Invest. 5 minutes at a time

The white rabbit

Emmanuel Gaillot has written a brilliant blog post about getting out of vicious cycles. It’s easy (for an outsider and to most insiders) to see when a team is in trouble, spiralling down towards a crash. If you’ve got a bit of experience in agile methods, you can come up with several ways to get out of trouble. Most of these changes involve going slower to recover some of the debt you’ve accumulated. But, like the White Rabbit, time is something these troubled teams don’t have. What now?

Emmanuel shows how you can start by “borrowing” 5 minutes of your employer’s time. Don’t ask for permission. Don’t tell anyone. Just do it. Invest those 5 minutes in some improvement, preferably on a bottleneck. Watch how this improvement saves you time. Reinvest that time into another small improvement. Before you know it, you’re reversing the vicious spiral and turning it into a virtuous cycle.

Now, we’ve all seen (or been part of) these teams where there’s never enough time. That’s the surest sign of a team in trouble: when they start saying “We don’t have any time to…”. That’s when they most need to take the time, slow down to go faster. It sounds paradoxical, but it works. I once gave a team the advice to dedicate half of their iteration to “debt-paying” work: refactoring, bringing the disused unit tests back, automating deployment. This team’s velocity had been dropping faster and faster each iteration. Slowing down was hard for this team’s leader to sell, but they had the courage to do it and they got back to a reasonable velocity. Don’t let your team get this far behind. Invest a few minutes now to save half an iteration later.

This reminds me of something Jim McCarthy says in the first of his “23.5 rules of thumb ot ship software”: people come up to him and tell him: “Great talk, Jim. But you’re talking to the wrong guy. You should be talking to my boss.” Jim’s reply is “I’m talking to exactly the right guy!”. It is your job to improve things around here. You can’t wait for someone else to do it for you. Do something. Do it now. What’s five minutes?