4 Steps to Managing Unplanned Work

No matter how much you plan, there’s always going to be some level of uncertainty. As Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said, “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” And for agile product teams, this sentiment couldn’t ring more true. While the act of planning itself is important, the resulting plans are destined to change.

One type of change tends to be the most frustrating of all for product teams: unplanned work popping up mid-sprint. Perhaps you know the feeling — your teams are cranking away on the user stories they’ve committed to when suddenly an executive storms in demanding a new functionality…now. Or, an urgent customer request comes out of the left field. Or, an outage threatens to derail the delivery of some important features. What do you do?

We discussed this exact predicament in-depth during our recent webinar, Setting Priorities: How to Balance Planned vs. Unplanned Work.

The Trouble with Unplanned Work

Unplanned work could refer to anything from support escalations to emergency outages, feature requests coming in sideways, or stakeholder demands. This type of work can present several challenges to product managers and their cross-functional teams.

  • Unexpected projects can impact the team’s ability to deliver on the roadmap.
  • It can be difficult to communicate the impact of unplanned work to stakeholders.
  • In some cases, unplanned work can lead to unsustainable work practices and unhealthy culture.
  • There are only so many things that can fit in a sprint or iteration. If something new comes in, something must go out.

What can product teams do about this? The short answer: don’t just expect the unexpected, embrace it. First, get in the habit of thinking not all unplanned work is inherently bad. And rather than feeling as though you’re at the beck and call of unplanned work, you can establish a structure for handling it. Today we’ll discuss a series of tried and true tactics for this.
Download The Product Strategy Playbook ➜

1. Assess and Prioritize

As Teresa Torres points out, before you figure out how you’re getting the work done, it’s wise to ask yourself why. Otherwise, you risk spending too much time fighting fires. “Regardless of how you handle it, it’s really important that before you take on new work, you ask what metrics you’re driving,” she explains. Looking at the metrics involved makes it easier to see the importance of the new work and determine the best route forward.

In many situations, you can easily apply one of the commonly used product roadmap prioritization frameworks to prioritize unplanned work. For example, weighted scoring or a value vs. complexity matrix. These frameworks can help guide discussions with stakeholders and the rest of your team regarding whether unplanned work is urgent or not. The caveat, however, is that these frameworks are only a starting point. At the end of the day, you need to tap into your product manager intuition when it comes time to make decisions about how to proceed.

2. Tactics for Tackling Unplanned Work

After you’ve assessed the importance of new work, you can decide how to actually get it done. There are a handful of different ways to handle unplanned, or as our panelists called it, reactive, work.

  • Squeeze it into the current sprint.
  • Throw it into the backlog.
  • Carry it into the next sprint.
  • One item in, one item out.
  • Tackle it in a pre-planned buffer
  • Establish a dedicated team for reactive work.

We polled our webinar attendees on how they typically manage reactive work. 44% told us they take the “squeeze it in” approach. Meanwhile, 46% of participants said they put reactive work into the backlog or carry it to the next sprint.

Each of the methods above for dealing with unplanned work comes with its own set of pros and cons. And there is no single “best” approach to tackling reactive work. Often, you can make these decisions on a case-by-case basis. However, establishing a pre-planned buffer within your development cycles is one smart way to keep unplanned work’s impact on the delivery of planned work at a minimum. Of course, there are some situations where unplanned work needs to be handled immediately, and in those cases, you’ll need to do some shuffling to accommodate it.
Download the Backlog Refinement: How to Prioritize What Matters Book➜

3. Communicating about Unplanned Work

One of the challenges unplanned work presents for product teams is the communication aspect. How do you communicate the impact of unplanned work on the execution of planned work? And how can you manage stakeholder expectations when your plan is constantly in flux? Frequent conversations about change are critical.

You don’t necessarily need to prepare lengthy, formal presentations every time something changes. A weekly meeting with leadership to discuss progress, changes, and new findings may be all it takes to keep everyone on the same page. And if you can’t get everyone in the same room at the same time for that, a weekly email can be a good stand-in for a meeting. Our panelists agreed that your specific communication tactic is not as important as the goal: constant communication with stakeholders. So use whichever communication channels suit your team best.

4. Mitigating the Problem

As we’ve already mentioned, there is no way to completely eliminate unplanned work. But, there are a few things we can do to limit surprises and disruptions to those which are truly necessary.

Support Tickets and Escalations

As our panelists explained, you can often eliminate a decent amount of reactive work by proactively providing resources to support. If you’re a gatekeeper for information, chances are you’ll spend a lot of time fielding support tickets and answering questions. If you can provide others with the information they need, you can reduce this type of reactive work. Spend time training support, developing FAQs, and producing documentation, and you eliminate at least some of this work.

Rapidly Shifting Business Priorities

When businesses and executive stakeholders can’t agree on a clear set of measurable business goals, chaos may ensue. Without alignment on goals, desired outcomes, and a unified product vision, it’s incredibly difficult to focus on anything. Especially when you’re forced to field sideways feature requests and cope with priorities that shift overnight. If you don’t have alignment on these key strategic building blocks, getting alignment on them should be your first priority.

When you have a narrow focus, clear goals, and alignment from the top, you can reduce the number of left-field ideas and worry less about dreaded HiPPOs.

So there you have it, an overview of a few steps you can take to defeat the chaos that often results from unplanned work popping up mid-sprint. For more insight and tips from our expert panel, watch the full discussion in Setting Priorities: How to Balance Planned vs. Unplanned Work.