Four Types of Work in An Agile World – Revistied

It’s been over three years since I wrote my post Four Types of Work in an Agile World and a lot has changed since then but it is still, by far the most popular post on my blog. I wanted to take a minute to revise the post as I believe things have changed, in the industry in general – not just my head!

When I wrote about this topic originally I described the four types of work introduced by The Phoenix Project as:

  • Planned Work
  • Internal Projects
  • Changes
  • Unplanned Work

I discussed how we used the product backlog to mange the first three and introduced slack into everyone’s sprint and a SWAT team to mop up as much of the Unplanned Work as possible to avoid it jeopardising the planned work.

Over the subsequent years I’ve considered this a little futher. Partially as my knowledge of DevOps and Scrum have grown, but also because – let’s face it, no one wants to be in that SWAT team!

The first change I’d make to The Phoenix Project’s famous 4 types of work is to recognise that in reality all work is either Planned or Unplanned. Internal Projects are a type of Planned Work and Changes are an implementation phase of both. Lets say instead we have:

  • Planned Work
    • Business Projects
    • Internal Projects
  • Unplanned Work
Unplanned Work will always threaten to destroy Planned Work. Photo by Christina Morillo on Pexels.com

Next I’d argue that my previous approach of having a distinct team to shelter the project team is incorrect. It’s another phase of waterfall, splitting different phases of the Develop, Verify, Run into different teams creating silos which don’t talk to each other or share learning. As someone once said – if it’s you getting paged at 3am because the website has crashed you’ll quickly make sure you resolve it in office hours!

Teams must be either orientated around projects or focused on delivering platforms as described in Team Topologies. Those teams must ensure the entire lifecycle from design to operation. To do anything else is to isolate that team from the user and reduce feedback see DevOps 2nd Way).

These teams must also ruthlessly hunt down and eliminate the technical debt which leads to this unplanned work. Creating a buffer team to try to contain the work will only last until lack of feedback and continuously declining quality consume that buffer and overflow back to the development team.

Tech Debt can only be paid down by:

  • Increasing the frequency of deployments (thereby decreasing the delta).
  • Allocating between twenty and thirty percent of the team’s capactity to preventative maintenance and tech debt work.
  • Improving operability and monitoring in production.

Teams have to be utterly ruthless when they resolve issues in production to take action so that they can’t happen again. Or at least that they will be much easier to detect and resolve the next time. Unfortunately, many businesses do not invest the time necessary to maintain their own products. This leads to conflict between the teams and the business and ultimately fails both sides.

This is where it is so important to have your Product Owner on side. I won’t attempt to duplicate many excellent articles on the value of paying down tech debt and having that conversation. I’d only be repeating the words of others. What I would say is that providing meaningful metrics on code quality using tools like StyleCop, Fortify, and SonarQube help quanitify the risk to the business of continuing to operate in this way.

Negotiate the composition of your backlog with your Product Owner. Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

If you want to get your Planned Work back on track you need to hunt down and destroy the sources of Unplanned Work (this is not to say you shouldn’t respond to change when it comes along). It means that Unplanned Work is a symptom of technical debt, either in the form of bugs, lack of clarity, or poor operability.

If you want your team to be able to get on with improving your product, you need to ensure that they aren’t getting distracted by people struggling to use it – otherwise you won’t have anyone wanting to use it at all!

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