How to Avoid Context Switching

Given the huge interest in the article by Dmitri Zimine about context switching, and despite a couple of good articles about how to determine iteration length, there has been no empirical method described, only reasoning processes. This article describes a simple method to quickly determine iteration length by experimental means.

Step One

Start with an iteration length that feels right. Use the two articles below to try decide a reasonable length. In software development, this should be no longer that four weeks. In larger volunteer communities it might be as long as three months. In a work environment where you have to deliver daily, your iteration length might be two hours.

Step Two

Build your Work Queue, and plan your first iteration. Mark the tasks that come out of your iteration planning meeting so that you know that they are tasks that were planned. As you go through this first iteration, track all the interruptions you get by writing up a task for each interruption. Each interruption task should be marked so that you know it was an interruption. If you are using note cards on a visible task board, I like to have “normal” tasks on white cards and interruption tasks on fluorescent orange cards to help them stand out!

Step Three

At the end of your iteration, determine which interruption tasks could have been deferred. In other words, determine which were truly urgent and needed to be handled in the already short time of your iteration, and which could have been put on the Work Queue, prioritized, and therefore deferred to a later iteration. This will require collaborating with your Queue Master and possibly other stakeholders.

Step Four

Count how many non-deferrable interruption tasks your team had in the iteration. For this experimental method, you can assume that this is going to be your normal number of interruptions. Divide the length of your iteration by the number of non-deferrable interruptions. For example, if you had a ten day iteration, and two non-deferrable interruptions, you would have a result of five days. Also consider what was the maximum reasonable response time for these non-deferrable interruptions. The lower of these two values becomes your experimentally determined iteration length. But you are not quite done!

Step Five

Do it all again to verify your iteration length. Note that because of your shortened iteration length, you hopefully will have far fewer non-deferrable interruptions. After your second (shortened) iteration, you can adjust the iteration length shorter if necessary… but don’t adjust longer (for now).

I’ve worked with enough teams to know that for a substantial portion of them, this method would result in very very short iterations. In the software world, a team is often asked to work on a project and support their previous project. This support work tends to mean dealing with various bugs in deployed software. This is one reason why I have become such a strong advocate that quality is not negotiable.

I worked with one team that did something similar to this method (although not as rigorously) and we decided that we needed to try an iteration length of two days. This was painful for the team, but they badly wanted to build trust with their stakeholders. Their interruptions were causing them to constantly fail on their commitments. By switching to these two day iterations, they were able to defer the bulk of their interruptions and meet the commitment they made as a team in the iteration planning meeting.

Articles about iteration length:

Mike Cohn’s article: “Selecting the Right Iteration Length for Your Software Development Process”

Mishkin Berteig’s article: “The Pros and Cons of Short Iterations”

Now that you have gotten to the end of the article, I can admit something to you: this article is badly named. It should be named “How to determine how often to context switch so that you can meet your commitments and build trust with your stakeholders.”

What this article doesn’t help with is the pain of context switching. The teams that I have see that use short iteration lengths all find ways of making context switching less painful. Automation, good tool choices, workspace arrangements, etc. all play a part in this. But there is no secret ingredient to make context switching painless. Sorry!

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