent, I can take 10 percent of them and give them over here, 30 percent and give them over here an 60 percent and give them over there.

On paper that sounds really fantastic, but for whatever reason it just doesn’t ever seem to pencil out quite right. I see that trap a lot.

Tearing a Person in Half is a Powerful Metaphor

Jade: Interrupt you real quick. That reminds of a cool exercise I did once with a group of managers, who were really struggling with understanding why nothing was getting done. I had them write out an individual’s name on an index card. I had them do that for their entire team and then I had them go and layout all the projects that everybody was working on. We put the projects up on a board and then I had them say like, here’s John.

How much of John is working on Project X? They said, oh about 20 percent. So, I tore about 20 percent of that index card off and you should’ve seen the look of horror on people’s face that I’m like tearing this person into pieces.

I stuck that up by the project and said all right how much is on this and that? We went through and by the time we were done there were these tiny little scraps of people everywhere all over this board.

Because they had way more projects than they had people and that visualization of that problem really sunk in, that holy crap we are really doing something very very wrong.

The No Projects Movement Time Fallacy

Derek: I think that’s becoming a common trend very similar to the no estimates hoopla, I think you’re starting to see a no projects thing emerge, which is…

Jade: Is that from you? [laughs]

Derek: No, I said it a few years ago and kind of dropped it, but I think people are picking it back up. I think what people are realizing is that when you do things by project. Projects ramp up, and ramp down, and have overlap. You have to start tearing people. Pretty soon when you do that, you get 10 percent of people and the problem is that it’s never that clean.

When I say “Jade, 50 percent of your time will be on this, and 50 percent on this other thing, and Roy, 50 percent.” What happens is the two projects both need 100 percent of you at the exact same time. It’s not one week I need 50 and one week I need 50 and it works out great. I need all of you right now, and the next week I don’t need you at all. It never is during the same time, so you just get into this total chaos that starts to ensue.

It’s crazy to see how much it helps people to not have that burden, to not be a slave to multiple masters. When they can just say, “I’m doing my best work on this and I don’t have to be constantly thinking about this other thing at the same time I’m trying to be focused on this.” It’s amazing how much freedom that gives people.

Which Project is My Priority

Roy: There’s another interesting effect that happens there too. Which is when you’re working on one project and the second project normally doesn’t have a whole lot of pressure behind it, but now all of a sudden it does. Even though the project you’re currently working on has a high amount of pressure, I’ve noticed that now relatively speaking the other project feels like it’s way more important because it’s more important than it normally is.

It makes you way more willing to interrupt what you’re currently doing to work on the other project, which is weird. Even though both are more important right now, because it’s relative importance relative to its past is higher, you interrupt yourself and you get into this weird thing where you’re interrupting between the two projects, and you interrupt your interruptions, and it just keeps going deeper.

Coordinating Availability

Derek: I see patterns too…of one style of pattern is that everybody on the team is a percent, so the whole team that is working on this thing, this product or this project, or whatever it is. All of us are some percent of our time working on it. The product never gets momentum because I have to coordinate my 10 percent with your 20 percent, with your 30 percent, and we can never find the time to meet because we’ve got meetings on other stuff.

We just can’t even coordinate, it’s a total nightmare. Or the other thing that I see is that almost everybody on the project, or the product, is specifically dedicated to that thing and it’s one or two people are a percentile and then they’re like the outcasts because it’s like, “You’re the bastard we can never, ever depend on because you’re on this “other project,” or this other team. We’re having to compete with you, or for your time, and that’s a burden…”

Jade: Which is usually not that person’s fault.

Derek: No, it’s not…

Jade: But they bear all the guilt, and the brunt of all of that…

Roy: Right…

Roy: If you insist on it…If you tolerate it, you insist on it, so they bear at least some of the guilt.

Using Split Resources as the Scapegoat

Derek: Well, I think what happens is they become a scapegoat that they can’t avoid. If I get Jade 20 percent of the time on a product, and Jade is a potential bottleneck for me, I can very easily say “It’s not that my work didn’t get done. It didn’t matter that my work didn’t get done because we didn’t have enough of Jade’s time…We wouldn’t be able to deploy anyways because he’s the Deploy Master, and he wasn’t available anyways, so…”

It allows all this weird behavior to start to happen, total victim mentality of “Well, you know, XYZ are roadblocked, so that’s why we didn’t get it done.”

Roy: If you’re that guy, though, or the team that doesn’t allow that type of bullshit to get in your way, and don’t make excuses, it’s really easy to stand out above the rest.

Jade: How many teams have you worked with that are in that condition?

Roy: Only a few, but I remember every one of them, and they all stand out, because…

Jade: Right…It’s not very common.

Derek: The great thing about standing out is it makes it really easy to cut your head off.


