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One of the challenges typically faced by the teams adopting scrum is not being able to focus on their work without interrupts. I was reminded of this by the recent blog from my colleague JV, where he mentions “Too many / too much time with Agile meetings”. Interrupts add to that feeling/sense of the lack of time. This may be acute for the members who have more experience and are subject matter experts. Scrum teams are expected to swarm and that is beneficial, but at times there can be a lot of buzz, with people being busy and showing less progress on the work.

The above has come up frequently in my role as a coach, brought to the fore by the team members, Scrum Masters and Leaders at different times. It gets highlighted during retrospectives at times.

I will tell a real-life story from before the Agile days, something that I experienced which drives home the point and helps the challenged members come up with a solution.

The story

Years back there was a set of work items related to a flagship product that needed to be completed, it was pending for a long time. Vijay the architect offered to get the work items done in a couple of months, if he could get a few freshers to work with him. This was just after a campus recruitment drive and a team comprising of Vijay and four freshers was formed to have a go at it. It was a wonderful induction exercise too.

In the first review after a fortnight, we saw that the new joinees had made good progress on their tasks, whereas Vijay was lagging on his tasks. Vijay was constantly being interrupted by the enthusiastic team members and was unable to focus on his work. He shared the same in the review meet.

The team was quick to understand this. One of the team members, Sangeeta came up with the idea to not disturb Vijay till lunch time. They decided to collate their queries and approach him only after the lunch break. This sounded like a good idea and was adopted. It had an amazing impact and also provided Vijay and the team with a very valuable lesson.

Vijay set aside a few hours after the lunch to address the team members’ questions and look at their issues. He was pleasantly surprised to discover that that he needed just half the time that he had spent before with the team. He could get back to his work faster and was able to make good progress.

In the next review meet the progress was impressive. We figured the few things that were happening differently when a team member had a query or a block:

  • Initial response would be to wait till Vijay is available at lunch break. The wait being long would push them to try out a few things and often they could resolve/progress
  • Sometimes two of them would get together and lament on the wait, in the process they would discuss the issues and often work out a resolution together
  • Sometimes they would stop work and pick up a different work item and progress on that.
  • Every resolution they made, boosted their learning and confidence

A very simple story which has never failed to have the desired impact whenever I coached many other teams facing similar bandwidth issues. One realizes that having easy access to a Subject Matter Expert can be detrimental, if the SME and team member are not mindful of the impact of the interrupts and multitasking.

I also walk them through or refer them to the Critical Chain method which talks of multitasking and a few other related concepts.

Outcome

The teams have come up with different approaches to get over this issue and get focused and uninterrupted time to accomplish their tasks.

The most common is to have Do Not Disturb times per team or per individual.

More evolved solutions are teams leverage the collaboration tools, posting their queries in them. The team members look into it at their chosen time and respond.

It is useful that the team understands the need for Focus which is necessary to meet Commitments and the negative impact that interrupts and multitasking can have. I encourage the team to build this into their team norms/working agreement and review it periodically.

Have you come across something along the same lines? Would love to hear about your experiences.

Vasu

“Focus” by toolstop is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/