Strangely, although people routinely overburden themselves with work, their first objection to limiting work-in-progress is “don’t all my tasks need to be the same size? How do I size my work?” They hear the possibility that we can get more work done in a system where we see our work and focus on completion, but they are doubtful that this is enough.
So, after never paying attention to your work at all, now you want to be a superhuman estimator as well?
Ultimately, for me, I recommend not paying attention to task size at all at first. Wait until you actually see your work flow for a while.
But, at some point, you will start to get a little more sophisticated and start to really wonder about task sizes.
In this video, Stephen Covey plays a game where he coerces this apparent executive to place rocks in a tub. The goal is to put in the big rocks after all the little tasks have been achieved. The little tasks can be seen as interruptions, distractions, or the day-to-day minutia of working.
The end-result is that it is, of course, easier to plan for the big rocks (by putting them in first) and there’s still plenty of capacity for the little rocks to fit into the nooks and crannies.
I really love Stephen Covey and have gained mightily from his insights. However here, we can see a few flaws and they related precisely to our fears about task sizing and estimation. (Go on, watch the video, then come back to this…)
Planning for the Big Rocks
Our issue here is that we are trying to size elements (little rocks) of larger concepts (big rocks) without fully understanding the larger concepts. How many of us focus on the task we are assigned, but don’t question the overall project? How many of us get bogged down in a task and then notice the deadline looming and say, “I’ll make up for this delay later?” How many of us take on a two-hour project that we work on for two-days?
In short, we can’t really distinguish big and little rocks.
We end up focusing on the size of tasks and not the flow of tasks. We wonder what the cost of delay is, but we can’t measure it because there is no flow for the delay to impact.
Covey is making the same mistake most people make, he thinks those things are ROCKS. This implies that they have definite shape, weight, and color. Corporate planning is not a solid, it is a gas. It will fill the space you provide. If you give Covey’s rocks no definition, they will swell up and overflow your big plastic tub. (Am I really posting about gaseous rocks?)
This tortured analogy is necessary only because we all simultaneously conceive of projects as definite and without form. We recognize the number of unknowns. We make plans and they scare us. The more scared we are, the more we try to tightly control our projects. This is like bearhugging a water balloon. At some point we control too much (hug too tightly) and it explodes all over us. Then we get frustrated and blame the balloon. (more analogies!)
Better the Bucket
Projects are actually the bucket. Tasks are the rocks. Most tasks, as Covey shows, are pebbles. They flow through our day as easily, and as awkwardly, as they did when she poured them in at the end. Most flew right on in, but every so often she had to stop and shake the bucket.
That made everyone laugh, and it made her and Covey grin conspiratorial little grins.
Why? Because it was awkward.
And so is our work.
In the end, the size of any of those tasks didn’t matter a bit. What did matter is she devised a system that noted that there were observable differences in her task types. She put one task type in first, in a deliberate way, and then allowed the other task type to flow. In this case it was physical size.
In other cases it could be something else.
Context Has a Size
Tasks all have context that relate to our concept of their size. If I told you, your task was to walk into the next room and get something I just printed out of the printer, you’d estimate the size of that task to be small. If the next room involved crossing a pool filled with crocodiles, you might be surprised when it took you longer.
The politics, emotional weight, and implementation details of the seemingly smallest task can prove to be gigantic. We simply won’t know until we understand the system. When she understood Covey’s system, she changed her approach to work.
Size might matter.
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