Lean Web Operations  —  Planning for the Unpredictable (III)

Published 2017-11-16 by Jochen Lillich

Our business is managed hosting, so keeping our web operations work in flow is essential. In this article series, I’m sharing what we’ve learned in that regard.

Hand with compass

How we learned to make quick decisions

In the introduction to this series, I mentioned my faith in incremental progress: “Reaching a destination is simply taking one step after another.” In hindsight, that confidence was pretty naive. We had to find out the hard way that even the best hikers will eventually break down from exhaustion instead of reaching their destination if all they do is walk in circles and take detours.

And detours we were taking many. We were like a group of engineers dropped into a desert of backlog tasks without a compass. Every project seemed as important, every decision as right as the other. So we just kept on working, even when times got tough. And more often than not, we worked quite efficiently.

That’s where a classic distinction comes in: When you work efficiently, you’re doing thethings right. That’s great, but it will only yield the results you want to achieve if you’re also working effectively, doing theright things. As Peter Drucker says:

“There is nothing as useless as doing efficiently that what should not be done at all.”

So it turns out that many small steps will get you there only if you’re heading in the right direction. We lacked this direction most of the time because we didn’t have a robust way of making decisions where to go. Almost every “project of the month” quickly got replaced before we were able to finish it because another project came along that we deemed more urgent. And without any project portfolio management, many of the projects we dropped eventually got lost in the fray.

To decide which important project was more important than the other important projects, we needed a ranking algorithm. Luckily, right at that time Intercom published their method in an article titled “RICE: Simple prioritisation for product managers”. The acronym RICE stands for the criteria “Reach”, “Impact”, “Confidence” and “Effort” that determine a project’s ranking with the help of a simple formula. After you’ve decided the four values for a project, the formula gives you a priority score. Then you just start working on the project with the highest priority. And when you’re finished, you tackle the next in line.

Having a project ranking method that requires neither expert knowledge nor time-consuming valuations made all the difference for us. Over a few months of working with the RICE formula, I adapted it to our needs, replacing some of the variables but still keeping with the acronym. Here’s what we’re working with now:

priority = R x I x C - E

And this is what the four variables mean:

  • Relevance(Why should we do it?)
  • Impact(How big is its effect?)
  • Confidence(How much have you thought it through?)
  • Effort(What will it cost us?)

Effort is simply the estimated number of work days required for shipping the project. Practice tip: There are many established estimation methods that prevent haggling about single days plus or minus, for example by only allowing Fibonacci Numbers. Constraining the range of values for the other variables further reduces the time spent with prioritization.

For Relevance, we select a value from the following list:

  • 5 = business-critical
  • 4 = eliminates high risk
  • 3 = creates new opportunity
  • 2 = eliminates medium risk
  • 1 = improves efficiency

There are even less alternatives for Impact:

  • 3 = fundamental
  • 2 = major
  • 1 = incremental

And although Confidenceis a percentage, there are again only three discreet values to choose from:

  • 100% = full confidence
  • 80% = high confidence
  • 50% = low confidence

Limiting the decision space in this way greatly simplifies the ranking process. Applying values to newly added projects and checking if existing projects need an update now only takes us a few minutes.

What I’ve left out in the ranking formula above for simplicity’s sake is that we also apply a weight factor to each variable. Relevancehas the biggest weight, followed by Impact; they’re quite obviously the most significant ranking factors. However, low Confidenceand high Effortcan sometimes trigger a “low-hanging fruit effect” where the algorithm actually assigns a higher score to a project which carries a bit less Relevancebut has a better chance of being quick to finish.

The RICE project ranking formula gives us confidence that we’re always taking on the next most effective project. The peace of mind we’ve gained by introducing this method is a very welcome change. Gone are the times of desperately trying to make sense of a huge list of projects each of which feel long overdue. Gone is the second-guessing if we shouldn’t promote some shiny project despite the fact that it didn’t seem to carry too much importance last time around.

At this point in my series, I’ve explained two major changes in managing our work:

  1. The RICE formula makes sure we’re taking on the most effective projects.
  2. We’re making constant progress on these projects because the Kanban board keeps us focused.

These changes had an immediate, perceptible effect on team morale. Knowing that your efforts create value instead of vanishing into thin air makes a huge difference. Suddenly, there was a purpose beyond being busy. While this was obvious to me from the start, it took a lot of work to make it reality.

Now, if only there weren’t these terrible interruptions! After all, what use is there in finally having a clear direction and a team willing to go the extra mile if unplanned stuff keeps throwing sticks between their legs every single step of the way? I’m happy to say that we’ve finally figured out how to deal with interruptions, and I’m going to describe our approach in the next part of this series.