How to Finish More Work

I often get this question: “My team works hard, but we struggle to achieve sprint goals and to finish as many stories/tasks as we’d like. What can we do?”

Here is what I would not recommend: trying harder, estimating more precisely, nagging people for status, doing overtime.

Instead, look for the right point of intervention. It depends on the current maturity of both the team and the overall system of value delivery (product development).

Think about the following questions in the given sequence. The first one that hits, that’s where I’d suggest starting to make changes.

1. Does the team’s workload fit their potential capacity? If they’re underwater, you probably need to work on their high-level WIP (how many projects/initiatives/features/epics are in flight).

2. Is the team composition right for its mandate? Having dependencies on many external people will impact their getting to “done.” You might need to redraw team lines.

3. For each product-impacting decision, is it clearly defined who makes it? If not, there’s probably a lot of rework and confusion, which impacts the finishing of new work. Make sure every decision has a home.

4. What’s the variation in the rate of delivery from sprint to sprint? If it’s too much, you must stabilize it (reduce the variation) before you can improve it. Lots of great ideas from Agile and Kanban can help here.

5. Do team members feel enough contributor safety? Make sure they have it, so they can work without fear of failure and do what it takes to finish deliverables correctly.

6. Do they experience real teamwork, or is the team really a workgroup? Fix that, and they’ll get to “done” a lot more. (See this related post.)

7. Are product releases too far apart? Increase the release frequency. That will focus everyone on the real priorities (and if you’re looking for a “sense of urgency”, it’ll be more real).

8. Do team members contribute meaningfully to planning? If not, they’re mostly carrying out other people’s plans, which isn’t very motivating. Don’t just have the team sit in planning meetings; facilitate the meetings for real engagement.

In most cases, these questions are enough for identifying what to focus on. If you need to explore further, try the “5 whys” exercise.

If you’d like to discuss your situation with us, let us know.


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