Marvo the Marvellous Multi-Tasker

Frustrating times.

One of the team, let’s call him “Marvo”, wasn’t too sure about how to break his work down for this sprint. He was planning to use a new-to-him tool to do something he’d not done much of before. With that much uncertainty I created a Spike for him, time-boxed at three days, to spend some time getting to grips with the tool and the work.

So far so normal.

My first mistake was that I didn’t book the review meeting at the end of day three. Nor did I stick a reminder in my own diary to check in on Marvo in case he forgot.

My second mistake came half way through day two, when Marvo indicated that, having talked things over with the consumers of his work, he changed his mind about which tool to use, and would now go back to using an old, familiar tool instead. My question, “how much time will you now save?” was answered with: “None.”

That loud noise you can probably here,  that’s the Agile Violation Alarm going off in my head. Unless it’s your own AVA going off in your own head. It probably should be. With a bit of follow-up questioning, it turns out that there was as much uncertainty in the scope of the work as there was in the use of a new tool, and doing the same work in a familiar tool was still a largely-unknown task.

In retrospect, the right thing to do at that point was probably to start a new time-boxed spike for that work in a familiar tool. What actually happened was that the vague and woolly “do the work in a new tool” Task remained as-is in Jira, and was joined in the “In Flight” column by all the other Tasks for Marvo for this Sprint.

The explanation was one I’ve heard before many times: “they’re all kind of interlinked.” That translates in my head to “Either I have no idea how to break the work down into distinct, measurable tasks,” or “I’m not willing to expose the work to you in distinct, measurable pieces because it leaves me no place to hide or dissemble on whether I’m making progress or not.” I’ve worked with people who meant it both ways, sometimes at the same time.

The only thing that I’ve found works is to keep coaching them to think about what they’re actually doing and guide them into slicing their tasks up differently. On this occasion it only took a couple of sprints, but I’ve known it take much, much longer.

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