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Product Management

Your Time Is A Finite Resource

On the face of it, Shape Up is a framework for IT project management. It talks about backlogs, how developers and designers should slice projects and about stubbing an interface to figure out affordances before a complete visual design. Beneath that surface, though, lie basic truths about work and project management that I believe could have tremendous effects on the work in other business functions and teams.

For example, take the notion of No Backlogs. For my work as a product manager, it’s had a couple of consequences. We take on development projects that have a clear end in sight and with a mindset that it’s OK if we only work on this problem for one cycle (= 6 weeks) and are then free move on to something completely else. Or consider the consequences of submitting Pitches to the Betting Table, where a collection of projects for an upcoming cycle of work is bet on. To everyone involved, it is unquestionably clear that there’s only so much we can do in 6 weeks, given the people that we have. There’s things that we believe are worth more resources or less resources. So we specify an “Appetite” for a given project, which is to say: “How many people should work on this for how long, and not longer?”

If we want to do one thing, it’s always clear that this means we will not be doing something else.

In our work as a product and engineering team, these concepts have provided us with such focus and intentionality about what we do and do not work on at any given point in time, that it’s become a basic expectation for me to be working this way.

But a recent interaction at work reminded me that this is not at all the reality for other teams. Even though they don’t call it that, those teams (from functions like marketing, operations or business development) usually operate as if they had a public backlog and are in a constant sprint. Any request that comes in is just added to the list, and when it comes up, is executed. “Yes!” is the default answer to any task.

For their sake, I wish they too would see their time as finite, would see trade-offs in what they work on. This is the power of committing to any time box that constrains you. Without those clearly visible constraints, like a 6-week-cycle, you just say yes and step on the hamster wheel of meaningless, unintentional work. This is also the power of committing to a healthy 40-hour-week. If something comes up that you want to say “Yes!” to, then this means you’ll have to say “No!” to something else you had previously planned.

My time is finite, and knowing it makes my work so much more intentional.