Start Less, Finish More

Let’s talk about a situation that happens in almost every team I see. After meeting everyone and getting access to things, I will look at whatever tools they use to manage their work. I do this because while most people are adamant they use the tool, few give it much regard other than it’s a chore to do.

This means that if they’re consistent, they’re too lazy to lie.

So I can look at a tool and get a picture of how the team works and how well they do work, and several other things by browsing their work tracker. I will confirm what I uncover here through other means, but I can come up to speed quickly just by looking through the tools.

One thing I look for immediately is how many things the team is working on compared to the team size. Every team has more things getting worked on than people. I also look at how good they are at finishing work.

I don’t mean commitments or velocity. I mean the rate at which work crosses the finish line or throughput.

The story is the same everywhere. Everyone starts work quickly but finishes slowly.

Another way I can put this is that the more work that gets started, the fewer finishes.

These cute little statements are backed by common sense and Little’s Law. The short version here is that the more things you take on, the slower you finish them.

Yet, for most people, groups, managers, and organizations, the best thing you can do is appear busy. So the more things you start, the busier you look, and the fewer times people pester you.

If you think that’s false, let me invert this for a second.

A software team has more work than they could ever do, and there’s a major milestone coming up with a few critical bits of functionality in the backlog.

Feel normal so far?

You are a manager who has to report on how well you’ll hit the deadline, and pressure is building. Or you’re a developer, and you prefer working on new things.

Some people on the team are idle. They won’t start anything new until they finish something. The team is exploiting Little’s Law and intentionally is working on way fewer things than people.

You want to either get to that deadline or work on something new. There are people doing nothing. They could start working on that other thing! Why on wouldn’t you start that next thing?

Everyone’s intuition will scream at them to start that next work. Anything is better than sitting and waiting.

Yet, doing that will slow you down. Not because of some weird opinion, but because of physical laws. Your intuition is wrong.

If people can get past their instinct to start something new and focus on finishing what is already started, they will see a dramatic improvement in speed, quality, and even how many things get finished.

So here’s my challenge: finish before you start something new. You’ll be amazed.