Stages of a task: Back to the basics



Somewhere in my career, I came across the realization, just because there is a right way of doing things, and I am doing it, doesn’t mean it’s the only way of doing it!

For example, I came to find if I type/write as the meeting goes on, I can prevent myself from daydreaming. I concluded those who didn’t either were not schooled in the technique or were just not interested in what was going on. Of course, I was wrong, some write notes after synthesizing only the essential points, and there are incredibly bright individuals out there who don’t need to write a single letter the whole meeting yet will remember precisely what was said.

Underlying whatever practices we chose to adopt, there are several ideas so fundamental, almost all effective methods build on top of them. Years ago I discussed what that might be for agile:

In this entry, we will be looking at how to think about the various states of a task. I hope you find the ideas here as useful as I have.

The Inbox

The human brain wants everything done NOW. If you ever get a hunch, for example, you want the idea implemented immediately. Since the physical world carries a limitation on the number of things we can do, we learn to make a mental note to do it sometime later or even worse push the pesky idea out of your head. At least that’s how I did it until I came across the concept of the Inbox.

The Inbox is an infinite list of all you can do sometime in the future.

It’s everywhere, just after you have had your lunch, the empty dirty plate sitting in front of you is now part of your Inbox. The email you just received from your boss is part of your Inbox, so is the missed call.

As a newly minted leader, you will soon face an incredible inflow of new items. Creating a list with all the items to be done should help immediately calm you down as you now no longer have to think of all that you are not doing but rather have the much higher level (hopefully to match your higher salary) task of choosing the most important things to do!

Taking us to the next step.

In Progress

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.

I am not sure if it’s Einstein who said it, but it conveys my point. You don’t have infinite capacity. This simple fact doesn’t change, no matter how big your team is.

The implication being you must select some items from your Inbox (remember this is an infinite list) and put some of it in your In Progress list.

Your In Progress ideally is bounded. For most teams, it’s per week and for software teams two weeks. Yes, this is what is called a sprint.

You must always carefully monitor your In Progress work. If you can’t do it all, then actively remove items from it back to an Inbox, Waiting or On-Hold. We will discuss the states mentioned here next.

In Waiting

I find the term independent man or woman to be an oxymoron. Nothing, indeed no human can survive outside of an accommodating synergetic environment. Are you feeling some indignation? Perhaps consider the device you are using to read this piece, think of all the people who were involved in the design, manufacture, and distribution. Even if you somehow did all these activities, you would still need to charge the dang thing and have other people organize for its connection to the internet.

As you move to higher positions within your organization, this reality will arise from the background to hit you as you realize there is almost nothing you can do without the cooperation of others. Everything you send out ends up first in their Inbox before making its way into the In Progress. So how does that task sit from your side in the meantime? In Waiting

For example, If you are busy doing your development work and come across a page which needs a designer, say the payment receipt. The new task now flows to design. To declutter your job, move it to the In Waiting list.

Sometimes, things get stuck In Waiting, not because of another party, but simply because you need to wait for an event to happen or uncertainty to resolve. For example, if you are waiting for a specific day to reach before say banking the post-dated cheque.

On Hold

If the In Waiting had a grandfather, it would be the On Hold state.

A task graduates to this state when the time horizon for this task is unknowable or so great, you do not need to worry about it, for now, there is nothing you can do about it.

For example, if you have applied for a job in a big corporation, they may take months to get back to you. There is no need to clutter your In Progress with this kind of work thou technically it is there

Will not do

As I mentioned earlier, the Inbox is a list of all you “can” do, not all that you “will” do. Not everything you set out to do turns out to be worth the time and effort.

Perhaps you had a plan to watch a movie, on the way, your friend tells you the plot. Aside from educating your friend one or two things about spoilers, you also need to update your task to now become “Will not do.”

You can also land on this state if a significant change happens in your life, which means your priorities changes, and out goes most of the tasks. For example, if your company fires you, a lot of functions suddenly change state to this one.


Finally! The most pleasant state. As work moves through your stream, it will eventually achieve a “Done” state. The task met its objectives, or at the very least, there is nothing more you can do.

