Illusions about team performance and fragmented focus

Illusions about team performance and fragmented focus

This problem appears in almost every of the large companies that start with agility. The team has too many requests in progress than it can handle with the current number of people.

Sometimes people in the team just slip into opening more and more requests. Elsewhere, part of the company culture is also distrustful of whether people in the team will be busy enough if I do not constantly send work to them. And then the teams adapted to that. In their presentations, they show everyone that they are still working on a lot of things and confirm their apparent performance. Mainly that there is a lot.

But try to think about which information would you rather hear? Information that your team is fully utilized and has a large number of requirements open in parallel? Or that he has only one requirement ready, but one that is of great value to the customer?

Causes of the appearance of the problem

Let’s take a look at why a team overload issue might arise:

  • Teams are not end-to-end (i.e. they cannot completely cover the delivery of the request), so the delivery often generates a series of queues in which the request lies and waits for further processing.
  • Company management often does not trust teams to find a job on their own if they do not send it to them. And actually, it has to be said that sometimes those teams are already in that state.
  • To refuse the immediate implementation of the management’s request is perceived by people as inappropriate. So teams prefer to accept the request and include it in a long list of work in progress. However, teams will not be able to handle so many requests quickly due to the fragmented focus. And because they are afraid of the consequences, they often do not even tell the real state of supply to the management. Transparency is disappearing from the company and the management has actually become accustomed to hearing and accepting it.

Consequences of overloading teams

  • Unfortunately, the performance of the teams in this situation is only an illusion. Teams accept many requests, but complete them much later than if they handled them gradually. A huge amount of time is wasted on switching context between requests. And that’s not all, they have a fragmented focus at work and this causes a higher error rate. Fixing errors will require additional time.
  • The loss of transparency in the company sooner or later only leads to confirmation of distrust in teams.
  • As teams do not manage to handle requests, the technical debt in the company is constantly growing. 
  • People gradually get used to focusing on one problem and catching it up. If you then ask them to focus on one priority topic, they may not feel comfortable in it at first because of fears that someone will accuse them of working little.
  • When teams are overloaded, they no longer have time to stop and ask for customer feedback. They prefer to complete the request and switch to the next task in progress.

How to get out of it?

You will need to work with both the team and the management to make the change. Trust is not free, and it usually comes hand in hand with transparency.

  • Start working with teams to let them know what they are working on, where the work is not progressing and what simply cannot be delivered.
  • Transparency on the part of the team sometimes takes a great deal of courage not to be explained by superiors as an inability to lead the team. It is not uncommon for it to gain the courage to open a communication for half a year.
  • At the same time, you must also prepare the company management for transparent information about the status of delivery and the prioritization of requirements. Optically, it may initially look like the team is suddenly not delivering, now that “everything” is postponed to later. But the opposite is true.
  • A senior scrum master (or agile coach, if you will) will usually help you out of this situation. But it is important that he has the trust of both parties, both the teams and the management of the company. In addition to the knowledge of agile, it should also be equipped with a good dose of soft skills, empathy and patience. And beware, sometimes teams could get so used to assigning work that it will take them a long time to get into autonomous mode. In that case, give them time so they have a chance to get used to the new mode of work and more responsibility.
  • Consider whether your teams have the ability to deliver end to end. If not, some requests may fall into queues from different subcontractors, and trying to focus on priority requests may not make sense until the team setup changes.

Is it worth it?

Well, what can you get after all this effort?

  • For example, a better overview of the status of delivery in your company.
  • Management has the ability to help teams eliminate delivery issues they were unaware of before.
  • Delivering more meaningful things instead of the optical illusion of performance.
  • Lower error rate – people don’t have such a fragmented focus and so they make fewer mistakes.
  • Reducing the increase in new technical debt.

So what, are you going to do it?

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