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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ship It! - 3.1 Work from The List

The List is how you set your daily and weekly agendas. You order your work with The List, as does the entire team. When you get swamped, overwhelmed, or scattered, you come back to The List and use it to regain your focus. If you get stuck on a tough problem and you need to step away for a while, The List gives you a readily available set of items to use as filler. This ensures that you’re working on the most important item, rather than the proverbial “squeaky wheel.”  Since all developers are at different skill levels, the tech lead makes exceptions as needed, but generally, no second-priority item can be touched until the first-priority items are complete. The List (as a team tool) gives management and customers something concrete to look at and evaluate the product before the time is invested adding the features.

Tip 14: Work to The List

Getting started with your own copy of The List is easy. First, create a list of every task you are working on (or have pending). Then, with your tech lead, assign a priority to each item. Finally, put a time estimate with each item. Don’t worry about getting the time estimates perfect the first time, you’ll improve over time.

For the team:
  • Put every feature that you are adding to your project on a white board
  • Assign priorities to each feature. Be sure to include the proper stakeholders (management, customers, etc.) in this process.
  • Rewrite all of the features, sorted by priority
  • Attach time estimates to each item
Until the current top priority items are completed, no one can work on the lower-priority items. This ensures that all the priority-one items are in progress before any of the priority-two tasks are touched.

The List must be:
  • Publicly available
  • Prioritized
  • On a time line
  • Living
  • Measurable
  • Targeted
How to Get Started:

  • For an entire day, write down every task as you work on it (this will be your “finished” list).
  • Organize whatever daily task list you do have into a formal copy of The List.
  • Ask your tech lead to help you prioritize your work and add rough time estimates.
  • Start working on the highest-priority item on The List—no cheating! If some crisis forces a lower-priority item higher, record it.
  • Add all new work to The List.
  • Move items to your finished list as you complete tasks (this makes surviving status reports and “witch-hunts” much easier).
  • Review The List every morning. Update it whenever new work pops up. . . especially the last-minute crisis tasks; you’re likely to forget about those when someone asks you what you on earth you did all last week.
You're Doing It Right If...
  • Is every one of your current tasks on The List?
  • Does The List accurately portray your current task list?
  • Did the tech lead or customer help you to prioritize The List?
  • Is The List publicly available (electronically or otherwise)?
  • Do you use The List to decide what to work on next?
  • Can you update (and publish) The List quickly?
I'm a fan of lists but have never used them in this way.  I can see the benefit of getting my manager to help me prioritize things and it should be able to help keep an entire team on track.  My question is this: what is a good tool for making The List?  Is a wiki with RSS publishing good?  Is a white board good?  Project planning software?


  1. Dale, I'm assuming you mean a common wall. I'm not sure my boss is going to want to wander into my office just to look at my sticky notes. Then again, that might force a little human interaction. Hmmm....

  2. Yeah, I meant some kind of team wall. Encouraging human interaction is good. Allowing human interaction, at the very least. I've seen team walls become the center of focus for daily meetings. It can be kinda magical.

    If people are in offices, or there are corporate rules against putting stuff on walls, or the team is geographically distributed... Pivotal Tracker is nice. I haven't tried other tools.