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On a recent project with a client, I helped the development team to implement a work in progress (WIP) limit. As the team got used to working towards finishing things before starting to work on new user stories, there was a noticeable improvement in the flow and pace of stories that were ready to start testing. This enabled fast feedback and reduced any testing bottleneck.
At the same time, my direct colleagues working on the project (as opposed to client-side colleagues) and I decided to move from a Scrum to Kanban approach to our project work, with each of us only having one task in progress at a time. With this, I also felt an improvement in the flow of work and removing impediments.
Seeing how a WIP limit aided focus, increased the amount of finished work, and decreased lead time, I decided to try using WIP limits for my other work and personal endeavours too. These are split across different Trello boards:
- Blogs and Talks
- Learning and Development
- Testing Community
While having these tasks split into different boards helps me in terms of how I like to organise things, it doesn’t really help when implementing a WIP limit. It means that my minimum WIP limit would have to total to three, which might already be too much for one person, and that in progress work would have to be split across the different categories, with no real reason other than the organisation structure that I’d already put in place.
That issue aside, I began my personal WIP limit trial by considering the boards separately, and trying out limits of two to three for each board. I did this mainly because of commitments I’ve made for work across different categories, which means that deadlines and priorities can shift. For example:
- Preparing a talk for a conference
- Committing to finishing a course before a certain date
- Agreeing to review abstracts within a set time frame
There’s also a mix of short, condensed tasks, and those that I know will take me much longer, or are best tackled in smaller sessions over time. I’d like the longer-form work not to block the short to mid-form work.
I quickly started to struggle with the rigidness of the WIP limit. Tasks in the Testing Community category aren’t such an issue, because they’re connected to specific people or events, and can usually be accomplished after one or two “sittings”, or a connected event. I’ve also been getting much better at saying, “no, but thanks and good luck,” when I don’t have the capacity to commit to helping someone. This helps to keep the backlog down. Many thanks to Liz Keogh for sharing this invaluable phrase with me!
I’d also been somewhat strategic with the WIP limit for Learning and Development. I read very slowly, because I know that I don’t process the information properly otherwise. I set my WIP limit for this board to two, so that I could always have one book that I could read at my own pace, and mix that with one item of another kind – videos, courses, or research (which includes freestyle learning, projects and experiments) – that should take a short to medium time to complete. This seems to be working well for me so far.
The problem with WIP limits for me comes with creative work, which is what I consider Blogs and Talks to be. I initially set this limit to two, and increased it to three, but this doesn’t seem to be helping. I’ve thought a lot about why this might be, and two videos from my Learning and Development board have helped me to form my thoughts on this:
- Collaborative Intelligence: Thinking With People Who Think Differently by Angie McArthur and Dawna Markova
- Neurodiversity and Software Development by Sallyann Freudenberg
(I thoroughly recommend watching both of these talks and have also added McArthur and Markova’s book on the subject to my backlog of books to read.)
My learnings most relevant to my WIP limit troubles are:
- People think differently
- People’s brains are activated by different things (sight, vision, movement)
- The largely accepted way of doing things could be making it harder for some people
I’m somewhat of a magpie; I get distracted by things all the time, and because I consider myself to be quite creative and imaginative, a lot of the things I get distracted by come from internal stimuli. In other words, I don’t always have to see something shiny to become distracted or derailed – oftentimes, thoughts just pop into my head, especially as I’m always making connections between topics and ideas, which sparks even more ideas. (This is probably also why my blog posts turn out to be so much longer than I initially intended, and why structure can sometimes be a problem.) I’m also very forgetful, so if I don’t deal with an interesting idea as soon as it comes into my head, it can be very hard to hold onto the good bits, and make something interesting or valuable with them. This is one of the reasons why I’ve actively worked very hard on not interrupting people, and to pay attention to what they’re saying and not what I want to say, instead of just waiting for my turn to speak. At the same time, I often need more time than other people do to process information and form my own thoughts (like when reading), so conversations that move quickly and have little to no gaps between dialogue can be difficult for me. I’m a thinker and a do-er.
How does this relate to WIP limits for creative work?
- I’m always coming up with new ideas for blogs and talks, which results in an ever increasing backlog
- While working on one thing, I’m often distracted by ideas for another
- I always feel an urge to work on something else, because if I don’t do something straight away with the ideas that pop into my head, I know I’m likely to lose them (making notes doesn’t help me with this)
- My creativity is often spontaneous and based on whatever my mind wants to be focussed on at the time, so I can’t force myself to come up with ideas for a different item that’s in progress
- Knowing that I invest a lot of time in each piece of creative work means that I feel like I can’t just do a little bit of something else, because it’ll mean a lot of time not spent doing the thing I’m “supposed” to, even though the alternative is being distracted and not doing my best work
- The goal of finishing one thing before moving onto the next feels inherently incompatible with my natural creative “process” (it’s not a deliberate process, it’s just what happens)
I remember reading or hearing something once about how artists often have many things in progress too. Something about how painting in oils helps them to pace out their work and work on different things, because each layer of paint takes such a long time to dry, compared to something like acrylics. Perhaps this is also why we hear of works of art taking such a long time to be completed.
I haven’t quite decided what I’m going to do about all this, although this blog post in itself is something I’m not “supposed” to be doing right now, since I have two talks and another blog in progress… But the thought of writing it and wanting to write it was keeping me from being able to continue working on my talk, that I’ll need to present soon. On the other hand, I know that once I have this piece out of the way, it’ll no longer be in my head and I can stop thinking about it. By transferring my thoughts about creating something into an actual piece of work, I free my mind for something else. So, actually, I’m leaning towards removing the WIP limit from my Blogs and Talks board, and with it, simultaneously removing my own internal and psychological blockers.
One final thought came to me as I pondered my own problem with WIP limits for creative work. In many ways, development can be seen as a form of creative work – creating a feature or piece of software through the medium of code. What if there are developers who also have these struggles with WIP limits for development work and we’re making things harder for them by having a WIP limit? I’m not really sure what to do with that, or what the solution is when working in an environment that relies on work being finished within or by set times, but I really wanted to include this point to encourage people to consider the possibility for themselves, and think of how we can help everyone on the team, even those who think differently to the accepted “norm”.
Have you tried WIP limits for creative work? What have your experiences been like? I’d love to know, so please share your thoughts in the comments below.