Wouldn't it be nice if we could plan our daily tasks a whole year ahead of time and still respond to our customers’ ever-evolving demands while effortlessly prioritizing based on changing circumstances?
As more and more marketers discover the benefits of Agile ways of working, more and more of us are coming to the conclusion that if we want to be successful, annual plans are just not in the cards for us.
Marketing is, by default, a linchpin function that supports entire organizations. As a result, we end up having to collaborate with many different departments all the time and take on their requests.
Ultimately, this connectivity translates into marketers having to respond to changes inside our department and to changes happening inside all of the other departments we work with.
Dealing with all of that unplanned work is difficult to pull off.
The 4th Annual State of Agile Marketing report showed us that this is the most significant challenge, even for marketers who have embraced agility: 44% shared that they have difficulties managing unplanned work.
How do we balance planning with responsiveness?
How can we remain agile without succumbing to shiny object syndrome?
These challenges inspired us to share our best tips for managing unplanned work in an Agile way and support marketers in overcoming one of our most significant hurdles.
The Problem With Unplanned Work
Unfortunately, while the Agile marketing manifesto encourages us to welcome and plan for change, it offers very little guidance on how we might actually do that without compromising our pace and quality of work.
In truth, managing unplanned work begins with learning to recognize it.
Unplanned tasks or, on the larger scale, unplanned projects are usually presented as urgent and vital to the stakeholders bringing them to the team. Much of the time, the business value of this work is unproven.
Due to the way this work gets presented, it often bypasses the team’s prioritization mechanisms and gets done on the side of the desk. It derails the team and distracts from the overarching strategic goals they're working towards.
Without the right approach to managing unplanned work, allocating resources to it can cause a ton of problems for marketers. It can impact our ability to deliver what we’ve already committed to, lead to friction with stakeholders, create conflict inside the team, and, ultimately, put team success at risk.
The good news is that, if we look a little more closely, Agile actually offers many practices geared towards managing unplanned work more effectively to help marketers avoid the pitfalls of our changing, volatile reality.
Establishing Service Level Agreements
The first thing we can do inside our teams to deal with unplanned work is to create boundaries that protect our team. Our goal here is to create the necessary environment for effectively prioritizing incoming requests.
We can achieve this by establishing service level agreements (SLAs) with the teams and stakeholders that depend on us to control their expectations.
SLAs represent agreements between two or more parties that govern how work comes in, how it gets done, and when it's delivered. They specify the parameters of service delivery, and often include quality standards and timeframes for delivering the expected value.
Depending on the size of the organization and its culture, SLAs can be formal contracts with a detailed breakdown of responsibilities and expectations, or just informal agreements that establish boundaries to help dependent parties collaborate more efficiently.
By establishing service level agreements, we create a process for managing unplanned work and streamline its execution.
For example, if we have an agreement with the sales team that any sales-related collateral will be delivered within 7 days, our team won’t be forced to drop everything that's already in progress the moment a new request arrives.
Instead, we will be able to focus on finishing what we have in progress at the moment and start working on the new request when we're done without disrupting our workflow.
Sales gets what they need in a timely manner, and marketing is protected from unnecessary fire drills.
To make the most of SLAs, consider how much time it takes to process the work item types that your team receives and account for the average.
This approach allows the team to generate a prediction about how long it would take us to process an incoming request, while leaving a time buffer to protect our flow.
Implementing Classes of Service
Of course, not all requests that come into the marketing team are created equal. Some are more urgent than others; the value we deliver by processing them varies.
It’s up to our team to recognize different types of requests and sort them in a way that allows us to resource them appropriately.
In other words, committing to an SLA to deliver any type of incoming work within a specific time frame may not be enough to reduce the negative impact of unplanned work on the team.
Also, it may not bring us closer to ensuring that we dedicate effort and resources to the right work at the right time.
Implementing a prioritization system based on several classes of service (CoS) and integrating it within the SLAs we predefine with stakeholders can provide a multi-layered solution.
Classes of service are categories of importance that separate different tasks and projects based on their value and urgency.
CoS allows us to make better decisions about the urgency of each unplanned work item in our workflow. They rely heavily on the cost of delay as a compass for determining the importance of unplanned requests or any other items that enter our workflow in general.
A CoS dictates that the bigger the loss for our organization if we don’t deliver an item on time, the higher its class becomes. Classes of service are an integral part of the Kanban method for managing dependencies and focusing the team's effort on the highest value work.
