There’s a challenge that I’ve seen both enterprises and individuals deal with. Deciding how to allocate resources between small, simple tasks, and the large, important projects.
It can be easy to fall into a cycle of working on small changes. There’s less resistance to getting started. They often require minimal effort. You get to cross them off the list and feel a productivity hit right away.
But nowadays, any person or any enterprise can go in infinite possible directions. Opportunities are plentiful and costs are low. In this world, the ability to prioritize activities that are valuable becomes a differentiator.
Shifting to a value-based mindset from just a productivity-based one can come with side effects. You’re more focused on the “game changers.” Sometimes so much that working on small improvements feels like you’re wasting time or cheating. That you’re not hustling or denting the universe enough.
The big picture and the details are both important. But not all of the details are equal. There are plenty of tasks that are a waste of time.
However, there are others that aren’t. How do you handle the changes that individually are low value, but collectively impact the quality of the product or experience?
The economics of your to-do list
Whether you prioritize by plotting what’s important and urgent, using the weighted shortest job first (WSJF) method, or relying on gut feel, you’re comparing items on your list against each other.
When we decide which task to complete first, economically it makes sense to go with the weighted shortest job first. What does that mean?
The weighted shortest job first is a long name for a method that basically helps you determine how to sequence work in a way that maximizes the value you produce from a set of tasks. It takes into account that the value you get from your investment may vary depending on when you complete the work.
Practically, WSJF is a number. To calculate the WSJF score of a change, you look at the cost of delaying that change divided by the duration of time required to deliver the change. So ideally, if two changes require the same time to complete, you would work on the one with the higher cost of delay first. If they had the same cost of delay, you would start working on the one that you can deliver sooner.
The cost of delay reflects the impact of delaying the change. For example, if your main goal is to reach a broad audience, then a project that impacts more people will have a higher cost of delay than one that impacts only one. Meaning that waiting one more day to release something that will help 1,000 people is a bigger loss than waiting one more day to help one person.
What this means for your schedule
Once you have the WSJF scores of your projects, you can sort them so that the highest scores rise to the top of the list. For the most part, it makes sense to start with the highest WSJF and work down the list. However, sometimes you’ll need to refine your roadmap from that starting point. The work could require action by another team or some prep work on your part before you can tackle it.
There may be tasks that never rise to the top of the list because they have a low cost of delay. Fixing one typo or an awkward experience may not move the needle as much as another project. It’s not a showstopper. But expand that out to ten or more and you’re potentially eroding customer trust. Leaving an opening for the competition to deliver something better.
One way to deal with that is by grouping the small changes into a larger set of work that has a higher cost of delay. Working to improve consistency across the brand platforms will have a bigger impact than making one change on one page, and will only take slightly longer. By using this method you can have more productive conversations about the relative value of work to be completed. You’re comparing the cumulative effect of cleaning up the experience instead of the value of one tiny change.
Another option is to allocate a certain percentage of capacity to smaller “clean-up” work. You could accomplish that by factoring it into your weekly plans. Alternatively, you could schedule a few days per quarter to focus on those types of changes. This approach can help you make sure that some improvements happen regularly, regardless of how they stack up against other work. Setting a capacity limit also avoids the risk of small, low-value changes becoming the bulk of your work.
Any effort to make a large change to an enterprise or a market is going to require working on a mix of big deliverables and a lot of small, seemingly insignificant tweaks. How does your organization balance work on large projects and smaller changes?