Timeboxing: A Critical Agile Work Practice

When you think of the show “Saturday Night Live”, you probably think of things like “funny” or “stars”. You probably don’t think that this show epitomizes the idea of timeboxing.

A timebox is a fixed amount of hours or days in which to accomplish something. Iterations are timeboxes. When you say to yourself on a trip: “let’s see how far I can go in 8 hours of driving”, you are giving yourself a timebox. When you write an exam in school, you might have a three hour timebox. For complex work, timeboxing is a way of limiting the amount of time on something in order to prevent excessive effort or spending. As a weekly show, Saturday Night Live does this to a “T” (Thanks to Alex Sirota of Newpath Consulting for pointing this blurb out to me!):

To go from blank page to a live, 90-minute telecast every week, the process begins with a Monday afternoon meeting in Michaels’ office, where writers and performers meet the week’s guest host. Ideas are batted around, and the material that seems funniest is developed at writers’ keyboards over the next few days. On Tuesday and Wednesday, writers refine ideas, often with little or no sleep, and as the host grows accustomed to the anarchy his/her opinions and ideas are given more consideration. By Wednesday afternoon’s meeting, the writers may have as many as fifty sketches, perhaps 40 more than will actually air. Most will be rejected by Michaels or the host, and the few that remain may be rewritten. On Thursday, some skits go through a dry rehearsal, and by Friday all the skits are usually prepared, with sets and stage instructions.

Saturdays begin with a run-through that may be as long as two and a half hours, after which Michaels and the show’s writers make “semi-final cuts.” At 8:00 PM, there is a dress rehearsal in front of a live audience, and this show may be as long as an hour and fifty minutes, leaving up to twenty minutes of “final cuts”, which are decided largely on the basis of what the audience seems to find funny. Then, at 11:30 Eastern Time — live from New York, it’s Saturday Night. (http://www.nndb.com/people/621/000024549/)

For the people involved in creating Saturday Night Live, there is a great deal riding on getting the show done on time. They have a slot and if for some reason they should fail to get ready in time, they would have a serious problem on their hands. This pressure is one of the main factors for timeboxing to work.

In other types of work, it may be necessary to artificially create the pressure to meet the timebox deadline. You can schedule demos, make public commitments or set in motion other work that will fail if you fail to meet your timebox.

It is also critical that your timebox be set to a good size: too small and you won’t be able to get anything done, and too large and there will be no pressure to work until you are nearing your deadline. This is closely related to the horizon of predictability.

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