Many Hands Make Light Work

A Post in The Burndown Journey.
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Matthew Gordon
Matthew Gordon - February 23, 2022

Answering the big picture questions correctly requires having up to date data in your project management tool. You can't know when a project will be completed without knowing what work has been done, can you?

There are two ways to make sure your data is up to date:

  1. Have the project manager update everything
  2. Have each person on the team do a little bit

We strongly prefer having each person on the team do a little bit, because many hands make light work. Unfortunately, if you're trying to use The Details to answer your big picture questions, the effort required to get and keep your data up to date can be enormous regardless of which you choose. Let's talk about what happens.

The Project Manager Does It

You don't want to burden the people doing the work with extra chores, so it's the Project Manager's job to keep all the data up to date. That includes, but isn't limited to,

  • Updating ticket/task/todo/what-have-you descriptions
    • What's the current progress on this ticket?
    • Is it going well? Poorly?
  • Updating ticket states
    • Is all of the in progress work marked as started?
    • Is all of the finished work marked as completed?
  • Processing new tickets into the schedule
    • Are any of the new tickets duplicates?
    • Do they need to be done as part of this milestone/sprint/work-grouping-term-of-choice?

Not only is that a lot of work to centralize on one person, but it's even more burden for the PM to answer these questions because they don't really have any good way to know the answers. How does a PM know if a ticket is going well? They ask the people working on it. How does the PM know if a ticket needs to be marked as completed? They ask the people working on it. How does the PM know if a new ticket is a duplicate of an existing one? Mayyybe they can rely on the description, but it's safer to ask the people working on it. The PM might overlook an important distinction that the person actually doing the work would not.

Of course, the PM doesn't want to ask the people doing the work a bunch of questions. The whole point of having the PM update the data is to avoid interrupting the team. So, compromise. Sometimes the PM interrupts the project work and sometimes they make an educated guess. The interruptions still create the problems with context switching you were trying to avoid and the educated guesses introduce potential for big problems when answering big picture questions.

The Team Does It

If the team is going to be interrupted anyway, should they just be responsible for updating everything? Probably not.

On the one hand, it's true that they can answer the above questions much easier than the PM because they're actually doing the work. It's also generally much faster for the team to do the updating, because they already have all the knowledge they need to update and process all the tickets.

On the other hand, it also means that all the project work is interrupted whenever someone needs to answer big picture questions, so it's going to cost a lot more than having the PM do it. Project work often requires significant concentration and it takes time to build up to a productive speed. Stopping everyone on a team to update their tickets might only take 10 or 15 minutes, but it's almost certainly going to cost many more hours of productive time.

It's Too Much Work

It's true that many hands make light(er) work, but the amount of work matters. When you're depending on the details to be up to date to answer big picture questions, you're dividing up a lot of work. Too much work, in my opinion, and it's entirely avoidable. Answering big picture questions should only require updating big picture information, never anything as detailed as tickets. With the Big Picture focus of Burndown, we provide a few simple workflows that completely avoid the accuracy vs. tedium dilemma created by using a details system. One minute of time from each team member every day or three is all it should take to have a perfectly accurate description of your work. We'll dig into the details as we start posting product designs.

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