Four Methods for Dealing with Interruptions

Recently I’ve talked with a number of people who have a simple question: what do we do with teams that are constantly interrupted by urgent support requests for their time?

I have seen a few different structures work well for this kind of problem.

1) The part-time allocation to the iteration’s work is most common. There are a couple things that need to be done to make this work well in the long term. The main thing is to make the allocation of time inflexible: if you allocate 50% to the iteration and 50% to support, then you should never be flexible about that allocation. This is necessary in order for the team to make a commitment at the start of each iteration.

2) Another common method is the “fluorescent note card” method which requires stakeholder negotiation around the impact of interruptions. With this method, any time a stakeholder comes to the team with a request, the Process Facilitator writes the request on a bright colored note card. The team then does a task breakdown on the card and using their normal process (whatever that is) estimates the work. The requesting stakeholder then has to negotiate with any other stakeholders about what work to remove from the iteration in order to make room for the new work. The trick here is that the team has to be involved because they have already started on some of the work and it might be difficult to dis-entangle things enough. This process works well primarily because it makes the tradeoffs visible. It does not work so well with letting the team make their commitments.

3) A third common method is to form two separate teams: one doing new work, one doing support work. This is simple, effective, and annoying for the people on the team doing the support work! Please don’t consider a rotation system since this destroys the process of team development and makes it nearly impossible for the team doing new work to learn their capacity for the purposes of commitment.

4) A less common, but fourth method is to have extremely short iterations. In this method, choose your iteration length to be so short that you can always start work on urgent interruptions before anyone gets impatient! This can be exhausting, but it is one of the best ways to get the team and the organization to understand the large toll that these interruptions take.

Are there other methods that you have seen work?

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