Where Tasks and Projects Go To Die

A Post in The Burndown Journey.
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Matthew Gordon
Matthew Gordon - March 25, 2022

In my ~20 years of software consulting and product work, there is one thing that's always true about every team I've ever seen: there is a graveyard of tasks and/or projects that everyone knows will never actually be worked on.

The graveyard can take many forms

  • a list (or many lists) of things "to be done later"; the list(s) may be public or private
  • a milestone that's technically on the schedule, but every new project is always scheduled in front of it
  • an "active" project that no one looks at
  • a competing system that's often overlooked during planning (e.g. "We mostly put things in Asana, but you can also put things on this Trello board if you want….")

If you were excited for me to tell you how to eliminate the graveyard, I'm going to disappoint you a little. I think the graveyard is an inevitable consequence of tracking the details of day to day project work. There's no stopping it. It's much easier to think of things to do than it is to do them, so any system designed to accumulate todos is eventually going to have a lot more work than can possibly be accomplished by the team doing the work.

The graveyard is usually not a problem for day to day work, but it can become a real problem when trying to answer big picture questions. Since Burndown is focused on the big picture, we have a firm policy: no graveyards allowed.

What's wrong with having a graveyard?

When I wrote about scheduling important work first, I mentioned that hidden disagreements frequently prevent important work from happening. The graveyard is a magnet for hidden disagreements. Maybe you and most of the people on your team understand that Milestone XYZ has been on the schedule "just around the corner" for years, but the new head of sales doesn't know that. She expects it to be done and builds a plan around it, only for it to repeatedly slip into the future.

The truth is that anything that looks like it's part of the plan will eventually come to be depended on by someone. When that happens, a lot of time, money, and happiness is wasted finding and fixing the disagreement.

How do I avoid the graveyard problem?

There are three key things you can do to avoid having your graveyard create problems for you.

  1. Keep the big picture separate from the details

    Like I said above, there will always be a graveyard in your details system. If you use your details system to answer your big picture questions, it's almost inevitable that the graveyard is going to creep into your decision making. The best suggestion I can make is to proactively label and talk about the graveyard. If you're consciously aware of it, you can at least make some effort to keep it separate. If you use Burndown, your project details are separate from the big picture by default.

  2. All active projects must be on the schedule

    It's common for work to be in various shades of "active" and "planned". There are good reasons why this happens, but it generally leads to confusion. You can avoid that confusion pretty easily. If you intend for a project to happen, it must be on the schedule. If it's not on the schedule, it shouldn't be worked on by anyone.

    In fact, this is one the key questions I use to determine the quality of a team's project management: How closely does the work being done actually match the scheduled work?

    When people routinely do work outside of the schedule, there's a big opportunity to make inefficient or counter-productive choices (e.g cherry pick a pet project from the graveyard). You can probably make sure all active projects are on the schedule in your current project management tool if you work hard enough, but Burndown does it for you automatically.

  3. Avoid scheduling far into the future

    On a long enough timeline, "later" is the same as "never". Exactly how far into the future that is depends on your team and your business. If you work at a tech startup constantly making big changes to market feedback, anything you have scheduled three months from now is probably never going to happen. If you work at an established architecture firm, you might have confidence in your schedule a year from now because those clients have paid you a great deal of money to hold their place. The people on your team have an intuitive sense of how confident you are a particular project is going to happen. Past a certain point, the probability a project will get canceled or pushed back gets high enough for people to start assuming it won't happen. Of course, not everyone is going to agree on which projects are likely to get canceled. Burndown won't solve this one automatically, but we're planning features to help you figure out what timeline you and your team can feel confident about. In your current project management tool, think about when the last scheduled project will be completed. Does that sound ridiculously far into the future to you? Do you actually believe it will get done? Consider pruning the schedule down to something you and your team actually believe will happen.

I realize those might be some big asks depending on your current tools. That's why we're making Burndown. I hope you'll stay with us as we launch and let us know what you think!

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