May 30, 2021

Disambiguate by creating visibility

When there is a lot that needs to be done, it is common to feel overwhelmed and anxious. From the sheer number of different tasks that remain to the enormous amount of work left to complete a task as a deadline approaches, the uncertainty can become debilitating. In the past months, I have found that creating visibility into work is a great way to counter this. Not only does it reduce the uncertainty in the situation, it can help to create confidence and propel oneself and others towards goal completion.

For instance, on my team, we have had a backlog that’s been getting out of hand the past couple of years. Fixing it, however, always doesn’t make our priority list though we are all concerned that there be dragons in that backlog. Our concern mainly stems from not knowing what the dragons are. Given how busy we all tend to be, no one is able to carve out adequate time to resolve it and so it persists. To combat our analysis paralysis, we created a weekly hour long meeting during which we hoped to slowly chip at it. This ensured that we time boxed how much time we spent and let us feel like we would make progress.

To start off, we built a sense of what was in the backlog: what epics existed, did we actually use them? How long had tickets been opened for? Equipped with all this information i.e. visibility, we no longer thought that the task was daunting and were able to come up with steps to work through over the next weeks to fix the backlog. We started off by calling bankruptcy on tickets older than 2 years and iterated till the backlog got to a good state over about 6 weeks. What seemed like an insurmountable obstacle quickly became manageable through the process. Before we started, we all thought that we’d have to go over every existing ticket and that scared us but the act of creating visibility into what was really going on, enabled us to fix it.

I’ve seen similar situations arise when engineering teams are working on a large project and burning the midnight oil’ to finish it off. There is a short sighted focus on the tasks at hand and a drive to get through them. Sometimes, this is coupled with a lack of insight into the overall health of the project. You know that you are in this situation if no one can tell you how the project is going or when it will complete with high certainty. Additionally, you know this is the case when no project tracking exists or that which does exist is convoluted. Everyone is working extremely hard to complete the goal but they are also very worried and anxious because of no holistic visibility.

In cases like this, it is paramount to fight the urgency around you. In the moment, it feels as though the time needed to create visibility into the project could be better spent burning through the remaining work. While there may be situations where this is true, I think that most times it is better to spend the time creating visibility. The exception to this, being solely when the project truly is almost done.

Having this visibility lets you holistically make decisions for the project which can help track to a faster completion. E.g. It can become clear that some work isn’t necessary for launch. Further, visibility is appreciated not only by the team working on it but by all the stakeholders that care about the project. When they don’t know where a project is, they too get anxious. Imagine an infographic that anyone can quickly glance at and know the status of the project. Either things are real bad and everyone knows so there aren’t any surprises or they are good and everyone’s happy. Irrespective, it beats not knowing.

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