How to handle emergent work


What to do with emergent work

What to do with emergent work? The work that was not known at the moment of planning.

To answer this question, we will have to dig a little deeper into the nature of emergent work, as well as where it’s coming from and how. 

There is a reason why emergent work is a very important topic. On the one hand, emergent work may be disruptive to your current plan of action. And significant disruption takes a toll on your team productivity. On the other hand, you as a team want to respond to change, for the company to be able to cease an economic opportunity. So, how to go about this important but disruptive type of work? 

Not all emergent work is truly emergent

First of all, not all emergent work is truly emergent. And this happens way too often. Some work may appear as emergent, but in fact, it was known beforehand. The problem is that due to poor work intake discipline, those who bring the work failed to proactively inform the team that the work is coming. It can be a business stakeholder that has new features or another team that has a dependency on you. They may have failed to inform you because they don’t know when your team is planning their effort, or they simply may not realize that their requests disrupt the team’s productivity. But this can be helped. Consider establishing regular work intake meetings that would include stakeholders; invite them to regularly participate in your planning activities, and importantly, articulate to them that if they are more proactive with their work, it will benefit them, because your productivity as a team will be solid, and so their work will be treated more effectively, too.

The work no one can anticipate

But let’s say we’ve addressed the false emergent work. There still may be work that no one can anticipate. What do we do with that? There are a few strategies that might be instrumental. 

One. If you are operating in regular timeboxes, try to negotiate a simple idea with the requestor of work: bring your work before the next timebox begins. And if your timebox is relatively short, this may work out quite well with emergent work that might be important but not urgent. And in case your timebox is too long, consider making it shorter. Unless it’s something really urgent, it’s hard to imagine how the requester couldn’t wait one or two weeks until your next iteration planning. But this way, you will protect your timebox and that may be crucial to your productivity. 

Two. Consider allocating some capacity in a timebox to emergent work. This works quite well when you regularly get new requests in the middle of the timebox. So, maybe all you need is 15 to 20 percent of your team’s capacity and that will solve the problem. 

Three. If you are dealing with a very significant volume of emergent work, then you have to operate respectively and build a responsive process. This might imply that timebox-based approach may not be a good idea for you to begin with, and you may need a more flexible pull system such as Kanban. So, map out your workflow, establish WIP limits, set up classes of service to manage work of different importance and urgency, and go for it. But remember, that Kanban, despite its seeming flexibility, requires lots of discipline on the team’s part. 

Lastly, as a team, try slicing your work into fairly granular increments of value. That way, any disruption will have less negative impact on you. See, often teams are planning for big, monolith chunks of work and in that case any disruption means failure in that given timebox. Instead, be as incremental as possible, so you could move things around and respond to change. 

Taking action

Time to think about action items. If you struggle with emergent work use this video to diagnose the nature of your problem, and plan your first simple step towards more effective treatment of emergent work. 

Alex Yakyma

Alex Yakyma is the author of “Pursuing Enterprise Outcomes” and “The Rollout”. As a consultant, Alex is helping enterprises succeed with complex challenges. Throughout his career, he operated in multi-cultural, highly distributed environments. Alex has trained a large number of change agents and leaders whose key role is to help their organizations achieve higher effectiveness at pursuing business outcomes.

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