Agile Work Artifacts – the Work Queue

Agile Work requires only a very small number of simple “artifacts”. The most basic is the Work Queue. This is very similar to the Scrum Product Backlog but there are some differences too. The Work Queue is like a carefully managed To-Do list. This article details the use of the Work Queue.


Basic Description

The Work Queue is a list of work to be done by a person, team, organization or community. The list consists of brief descriptions of what to deliver, not how to do it. The list is prioritized so that the item on the top of the list is the single most important thing to get done, with items below that being successively lower priority. All items on the Work Queue contribute directly to an overall goal. The person holding the Product Owner role manages the list.

Place in the Process

The place of the Work Queue in the process is very simple. The Work Queue is initially created after the overall goal is determined. Ideally, it is created before work towards the goal is started, but often Agile Work will be adopted for an ongoing effort, in which case work has already started. The Work Queue is constantly maintained by the Queue Master so that it maintains the above mentioned qualities. One or more of the items from the top of the Work Queue are selected to be worked on. As an item on the list is completed, it is removed from the Work Queue. The number of items on the list that are being worked on simultaneously will depend on the capacity of the people doing the work. If iterations are being used to plan work, then the Work Queue is updated every iteration.

How is it Created/Managed

The Product Owner is responsible for creating and managing the Work Queue.

The initial creation of this Work Queue is a simple process: based on the goals to be attained, and based on an other factors that are relevent, the Product Owner drafts an initial version of the Work Queue. The time spent on creating this initial version should be minimized using three techniques:

1. Keep the Work Queue small by recording only high priority items that need to be done immediately. Don’t add items that are uncertain or will be done far in the future. (See “The Horizon of Predictability” for more information about this.)

2. Keep the Work Queue simple by focusing on point-form high-level descriptions of the items in the list. Don’t worry about any details about how the item will be accomplished, who will do it, when it will be done, dependencies with other items, or technical or conditional details.

3. In advance, allocate a fixed amount of time to draft the Work Queue… and don’t spend any more time on it than that. Get the assistance of the Process Facilitator to keep on track. The list doesn’t have to be perfect or complete… you only need enough on the list to allow the work to start.

Ongoing management of the Work Queue consists of removing completed items or items that are no longer needed, adding new items as they are discovered, merging or splitting items as more is learned about them, and reprioritizing items. All of these tasks can be performed at any time. As well, the Work Queue should always be in a state of readiness such that the top items are ready to be selected for work.

The Product Owner is responsible for answering any questions that may arise about the work as it is progressing. If someone doesn’t know what is meant by an item, then work on that item should halt until the Product Owner can clarify.

At no time is the Work Queue “frozen” or finalized. It is changing throughout the entire time that people are working towards the goal. Items that are completed are removed from the list, and do not need to be archived or recorded anywhere else, nor is it necessary to save versions of the list as it is changed.

Gating/Queuing

The Work Queue is a queue of work in process (WIP) that is built up in front of the people who are doing the work. As such, it is advisable to keep the list short. The Product Owner acts as a gate to the list: only those things that reasonably contribute to the goal and which are relatively immanent in implementation should be added to the Work Queue. If someone suggests something be added to the Work Queue, the Product Owner must, of course, take that under advisement and collaborate with the suggestor, but is not obligated to add the suggestion to the list.

The Product Owner can manage the size of the Work Queue by deciding how many iterations of future work are allowed on it. In other words, the number of items on the Work Queue is limited to how many can be accomplished in a fixed number of iterations. As the Team takes a number of items off the Work Queue, space is freed to add an equivalent amount of work back onto the Work Queue. The specific number of iterations chosen for this will vary depending on your circumstances.

Differences from the Scrum Product Backlog

The Work Queue does not require two things that are part of the Scrum Product Backlog: item estimates and item values. Adding this information to the Work Queue can be useful in many situations, but is not an essential part of the list.

As well, the management of the Work Queue is different from the Scrum Product Backlog in that the Product Owner is not obligated to put every suggestion that comes their way onto the list.

Advanced Use of the Work Queue

Consider adding the following information to each item on the list:

1. An estimate of effort. Make sure that these estimates are created by the whole group of people who will be doing the work.

2. An estimate of value. The Product Owner needs to be responsible for determining value, but the whole group of people doing the work and all the other stakeholders need to understand how that value was determined.

3. Cycle time tracking. When an item is added to the list, record the date/time it is added, then record the the date/time it is completed and removed from the list. The use of cycle time can assist in making a work process more efficient.


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