The feature is now in production! Congratulations!

A note on tools

Board tools such as Trello or even your plain old wall split into “Todo, Doing, Done” are effective at managing all this.

In my opinion thou, I find some states need more attention than others. More specifically, the In Progress state. Since the tasks in this state represent commitments made either to others or yourself, you must budget for them in your calendar and wallet.

There is no point in having an In Progress task to buy a car if you don’t have the cash. Also, if you don’t have the time cut out, then tasks here will never get done.

Finally, It’s ok to have nothing literally on in Progress, sometimes we all need a break.

Did you find the piece interesting? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex



The value of clear goals


As the business I work for has scaled, we have found ourselves in a situation where we rapidly need to grow the technology team. In this scenario, we have come to see the limiting factor is how fast we can nurture new leaders within the organization. For context, the tech team is organized to have small groups of 4-6 people led with a subject-matter expert team lead.

For our newly minted team lead, I need to take them through the ropes, especially if they are a first time manager. Even if they aren’t, we need to instill in them how we view leadership.

If you imagined we do some Nyamachoma or a related team building activity, you would be wrong. The first task we set out to do is to articulate the defining and setting of clear goals for the leader and their team.

In this entry, I will be discussing why we consider goal-setting to be the most critical activity for a team.

Eliminate politics

In the absence of something to aim for, people generally result to irrational self-interested behavior. In truth beyond the smallest businesses, the activities and aims of the organization are beyond the reach of individual contributors.

Sure, you may have an inspiring vision, but if you are customer support agent in Google Adsense division, what exactly are you supposed to do with “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”?

This ambiguity means the measure of work rapidly falls to the level of who receives the most accolades from the boss or whoever can warm the office seat the longest.

Mutual accountability

I have had a varied gym relationship, filled with “on” and “offs”, mostly “offs”, but that is a story for another day. The point is when trying to understand why it’s so hard to sweat it out for 30 minutes, I came across the concept of a gym buddy. For the time my brother and I went to the gym together, I experienced my longest “on” streak.

You can employ the same principles which make this system work to your teams. Think about this way, to them you are just a boss, overpaid and didn’t do any actual work. Their colleagues, on the other hand, are comrades, they sweat it out together to bring the sprint to fruition. As you can imagine, much loyalty abounds in these relationships.

With clear goals, you can tap into this dynamic. Every team member can see what the others are doing to accomplish shared goals, and they don’t want to be the ones viewed as slacking off. If an individual decides to be a loafer, peer pressure works for you as they receive the stink eye from their colleagues.

Grow leaders

In one of the leadership syncs, the sourcing manager quipped at how happy she now is to see the table full. For context, she was one of the earlier employees, doing the start-up work from tuk-tuks to now leading a 100+ organization. Still, I wondered why the comment. She went on to explain, before we came she had to do everything, to think of everything now, there was a whole team of colleagues.

You can not scale any organization if you can’t grow leaders.

By challenging your team to set clear goals for themselves which align with overall company goals, they start to understand the concept of what it takes to honestly ask themselves “What can I do that will benefit this community I am a part of.” In this way, you forge the next great leaders.

What to look out for

Finally, it’s essential to look at the two things you should never do when setting your goals: impossible goals, and mutually unachievable goals.

Stretch goals are great; they help teams do better than they thought they could. However, when you stretch the goal past the level a human being can accomplish, you lead your group straight to the death march.

The death march is a situation where everyone knows the goals will not be achieved, but you as the leaders don’t acknowledge it. Under this reality, work seems to be going on, but everyone is demotivated and stressed at the same time. Don’t do this to your worst enemy.

Mutually unachievable goals refer to situations where there is just nothing you can do to achieve both. For example, insisting this coming quarter, your QA team catches twice the amount of bugs as well as committing the senior members within the same time to scout out new QA software which will take most of their time in the same quarter. The benefits accrued from the latest technology may achieve the former feat, but the goal just can’t be completed in the quarter, perhaps at best the next one.

