BONUS: Mastering Work Intake For Agile Teams with Tom Cagley and Jeremy Willets

In this BONUS episode, Tom and Jeremy discuss the main ideas from their latest book on agile transformation and work intake management: Mastering Work Intake: From Chaos to Predictable Delivery. They share some of the main the challenges teams face when trying to adopt agile practices and offer practical strategies for improving work intake processes.

The Trigger for the Book

“Most people who try to transform and be agile don’t do it well. They fail multiple times because they say ‘yes’ to everything, which is a lack of control on work intake.”

Tom emphasizes that many teams struggle with agile transformation, often due to poor management of work intake. He has built a career helping teams that have attempted and failed at this multiple times. The main issue is that they end up saying “yes” to every request, leading to a chaotic work environment, lots of work started, and very little finished.

“We got started during the pandemic. We looked at many books on the topic and saw that it wasn’t tackled very well. ‘Actionable Agile’ and ‘Why Limit WIP’ by Jim Benson inspired us.”

Defining Work Intake and avoiding common mistakes

“We are drowning in work. We use metaphors to define work intake and see that work always finds a way to get done. Initially, we titled this book ‘Work Entry’ because of the idea that work is pushed to people, who naturally say ‘yes’ because they want to help.”

“Work has a way of getting started. Recently, I had water in my basement. I didn’t know where it came from, but the water found a way in. We see this over and over at work. Work just gets in, often because saying ‘no’ feels career-limiting.”

Tom likens unmanaged work intake to water leaking into a basement—inevitable and hard to control. This analogy underscores how work finds its way into a team’s backlog, often because rejecting tasks seems risky.

“Jumping the queue is a very common mistake. Important work always gets done, but we don’t always go through the process of identifying what’s truly important. This leads to ‘fast switching’ between tasks and ‘neglected WIP.'”

Tom highlights the mistake of allowing work to bypass proper prioritization, leading to constant context switching, which makes teams slow, and neglected tasks which rarely or never get completed.

“The goal conflict anti-pattern is another issue. Much of work intake is about the relationships that lead to decision-making.”

Jeremy discusses how conflicting goals and poor relationship management can lead to self-defeating work intake processes.

Key Strategies for Managing Work Intake, and Avoiding the Over-Planning Anti-pattern

“In the book, we present patterns to handle intake management and discuss the Product Owner’s (PO) role. The PO is critical for managing work intake in Scrum, requiring discipline from both the PO and the team.”

Jeremy outlines the importance of having a disciplined Product Owner to manage work intake effectively.

“The problem of team design often causes issues. Many teams work on features while supporting systems that deliver value to customers. This lack of focus is problematic. Building a solid DevOps framework is crucial.”

“Agility means flexibility. We need to prioritize and select work more frequently, getting feedback often to determine if the work is necessary. Refer to ‘Lean Startup’ for more insights.”

Jeremy advocates for flexibility and frequent prioritization over rigid, upfront planning.

“Mapping who is involved in work intake decisions is key. Understanding the feedback loop and how it’s integrated into decision-making helps manage work intake better.”

Tom emphasizes the importance of understanding decision-making processes and who are the stakeholders, to be able to improve those processes through collaboration.

Different Types of Work Mean Different Decision Making!

“People work on features, defects, support, etc. Each requires different management patterns. Recognizing team constraints is crucial for effective work intake.”

Tom explains the need for tailored strategies for different types of work, based on team constraints. Only this “whitebox” approach to work management can help us build a work intake process that helps us manage the work in a way that leads to faster deliveries and more productivity.

As an example, Tom and Jeremy share a story about a company wanting to move to the cloud. Unfortunately, the CEO’s decision overlooked the engineers’ lack of skills, which led to big problems. This story puts emphasis on the importance of aligning work intake with team capabilities.

A Top Tip: Be Mindful and Deliberate About Accepting Work Into Your Backlog!

“We help teams be deliberate about work acceptance by emphasizing relationships and decision-making processes. Effective work intake management reduces disruptions.”

Tips For Product Owners

“Manage work intake across the entire product. It’s more than just planning.” 

“PO is an active role. Help the team make decisions and sequence work.”

Tips For Scrum Masters

“Don’t overlook work intake. Involvement in this aspect is crucial to avoid anti-patterns.” “Defend team boundaries to control work intake.”

The Impact of Applying These Ideas

“It would be a lot calmer and more orderly.”

“We would get a lot more things done, avoiding the anti-pattern of rewarding work starts over finishes.”

About Tom and Jeremy

Tom Cagley is an experienced agile coach and consultant specializing in helping teams manage work intake and improve their agile practices.

You can link with Tom Cagley on LinkedIn. You can also listen to Tom’s podcast, the SPAMCast.

Jeremy Willets is a seasoned agile practitioner and author who has collaborated with Tom on numerous projects, including this book.

You can link with Jeremy Willets on LinkedIn.

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