I’ve worked in various organizations where Product Owners and analysts are overworked by having a number of projects on their plate at a single time. Your calendar gets booked with meetings for a variety of subject matters so you’re context switching often. Then when meetings are done for the day, you spend hours working late to actually get any work done. An overburdened analyst is rarely a happy analyst! Yet staying happy in our jobs and in our lives, with balance, is absolutely critical for achieving self-actualization. So what can we do to combat this?
Little’s Law, common referenced in Kanban and Lean theory, states Work in Progress items = Throughout (number of items that can be produced in a given time) X Cycle time (total time it takes to produce one item). This means that there is an inverse relationship between the number of items that are in progress and the cycle time it takes to complete them (CT = WIP/TH). More items in progress means it will take longer to get any single one of them done. Seems obvious, right? But with analysts and Product Owners wearing many hats, working on multiple projects simultaneously, we all too often forget the obvious and instead stay miserable and busy, with too much on our plate. Managers expect three projects to be delivered in the same timeframe that one project could be delivered, and teams are expected to get creative with “doing more with less”, so quality slips, and so does employee satisfaction.
The most effective way I have found of limiting my work in progress items is by managing my to dos, including things I need to do in my personal life, like an agile backlog. Every single item that comes in the pipeline as something I need to do – meeting to attend, model to create, item to follow up on, thank you letter to mail – goes in my backlog. I assign rough estimates to each item as I add them, down to the 15-minute increment. Then, I constantly stack rank based on priority.
I try to approach each day as a mini sprint. I take 75% of my capacity for the day (because things will always come up and you need the 25% buffer!) and accept as many items off of the top of the backlog as I can. I commit to doing only those items, limiting my work in progress to a palatable amount of items, so that I can be faster at delivering each individual thing. I can also rest easy not thinking about the whole LOT of items that need to get done, because I know I have everything documented in one place – things are there for you to look at when you need to worry about them. But until you’re ready to accept the item and begin work on it, don’t even waste the time thinking about it, or it will slow the cycle time of the things you’re actually working on.
This means it’s important to break up your tasks into chunks of work that can get done in a day or less, at least for those items at the top of the backlog. Writing a thesis on evolution theory is certainly an epic that would need to get broken down. You can leave it in as an epic at the bottom of your backlog, but once it shifts up towards the top, break it down into little wins that you can achieve without overwhelming yourself.
You can use a number of tools to track this – Trello has a nice Kanban board feature; Rally is a popular development tool that has intuitive task management features. You can also just use Word and Excel! Getting all of these items in one place for you to manage in a systematic manner can also make it much easier to make prioritization decisions and cut scope. It can also make a stronger case to present to your manager if you are expected to deliver a truly unrealistic amount of work given a limited amount of time.