The standard categories include:
- Expedite: items with critical priority that have a very high cost of delay and, therefore, need to be processed as soon as possible
- Fixed delivery date: items with a fixed date of delivery and a high cost of failing to do so on time
- Standard: items with a moderate cost of delay that can wait to be processed
- Intangible: items with low cost of delay and no urgency to process
Inside our teams, we can define our very own classes of service tailored to fit our process perfectly. The important thing is to socialize them with the teams and stakeholders that depend on us and integrate them with the SLAs that we establish.
Applying WIP Limits
All teams are naturally limited by time and capacity. Even with the best intentions, we can’t help everybody in our organization when the workload drastically exceeds our team’s capability to deliver value of high quality within a limited time.
What we can do is focus on maximizing our efforts where it matters most until the situation changes (e.g. we get additional resources) and try to improve our key process metrics like lead time and cycle time to the greatest possible extent based on our environment.
Limiting the amount of work in progress (WIP) is one of the most powerful weapons in the Agile arsenal for drastically improving our ability to manage unplanned (and all other types of) work.
WIP limits allow us to assign a limit to the number of items that our team can work on simultaneously to achieve best results.
As soon as that limit is reached, the team’s focus becomes finishing what has already been started until there's a free slot for a new task to start.
Although WIP limits can seem counterintuitive, their value is tremendous. They enable us to remain focused and switch context less frequently, which makes it easier to actually finish what we’ve already started working on.
When unplanned work shows up, if starting to work on it means the team will break the WIP limit they have set for themselves, then it will be prioritized against other items in the backlog and wait until a place becomes available.
Planning for Unplanned Work
Marketers won’t ever be able to predict everything that’s coming their way, which is why we see impromptu work showing up as a big challenge in this year’s edition of the State of Agile Marketing report.
Proactively planning for how to handle the unplanned work by teaching your partners and stakeholders how to engage with your Agile model can make all the difference.
Focus on what’s in it for them, rather than insist they blindly follow your new ways of working.
This is an especially winning approach for marketing teams working in sprints, a practice that can provide greater forecasting capabilities and faster delivery for stakeholders, but also asks them to wait until the subsequent sprint planning to raise their requests for the team.
Consolidating requests at the moment of sprint planning can help the team visualize all requests in one place, calculate their capacity, and estimate their delivery time more accurately.
As marketing teams plan sprints, some deliberately leave a capacity buffer to account for future unplanned work that they anticipate receiving.
The buffer allows room to maneuver when an unexpected request arrives without compromising the delivery of what the team has already committed to instead of catching them off guard.
Just be careful; a 30% buffer is reasonable, but if your sprints start to include 30% planned work and 70% buffer to take in new requests, you may not be cut out for using sprints at all.
Measuring to Learn
Applying all the techniques discussed in this article will undoubtedly improve your ability to manage unplanned work inside your team.
But there's one last crucial step that will ensure you're able to do so efficiently in the long run. It's also closely connected to continuously improving how you manage your unplanned work.
By collecting data from our process, we can establish more effective service level agreements, manage items under any class of service more efficiently, determine the most appropriate WIP limits for our team, and plan sprints that prevent our workflows from getting disrupted by unplanned work.
Armed with information about the average number of unplanned requests the team receives on a weekly basis along with how much time it takes to process them, we can set realistic expectations, and avoid tension and conflict with our stakeholders.
In addition, this data enables us to protect the team from overburden and burnout in the long run by continuously highlighting areas of our process that require optimization.
Some key process metrics to keep a close eye on are:
- Lead time
- Cycle time
- Number of unplanned requests on a weekly basis
- Number of new items under each class of service we receive on a weekly basis
By tracking these metrics on a weekly or sprint basis, as well as socializing insights from the data with our stakeholders, the team can identify how unplanned work is impacting the health of the process, how much of it comes in over time, and what improvements can be made to keep it in check.
Ignoring how we treat unplanned work instead of actually managing it can affect our marketing workflow negatively on more than one level.
It can lead to missed opportunities, tension within the team, and, due to marketing’s unique position as a bridge between departments, conflict within the organization.
Marketers can do very little to reduce the number of unplanned work items we receive but, luckily, Agile frameworks have provided us with plenty of tools for managing it more efficiently.
By setting expectations with our stakeholders, categorizing the work requests we receive based on cost of delay, socializing the limits to our working capacity, and encouraging stakeholders to bring their requests at moments when we can prioritize them, we can be responsive without disrupting our workflow every single time we shift gears.
Last but not least, keeping an eye on our process metrics will give us an inexhaustible well of data to guide the ways we decide to improve our process and how we tackle the negative effects of unplanned work.