The Freedom of Limited Capacity

Something that I would have thought impossible has happened. By understanding how incredibly limited my capacity to do work is, I am getting a greater and greater sense of freedom and contentment.


My “experiement” to run my business using Agile Work practices is starting to bear some fruit. The trouble is, that so far, that fruit is simple better knowledge of my extremely limited capacity to get things done during a single week-long iteration. I can do 3 or 4 items from my Work Queue which works out to about 15 or 20 tasks. This seems ridiculous to me! Surely one hard-working guy can get more than that done!

But I can’t. I’m getting to the end of my fourth iteration and it’s the same thing again!

I know some of the reasons for this: interruptions, unexpected work, unremembered work, and my general nature of being easily distracted by shiny things!

In some ways this has been quite frustrating. I have a huge queue of work I want to get done for my business. But the other side of the coin, the one that looks different than I expected, is that knowing just how limited my capacity is… is liberating! I don’t feel nearly as stressed as I did four weeks ago. I have the courage to commit at an appropriate level. I can start to believe my plans. I can see – realistically – just how much I need help to achieve my goals. I can see how soon I will be able to do cost/benefit analysis on hiring vs. doing the work myself (can’t do that yet). I can even start to believe that I might be able to reach my original goal of reducing my working hours from 80+/week to 50 or less… as long as I make sure that my Work Queue is properly prioritized with that goal in mind.


I have worked with a number of teams that have gotten to this point of certainty about their capacity. I’ve seen this happen in others… and now I recognize it for what it is: relief. One team I worked with after only two iterations had a very clear idea of their capacity, and you could feel the comfort level of everyone with this new agile thing skyrocket. Another team I worked with got a clear sense of its capacity after only three iterations. This team settled in and then started to work to increase their capacity and did a fabulous job by using automation tools, eliminating various organizational bottlenecks, etc. They wow’ed the rest of the organization with their incredible, consistent delivery of value. One of my former students, Dmitri Zimine, gave a presentation at the XPToronto group where he talked about the incredible level of trust that developed between his team and the rest of the organization after consistently, iteration after iteration after iteration meeting their commitments.All of this is only possible by a rigorous application of timeboxing, careful and consistent task breakdown, and good, honest tracking of results. I wrote a previous article called Seventeen Tips for Iteration Planning. Look it over and see what new ideas you can apply in your situation. If you are frustrated by a team continually over-committing, you will find a lot of valuable advice there.


As a parting shot: consider how you feel right now. Are you stressed out? Over committed? Failing to meet your commitments? Feeling guilty? Working insane hours? Not spending enough time with your family? Killing yourself!?What about the team or organization you work in? Is it constantly being bombarded by problems it can’t handle? Surviving on pure heroics?

I can’t tell you that following a careful iterative planning approach will fix your problems… but I can tell you that it will reduce your stress levels, help you (or your organization) make appropriate commitments, and let you see the reality of your situation (good or bad).


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