Long Pressed #9: Discovered Work

The lists, if you can call them that. Frighteningly disorganized musings portraying beautiful, unadulterated, discovered work - abound in Figma designs, as // TODO: and // FIXME: comments in code, and as quick one-off messages to self or other in Slack - their curators silently mocking the abhorrent imagination of what JIRA, Trello, and the team backlog thinks needs to be done.

Why do these lists disagree so fervently? Because the former are discovered whereas the latter are imagined.

During the course of any creative work, Knowledge Workers develop, whether explicitly recorded or not, mutable sets of the following categories

  • Things they must do

  • Things they want to do

  • Things they could do

  • Things they would do if X, Y or Z

  • All of the above except replace "they" with "others"

Allowing good people to discover their work, by challenging them to solve Fixed Time Variable Scope problems, rather than asking them to imagine and commit to what they need to do beforehand improves satisfaction, productivity, autonomy, and trust.

This week’s pattern, Discovered Work focuses on balancing a couple of scales that are central to the patterns of Long Pressed - Commitment and Optionality, and Reporting and Transparency.

Commitment and Optionality

First and foremost, we commit to what problems to solve, not how we're going to solve them. Until we get to work, the lowest level of detail we've recorded is the problem and its solution bounds, determined by the powers to be of the business. Then we get to work.

The team naturally starts off with some imagined tasks—the ones they assume they’re going to have to do just by thinking about the problem. Then, as they get their hands dirty, they discover all kinds of other things that we didn’t know in advance. These unexpected details make up the true bulk of the project and sometimes present the hardest challenges. - Shape Up

As we discover our work, we write it down and we categorize it. It's visible to others solving the same problem and might give them ideas. Discovering new work does not commit us to doing it, but provides us with options, the possible paths we can take.

All this while we've never stopped working towards a solution to our problem. When we come to a fork in the road we look up at our list we realize we can make Trade Offs, we can choose our path.

Reporting and Transparency

Enabling a team to discover work is a gift imbued with trust, and the common favor to return is transparency. A solid foundation for this balancing act Draws Clean Lines around what is being reported and what is being done.

In Objectives and Key Results for example, higher level reporting is done against objectives, whereas access to and definition of Key Results is limited using the Functional Access Only principle.

Problems

Difficult or interdependent and blocking problems are being discovered too late and resulting in Tech Debt instead of Trade Offs

Teams don't know how to Make Progress with no backlog or assigned lists of tasks

Teams are committing to completing tasks instead of solving problems

Scope changes are impacting reporting but not results 

People are keeping scattered lists of work in code

Claims

  • Engineering and design teams can be more successful and satisfied with more autonomy and creative freedom

  • Properly balancing reporting and transparency leads to higher trust factors

  • Recording discovered work as it's discovered is an avenue to focus

Tools

There are plenty of tools you can use to help implement this pattern, but the key is to find the attributes that will provide different levels of information fidelity for reporting on status and organizing discovered work.

Basecamp for example, allows users to track overall status of a scope on Hill Charts, which shows progress over time, and organizing to-dos within those scopes as discovered work.

Tools like JIRA and Trello allow users to track progress of a card through columns on a board. In Trello you can add discovered work to to-do lists inside each card. In JIRA, if your cards are Epics or Tasks, you can track discovered work as Tasks within Epics or Sub Tasks within Tasks.

Avoid

Starting projects by coming up with lists of Imagined Tasks, get to work instead of start discovering while doing.

Related Patterns

We use Pitches to hand off responsibility for solving batches of fixed time variable scope problems to the teams. We use Now, Next, Thinking About to transparently and accurately portray what we know today to our stake holders.

Further Reading

Antipatterns

Context Switching and its sister antipattern Ripples can cause people to unintentionally reprioritize their work and introduce Imagined Tasks.


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