In over 20 years of Agile practice and Coaching, I see patterns everywhere I go. We spend so much time feeling unique that we fail to see how very much we have in common with everyone else. Similarly, the reasons organizations have lackluster performance varies widely, but the dysfunctions themselves are largely the same. Whether you build code or cars, one of the most ubiquitous problems could be well summarized as, “We don’t know which work is most important so just do it all at once. And, for the love of Mike, HURRY!

We don’t know which work is most important so just do it all at once. And, for the love of Mike, HURRY!

Most companies have no idea what customers want from their product. This leads to a mountain of ideas, requests, feedback forms and the like. As I see more often than seems plausible, seldom do companies know which initiative is more or less important to their bottom line. This leads to an abdication of Executive Leadership on prioritization, and a mounting insecurity among those Leaders to even do it. As near as makes no difference, every client visit I have results in a whispered confession behind the closed doors of a corner office.

Especially in senior positions, too many feel unqualified or incapable of making a decision. They have simply never been taught how to measure the potential benefit of any request. I can usually clear a room of these folks by asking, “What is the net present value of this project?” Boom. Everyone has an urgent meeting somewhere else.

If you don’t know how to measure Value, find someone who does. None of us know everything. And the modern economy does not find your current skill/knowledge to be sufficient. Whatever our title is, it should be “Professional Learner”. If you are still operating as you were two years ago, you’re likely out of step and losing ground. Asking for help is a sign of strength, self-awareness, and confidence. Your staff may cut you slack the first time you leave a chaotic pile of work on their desks then rush away to a meeting. They won’t the second time.

“Remember: Overtime is a weakness, not a strength.”

Chaotic urgency creates multi-thrashing. Stop looking at the movement in your office and consider measuring Value contribution instead. If you are still figuring out how to measure Value, look for other, easier to spot markers of multi-thrashing. Determine how long it takes for your average work item to go from a concept/request to a completed effort with a happy customer. Count the number of times each effort has to be re-started or re-defined altogether.

Look for overtime, burnout, and demoralization signs among the staff. Remember: Overtime is a weakness, not a strength. Set about root cause analysis and you will begin to see the scale of the problem you have, as all roads lead back to uncertain priorities.

When we follow the sound of the loudest voices toward a vague sense of priority, we are derelict in our duty to direct investment wisely. I was Coaching a Senior Executive last month who had taken on a new division that was a complete disaster because of this very behavior. She was confused because she was told she was taking over a product but found a professional services organization instead. The devolution had taken years but was the result of one large and noisy client demanding modifications until, in the end, their product had become a custom solution for just one division in one company. While that is an extreme example, far more companies are dancing on the lip of that crater than acknowledge it. And it is almost entirely due to their failure to measure value, and manage priorities.

You will get it wrong before you get it right. That has to be okay. You can minimize your risk by limiting the scale of each iteration. Shorter sprints with small, clear deliverables will allow you to vet your course without betting the farm. Making Value measurements that feel reliable and yield positive results can take a while to master. By shortening Sprint lengths, we reduce the potentially misdirected investment. Quick, small deliverables bring the potential to verify with your customer that you are doing the right thing. Making certain that each Sprint completes with Done work means that we can adapt to more refined understandings of Value without disrupting the rhythm of the organization.

Multitasking can feel wonderful but is one of the largest forms of waste in your company today. It is quite common to hear from people who proactively seek multitasking, or create it out of whole cloth even in healthy organizations with clear priorities. When pressed, they tend to give one of two broad responses: Either “I get bored”, or “[some system|bureaucracy|approval] blocks me so I do B while waiting for A to clear.” (If you shrug and walk away from either of those answers, you have just given free run of your office to a big, giant, snarling, feral Wastenstein monster.

Improve the slow systems. Eliminate the lengthy bureaucracy. Secure approval before launching the initiative. But, whatever you do, do not leave your staff in a wait-state.

“Whatever you do, do not leave your staff in a wait-state.”

There is no such thing as multitasking anyway. There is only Rapid Context Switching, and that is expensive. I recommend taking a couple of hours to read the book, The Invisible Gorilla (Chabris & Simons, 2009) for some deeper insights into this ubiquitous human foible. For simplicity, however, imagine that you need to build three pyramids with different colored blocks – red, blue, and green. You could lay one block of each color then cycle back for the second of each color and so on until you suddenly have three pyramids completed practically at once. But that means each pyramid is waiting for two thirds of the time that you are working because you can only lay one block at a time.

If, instead, you complete the red pyramid, you have at least created the chance to hear your customer say, “Is that a pyramid? I guess I meant a trapezoid. Oops.” And, with that, you have just saved two thirds of the effort you were planning to waste.

Your ability to effectively multitask is inversely proportional to your own opinion of your prowess. In other words, the better people think they are at it, the worse they actually prove to be, when measured. It is the same reason that you think cell phone driving laws should not apply to you but everyone else is a disaster at it. But knowing that multitasking is counterproductive is one thing. Feeling like it is counterproductive is quite another. I recently found myself Training and Coaching for a Fortune Top 10 company (whose products are all around you right now). With thousands of employees spread across multiple sites, there was one common refrain: “Why does Scrum make us work so slowly? Scrum slowed us down!

Here’s the dirty little secret: They’re right. But not in the way they think they are. They are just unaccustomed to the sensation of “I’m done.”

Just as with almost every other aspect of Agile Transformation, the roots of MultiThrashing form clear patterns across organizations, too. Look for the following, and root them out:

1.      Lack of Clear Leadership Prioritization. Help your Leadership understand that starting an unclear initiative wastes much more time than clarifying, measuring and then completing it. Show some numbers regarding how much thrash/rework there is in an ill-conceived launch of an initiative, versus a well triaged one. It’s not about getting it into the Teams’ hands fast. It’s about getting the right thing ready and to the Team when appropriate. Yes, even in emergencies.

2.      Absence of an Organizational Definition/Metric for Value. When priorities conflict — and they always will — having a common language of Value will stop the conflict short. A common metric, or small set of metrics (3 to 5), that are common across your Teams and Leadership will help everyone understand why priorities are set as they are.

3.      Shared Resources between Teams. When one person is on multiple Teams, even if each Team only has one Priority 1, that shared member has many. Consider letting them live on just one Team permanently, and using your network of Product Owners to route work to that Team instead of that Individual. Then sit back and watch your backlog shrink.

4.      Going Around the Product Owners to the Team Members. Product Owners’ jobs are tough enough when they get to see all of the moving pieces. Having streams of work flowing secretly to the Team Members will forever prevent your Product Owners from having the right answer. And don’t be afraid to draft your Team in helping stop what I call bandwidth embezzlement.

5.      Team Members on the front line for Bug Reports/Feature Requests. Some Team Members do this with a spirit of trying to help out, or stay on top of any issues their contribution might have caused in Production. Others do it out of fear that their Product Owner does not understand or is not watching incoming issues. Remind them that the product belongs to the Team, not to one individual, and that you, as the Product Owner, are on top of it and aware of defects and requests. Let them simply focus on the Sprint Backlog that is ready for them to take action.

Remember, they are not “bad people”. Those practicing these dysfunctions are only coping as best they can with a dysfunctional environment, lack of infrastructure, lack of data-driven decision-making, or an area in which they need training. So approach them like drowning swimmers, not burglars.

If you start with resolving these five root dysfunctions, you should see that MultiThrashing will fade away and you can measure the value of your effort in increased productivity, happiness, and transparency.