We spend our days feeling as if we are buried under a mountain of expectations. When I was a manager in enterprise companies, I frequently saw teams with multi-year backlogs, not accounting for projects or new requests! I’m confident in saying that this is an extremely common situation in companies of all sizes.
When we have this much work waiting for us, we know that many of those requests will never be completed, yet we still avoid making decisions about what to discard. Reasons for this are varied, but the result is that decisions will still be made in the end. I call this passive decision making because, instead of actively making decisions with clear information, we delegate that responsibility to a variety of conditions like time or emotions. The results of these passive decisions in the heat of the moment usually aren’t ideal.
There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all.
Tips to get started
Consider changing the name “backlog” to “options.” The word backlog implies that we must get through everything in the list. The word options makes it clearer that we do not promise to deliver everything anyone ever asks for. The requests comprise a set of options that may or may not be exercised.
See the positive side of saying “no.” Many of us don’t love giving people bad news. But, being up front and honest about what you are not going to work on and why should ultimately result in more respect from those around you — even if they don’t agree with those decisions. If you’ve communicated the backlog vs options concept, you’ve already set the stage for these conversations.
Make decision criteria explicit. Explicit policies give people a shared understanding of what work moves through the team’s process. If you identify criteria for deciding which work will or will not be done, and make it explicit, you’ve won half the battle. Eventually you may even see fewer items you need to cut from your options list as people learn the expectations. At minimum, you will be able to point to the criteria when you get push back for why you’ve declined to exercise an option from the list.
What the decision criteria should be will vary by team, but a good rule of thumb is to understand the team’s primary purpose or goal and create criteria that validate whether or not work items further the purpose or goal.
Curate your options on a cadence. When we have removed all of the unnecessary clutter from our options list, we begin to see the real demand on our teams. This allows us to make quicker and more effective decisions about how we visualize and handle that work. It also removes stress merely by the reduction of the amount of work looming over your team.
Get feedback and make necessary changes. Did the completed work provide the value you anticipated? Were there any surprises mid-stream or after the fact that should impact your decision criteria? We often set policies and then don’t follow up to see if they are working for us. We also forget that policies need to change over time as conditions change. Don’t make those mistakes and ensure you have a way to get feedback about your decision criteria and how you gather the information to make those decisions. Don’t be afraid to make changes to either as needed.
Whether you use these tips or not, the important thing is to start making active decisions about your team’s work. This is a great value-added function for managers, but can be done by anyone. Regardless of role, your team will love you for helping them tame a little more of the everyday chaos at work.