Do you have clear goals for your team? How do you set them? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchex


How to manage schedule risk

In one of our usual catchups, I was having a chat with one of our engineering leads, casually explaining a feature request we had received from our sales organization. As a team, most of our clients are internal, and we are always happy to receive such feedback. It came in as a mild shock when the response was we wouldn’t be implementing this feature. I knew it wasn’t a matter of time; we had processes to handle long term as well as delight features. So why the no?

In the same casual tone, he went on to explain a viable scenario where with the feature implemented, the interaction between sales and finance systems would grind to a halt, and we would then need to push an Android update. In short, the feature delivered nothing more than delight value but had the potential to stop the entire business!

I moved on from this conversation with even more respect for this individual; this truly is the mark of great leadership.

In this entry, I will be discussing a bit more about risk and how you can relate to it within your engineering organization.

Be clear

Risk is such an ambiguous concept. You can’t see, touch, smell, hear or taste it. Even intellectually grasping it is a hard endeavor.

It is easy to ignore such things. After all, do you really want to be the Grimm at the project kick-off party?

Still, it’s essential to enumerate your risks and the likelihood the risk will materialize. It doesn’t need to be a long or formal document. Frankly, even if you drop the likelihood calculation, just the fact that the possibilities are on top of your mind is well worth the effort.

If you already do this, pat yourself on the back. Now, to the more difficult task. How do you know the risk has materialized?

Suppose in your risk register, you had “Developer leaves team” and “Vendor X stops supporting Y library.” You may say, well, of course, we will know when these risks have materialized. Once you dig a bit deeper, you will see how this belief is flawed in an insidious way.

Let’s take the first case. Most organizations have a reasonable notice period before you can leave, for an engineering manager, this is cheap comfort. When a team member has decided to move on from your business, all sense of initiative goes out of the window. What you now have is not the whole brained, energetic, committed dev you used to know, rather a by the book, can’t wait till 5pm, does minimum work to get it done lad. In short, your ambitious schedule is f*ckd!

Have a contingency plan

If you have a risk register and have not thought through how you will handle the risks, then in essence what you have is a glorified worry list.

I have come to see risk as having a fascinating characteristic. Once it becomes obvious, a risk will transition then what you need to do becomes obvious but mitigating it, if at all possible can only be done at a high cost. Before a risk is obvious, what you need to do is less obvious, but it can be done much more cheaply.

To illustrate the point, think of an app that failed in production because it runs out of memory. In this case, once it becomes manifest the event is happening, there is little else you can do if you are stuck in a VM type of architecture, scale it, and the application quickly eats through the new RAM. In short, what you need to do is visible but very expensive. If you had thought about this problem when the app was still in Greenfield, you then wouldn’t know if the risk would ever materialize, but solving it would have been as easy as say, choosing a different programming language, or going cloud-native.

You obviously can’t plan for all risks, but if you can select the risks with the most significant impact and the chance of happening. You maximize your chances of being able to sail through the worst of the storm or better yet, avoiding it altogether.

Did it happen to your peers

In Swahili, there is a saying

“Ukiona mwenzio ananyolewa, zako tia maji”.

Roughly translated, if you see your neighbor getting shaved, you better start wetting your own hair.

The point here is if other smart people have tried to solve the problem you are now embarking on without success, and you can not clearly articulate why they failed, there is probably an underlying structural issue.

An example here is the Kenyan cashless markets. Almost all international players come in with a firm intention only to accept online payments via credit cards, soon this softens to Mpesa, and for those that thrive, cash makes its way back into their model. I am not saying I understand why pure cashless doesn’t work or that it will not work, maybe even sooner than we think. What I am saying is, if you are entering the market now, you are well advised to consider lessons of your predecessors.

To get started, you can think of some of these risks, almost every leader in a tech organization I know has had to face some variant of.

  1. Developer leaves your team
  2. An essential vendor/library drops support suddenly
  3. The client gets new ideas as the project starts shaping up

How do you manage risk in your own organization?  Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob or my twitter @jchexv