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Staying Responsive While Working on Long-term Initiatives

Staying Responsive While Working on Long-term Initiatives

by Željko Ilić

What’s a healthy balance between staying on top of strategic initiatives and being highly responsive to ad hoc work? Read on to find out...

Smallpdf’s Mobile team has managed to strike a healthy balance between staying on top of strategic initiatives and being highly responsive to ad hoc work. Željko Ilić, Mobile Experience Engineering Manager, shares the team’s experience.

Work Prioritization & Risks

 

Work in product teams can be roughly classified as long-term initiatives, small improvements, and ad hoc items. Long-term initiatives include roadmap items and research efforts, which can span over multiple quarters, whereas small tasks or improvements can be feature iterations that are too small to be included in roadmaps. Finally, ad hoc work can include issues like bugs, maintenance, requests, and inquiries from other teams.

Long-Term Initiatives

 

On one hand, it’s important to prioritize those long-term initiatives that can make a substantial impact on the product and deliver value to users. But when focusing only on those long-term initiatives, the team runs the risk of slowly leaning more towards a waterfall methodology, a front-loaded approach that relies heavily on a linear flow of work from the start to the end of a ‌project.

Even though this methodology has its merits, in many cases, it can bring about less flexibility, longer cycle time, and less visible progress, which can adversely affect the team’s motivation.

Small Tasks & Ad Hoc Work

 

Focusing only small tasks, on the other hand, can lead the team towards a more reactive state, where work is prioritized mostly in line with urgency and effort. Working like this can create an environment where the team becomes trapped in a short-term perspective, never being able to focus on strategic direction or delivering any significant impact.

Striking a Balance

 

Considering the problems that come with each of the above-mentioned approaches, it’s clear that in order to deliver reliable and impactful output, it’s important to find a balance between these initiatives and how they’re tackled.

Setting up an Effective Team

 

The Mobile Experience team at Smallpdf team comprises four iOS and four Android engineers. This number of engineers gives the team enough flexibility to divide the work into two streams:

  • Long-term initiatives
  • Fast lane initiatives

Every sprint, one engineer per platform is assigned to work on the fast lane initiatives. This assignment is rotated evenly but can depend on the expected workload and availability. While the rest of the team works on long-term initiatives with fewer interruptions, the assigned engineers are responsible for responding to ad hoc requests quickly and working on small tasks and improvements.

Organizing & Tracking the Work

 

Planning, organizing, and keeping track of the work are critical aspects of keeping the team agile, productive, and accountable. Here are some additional details on how we do this:

Long-Term Initiatives

 
  • Long-term initiatives are implemented following the Scrum process with a two-week cycle.
  • Work is split into stories and estimated using poker planning in order for scope and prioritization to be negotiated.
  • Two to three long-term initiatives typically compete for resources during a quarter. How effort is to be split between initiatives is decided during sprint planning.

Fast-Lane Initiatives

 
  • Fast lane initiatives are done following the Kanban process.
  • Tasks are not estimated, but rough continuous prioritization is done, placing the various tasks in priority buckets.
  • In the case that complexity and required effort are unclear, tasks are time-boxed to keep the stream flowing.

Observations

 

After running this process over a quarter, we surveyed the team to evaluate how it affected their day-to-day work from various perspectives. Even though the results are subjective and far from statistical significance, a general sense of how the team was affected by the process became evident. Here’s what was discovered:

Graph showing impact on day-to-day work

Graph showing how the team felt their day-to-day work was affected by the balance of initiatives.

Based on the team’s feedback, the areas with the most improvement were:

- Cycle time: This is the time between an idea and a solution. Reducing this time improves the team’s ability to react to changes and capitalize on learnings. The improvement in this metric could be attributed to having a dedicated person who handles small tasks.

- Product quality: This could be explained by the fact that fast lane initiatives create the room to iterate on released features and make small product improvements.

- Personal growth: While working on fast lane initiatives, a developer needs to tackle multiple topics and consequently expand their knowledge of the codebase and the product.

Although results are promising, there were some other important learnings gathered from the survey:

  • While working in the fast lane developers can have trouble staying up to date with the current strategic work, which can make code reviews slower.
  • Sometimes assigned developers need to escalate the request to the team, in which case the benefit of having better strategic focus is diminished.
  • Prioritizing reactive work compared to strategic work is not an easy task. Different teams might have different needs, so assigning one developer for the entire sprint can be tricky, if not impossible.
  • Two weeks in reactive mode can put too much stress on a developer, so we might consider rotating more often.
  • Sometimes a developer can bring more impact while staying on the long-term work, while someone else is better suited to dealing with the ad hoc requests. We should consider this when assigning a new developer to the fast lane.

For Smallpdf's Mobile Experience team, adding the fast lane to the mix has not only brought a better balance to long-term and short-term work, but has improved the team’s overall productivity, and motivation, all while improving product quality for over 60 million monthly users.

Now, that’s impact! 🚀

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Željko Ilić
Željko Ilić
Mobile Experience Engineering Manager @Smallpdf