Bucking the Norm Causes Issues

Derek: Which is the other thing. When you start as a “Don’t even bother giving me that 20-percent-guy, the 20-percent-release-engineer, because we’ll just do our own releasing.” Now you’ve pissed all over the release teams.

When you’ve got a department of 10 people that are the database team, and they’re used to controlling everything about the database, so they give you graciously 6.5 percent of a database engineer to deal with your database stuff.

If you’re the team that just says “We’re willing to stand above the rest. F- it, we don’t need the database engineer, we’ll handle our own database,” now you’ve just created a shit-storm because you’ve threatened their entirely livelihood. “If you won’t take 6.5 percent of us, what happens when the next team won’t, and the next team won’t, and the next team won’t…”

Roy: Their livelihood should be threatened.

Collecting Resources to Build Your Empire

Derek: “Then, we don’t have a team.” That causes all sorts of other angst. I think that’s one of the reasons you see this multitasking in agile, or this dividing up of resources. It’s basically empire building. If I can build an empire of this thing, then divvy it out as a scarce resource, I have a lot more power than if I just focus on a small team.

Roy: It’s like organizational [indecipherable 8:04] union.

Derek: It really is. If I can have a strangle-hold on you, whether I’m an architect, a [indecipherable 8:12] , or whatever, like these siloed groups that “You only get a percentage of my time. You have to plan everything around me, because if you want whatever new thing approved, and I’m the only group that can approve it, and I can’t get you on my schedule, tough to be you,” that’s the way it works.

Roy: “F- that. I don’t have time for that. I understand that you’ll be stepping on some toes, and people are going to get pissed off, but tough.” Nobody has time to sit and wait to be the six percent.

Derek: I tend to agree with that, but I think that’s how those empires built, as people get fearful of “We don’t have somebody who’s a certified…”

Roy: “Or we don’t want to piss off that part of the organization.”

Derek: “Or we don’t want to piss off that part of the organization…”

Jade: “They may have a lot of power.”

Roy: “They may play golf with the boss, or something.”

Multitasking in Agile on a Team is Ownership Smell

Derek: I think it’s difficult. Then I think I also see a lot of multi-tasking in agile happening, especially on scrum teams or [indecipherable 9:01] teams, where people have a ownership problem. Maybe we’ve got backlog of tasks, or sprint items, sprint backlog items, or however you want to call them…

Units of work for the iteration, or the sprint, or the cycle we’re in, and there’s five of them around dealing with the database, and I really want to be in charge of how the database scheme and all that stuff is done. What’ll do is I’ll walk up, and i’ll take all five tasks off the board, or I’ll assign all five of them into me, which totally blocks everybody else. There’s no way I can do those all on the same time.

The justifications I see around this are “You know, these are so dependent that the person that defines a scheme couldn’t possibly be the person that creates the model. They have to be the person…”

Jade: “Now I have to show you so much in order to you to even get up the speed, so I’m going to do this great favor and I’m going to bear the burden of doing all this stuff.”

Derek: I see a lot of that.

Roy: This is a warning sign.

Jade: [laughs] .

Roy: When this happens, something very bad is happening and you should stop it.

Derek: If you have somebody on your team that’s the only person on your team that can do something then you’ve already done something wrong.

Roy: So solve that problem, and then worry about multitasking in agile.

Competing Desires, Makes Focus Difficult

Jade: Recently we’ve been talking about [indecipherable 10:23] and competing desires. I think this has a lot to do with that same problem especially at an organizational level where we have competing desires to finish this project. But also this project, even though we can’t actually spend the money or have the people or whatever it is to do them both.

Derek: Are you criticizing that we have got six number one projects?

Jade: Yes [laughs] They are all number ones of course.

Derek: I definitely see this is a prioritization problem is part of the reason why you get these resources allocated this way and when I say resources I am lovingly talking about human beings.

Jade: [giggles]

Derek: We can’t slice human beings as Jade says even when you spread them on a card, it gets a lot of angst.

Roy: [giggles] Right.

Derek: But if you call them resources you can divvy them up…

Roy: Yeah.

Derek: …however you see fit.

The Dreaded Resource Allocation Spreadsheet

Roy: Especially on a spread sheet. Like five Jades. [laughs]

Derek: …but yeah, I think that’s how usually [indecipherable 11:13] , when somebody’s got a resource allocation spread sheet like, I know they are fucked right out of those [indecipherable 11:17]. Like “This is not working for you right?” and he’s like “Oh no, it’s working great, we are awesome.” So you are paying that consultant for what particular reason?

