Parachuting tasks because available time is fixed

There are 24 hours in a day. 8 of those are the standard length of the working day, of which an even shorter total make up the time we can spend actually doing focused work.

The available time does not change. You might be able to develop a system to increase the number of focus hours but you cannot increase the number of available hours.

If you read that paragraph in isolation then it is an obvious fact. Of course you can’t increase the available hours.

So why is this ignored when we’re actually planning work and progressing through a task list?

An interrupt-driven culture whereby new tasks appear without reducing the pool of tasks the team are expect to complete is something I see on a regular basis across many companies.

This is especially prevalent in engineering teams. A sprint or development cycle will begin with a set number of tasks, and then mid-cycle new tasks will be dropped in due to critical bugs, customer complaints or other reasons. This doesn’t necessarily have to be an issue – it becomes a problem when those tasks are forced in without removing other tasks. The available time is the same but suddenly there are now more things to do.

The results of this include:

  • Deadlines being missed – the work still has to be done, it’s just there is now more of it than when the original time estimate was discussed. Without adjustment then it is inevitable that everything will now take more time.
  • Existing work taking longer than expected – if a critical bug comes in that needs to be dealt with immediately, that will cause a context switch that has an impact on individual or team productivity.
  • Multiple teams being impacted – the original work plan may have external dependencies from other teams e.g. a marketing campaign launch.
  • Requests for overtime – the team may be expected to work longer and later, despite this not actually correlating with productivity.

At my company, Server Density, we eventually implemented a solution to this we called “parachutes”.

  • Development cycles were a fixed length.
  • All the tasks to be completed were scoped in tickets each of a fixed length.
  • Every member of the team had a known level of productivity i.e. how many tasks they could complete in a cycle.
  • This gave us a total known capacity for the cycle, which allowed us to slot in the tickets that would be completed in the cycle.
  • We discussed which tickets needed to be done for each cycle, with stakeholders across the business sponsoring the tickets they prioritised, everyone debating the priorities.
  • As a result, each ticket had a priority relative to the other tickets in the cycle.
  • If an unexpected task came in, it was first triaged to scope and size it. Once agreed that it needed to be dealt with urgently, the lowest priority ticket in the current cycle was “kicked out” and this new ticket “parachuted” in to replace it.

This resulted in knowing what we were sacrificing to get the new ticket solved, with the stakeholders for the kicked-out ticket being involved in the discussion about whether to parachute it. The cycle remained a fixed length and meant that we had a good level of certainty about what was going to be completed and when.

Dropping a new task into an existing cycle always has a cost. If you don’t acknowledge that time is fixed then the cost ends up being hidden under overtime, surprise missed deadlines and frustration from supporting teams. It is better to explicitly incur that cost in a defined way by sacrificing some other known task than to keep it hidden behind a bad process.

Parachuting tasks is always frustrating, especially for the owners of the kicked out ticket. But the key is visibility and shared decision-making. Without this, teams continue to maintain a fiction that everything will still be completed on time with the same effort, until it isn’t. That’s significantly more frustrating.