Roy: [laughs]

Derek: But, I think that what happens is it’s because there are so many priorities that what we start to do is like the only way that we can get the ten number one priorities done. Like we can’t laugh that we just said ten number priorities like the mathematical probability or impossibility of that it’s like totally honest. So what we we are going to do is that we are going to get a spread sheet out and see how we can divvy up these toys, so that we can get all of the number one’s done.

Jade: Great.

Roy: Well….


Roy: …sometimes it’s not even that organized, it’s pretty frequent that this single point of convergence of all of these priorities is to develop products doing the work. So they have like three different managers that they report to that are all requiring demands of them, and they are the only person that can stand up for themselves and say like, “No I am working on just this and I have to get this finished.” Instead often what happens is that they would go ahead and promise everything to everyone.

Derek: Well. I mean the way the managers get around that is that when they come back and they say, “Woah I owe this to Jade and this to Roy.” What happens, those two managers get together and say well the easy answer to this is we are going to split the baby in half. Well you can have fifty percent of Derek’s time and you can have fifty percent of Derek’s time but take it…

Jade: [indecipherbale 12:28] slice Derek.

Roy: …but that’s already an improvement if that communication happened, because…

Derek: Yeah…

Roy: …because I am not even seeing that most of the time.

Derek: …yeah. I think that’s how people get to the matrix organization. Is they get to the point where they all have number one priorities and so when they get around to talk about it, when they are looking at a spread sheet, it becomes really easy to say lets slice Roy six ways…

Roy: And then everybody…

Jade: Everybody’s happy.


Derek: …everybody’s happy except for Roy. Then ultimately none of them are happy because it takes ten times as long to get anything than if they would have serialized them and say lets do the number one project when it’s done we’ll do the number two project when its done…

The Urgency Game

Roy: And then [indecipherable 13:04] involve start playing that urgency game where they wait until the last moment to uncover their projects that all of a sudden…

Jade: It has to be done tomorrow…

Derek: Oh yeah, you’ll have to wait for the fire I mean if you can say like this is really clearly the number one thing but somebody’s house is on fire, the house on fire is always going to take precedence even if it’s the right thing to say well, let it burn we are building something much better here. You definitely get a fire fighting culture. A fire fighting culture is part of what emerges when you start to have multitasking in agile, multi-commitments…


Derek: …when you have competing desires…

Derek: …competing desires, like these are all like signs that your fire fighting culture is coming and then once that starts you are screwed because nobody can think clearly any more. It really is just like we have got a fire truck with a bunch of fire hoses and whichever flame is shooting the highest right now we aim the hose at it until it’s smaller than the next one and then we move back and…

Roy: Which means the fires never go out.

Derek: …we can not figure out why this fire will not go out, it totally mystifies us.

Jade: So how do you solve it?

How Do You Stop The Madness

Derek: For me I think the number one thing is create good solid teams. Let teams form let teams merge, and stop cutting people up and then start to prioritize your work. Start to say that this is the most important thing for our company or our [indecipherable 14:24] our team or whatever it is. Be totally focused on that until you either decide it’s not the right thing or until it’s complete. One of the two it’s you either kill it or finish it. Until you move on to the next thing. The problem is it’s really hard.

Jade: Yeah. My advice is usually stop. Stop the fire fighting, stop the insanity and it’s going to be really, really painful but it will allow you to have a much better perspective on how to move forward. You are right it’s really difficult to stop. I think, Roy and I find ourselves victims of this right now today…

Roy: Yap.

Jade: …we know it, we are self aware and it’s still hard to stop.

Roy: I mean when the interruption happens we are like, “We shouldn’t do this.” But we are going to anyway.

Jade: [laughs]

Roy: …no we are so stupid on purpose.

Fire Fighting Culture

Derek: No you are not stupid, you’ve got a lizard brain and people like to be heroes. Why we call it fire fighting culture like we celebrate fire fighters. Fire fighters are these really great people that make a lot of pain go away, and are really looked up as heroic.

Jade: Yeah. It’s true.

Derek: I think that’s part of it. People pat you on the back and say awesome job, when you drop everything and solve their problem for them. The problem is you probably half-assed solved their problem for them and you create another fire. So it’s like on one hand you get rewarded for the effort and you get rewarded that you have got some immediate “hey you made the flame get smaller.” But…

Roy: But the best fire fighter would have prevented the fire from getting started…


Jade: And If you say no you are a villain.

Derek: Correct.


Derek: “How would you let my house burn down?” Well because I don’t another 6,000 acres to burn so, sorry.

Jade: Yeah, but that’s a a hard pill to swallow.

Derek: Yeah. It’s not as nearly as fun as being a hero that’s for sure.

Jade: That’s true.

Derek: I am bringing matches to work…


Jade: That could be dangerous.

[dropping sound]

Jade: Well, that’s all the time we have, thanks for listening to “Agile Weekly Podcast” catch you next week.

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