Grilling next week’s chicken (or how to get people to work outside their specialty)

There’s a story I often tell about the relationship between specialties and efficiency on a team that often helps unlock thinking on this for people. The moral of that story is to beware of grilling next week’s chicken.

In this episode, Richard and Peter take on the question: “My team members only want to work on their specialties. What can I do to get them to pull from the top of the backlog?”

Richard answers with a vivid story about food prep, common sense, and “grilling next week’s chicken.”

For more on the thinking behind the chicken story, check out our mini-course on the Theory of Constraints.

Episode Transcript

Richard: Welcome to the humanizing work mailbag where we answer questions from the humanizing work community

Peter: If you have a question you’ve been noodling on email us at mailbag at humanizing work com and we’ll see if we’ve got a good answer for you

Richard: Our question this time came up in one of my classes and it was a statement and a question It was my team members only want to work on their specialty And the question is what can I do to get them to pull from the top of the backlog and collaborate on the most important stuff?

Peter: Yeah, I’m wondering about the framing of that question because the statement part of it does have an assumption baked into it: that people don’t want to do the thing. And I’m not sure that that’s the case. There are probably reasons that they might be reluctant to do the thing. But I wonder if we dug into the reasons behind it, it might unlock it for that, the person asking this question.

What do you think those might be? In my experience, sometimes it’s about a feeling of being good at my job, competence. Like, I feel most engaged when I’m working on the thing I’m really good at, and so I might be reluctant to pull a thing that I’m not very good at because A, I’ll struggle, but B, I’ll be seen as struggling and that’s not always super comfortable.

So that might be one reason.

Richard: I often hear an argument for efficiency. Like, I’m most efficient when I’m doing this thing or even I was hired to do this thing. And so it’s going to be best for our team if each of us does the thing that we’re most efficient at.

Peter: Yeah, I think that that’s, I hear that less frequently from the person that might be pulling the work.

Then from whoever’s designing the team or designing the workflow of the team. But I could see people picking up on that and, and either parroting it back or, or starting to internalize that to say efficiency is the goal here. So if I do this other thing, we’re going to be seen as less efficient.

Richard: I’ve certainly heard it in BDD classes where I’m teaching developers, testing techniques, and I’ve had people say to me, wait, I was hired to be a developer and you’re asking me to do testing work.

And there was kind of this implicit, like, not only is that inefficient and not what I’m being paid for, but it’s offensive that you would ask me to do lowly test work when I’m a developer. Yeah, that’s, I think that one probably actually went back to a competence. I think I, I feel good about doing this kind of work.

I feel good when I’m doing this kind of work.

Peter: Yeah, like an identity tied up with the type of work that I do, right? That’s part of my identity is I’m a good coder.

Richard: Yeah, totally. And you and I am even run into this in our work. Like there’s things you’re good at things I’m good at. We gravitate towards the tasks we’re good at, and we have to consciously push against that when something is important and not the thing that’s directly in our wheelhouse.

What about the efficiency one? Well, I think there’s an assumption on the efficiency one that The most efficient parts are going to lead to the most efficient whole. And there’s a story I often tell about the relationship between specialties and efficiency on a team that often helps unlock thinking on this for people.

And it goes like this. My wife and I frequently cook meals with our friends. And we don’t just invite people over to eat food we’ve made, but our friends also enjoy making food. And so we get together and we make big, often elaborate meals together. And there was one time where this really became clear to me because we were making a, a Thai meal that involved a lot of vegetables that we were going to stir fry and a lot of prep tasks around those vegetables.

And different ones of us are better or worse at different things in the kitchen. One of my adult sons is particularly good at cutting things. He has his own knives and my wife is good at that. I’m not as good. I’m more likely to Cut myself or mess something up if I try to make carrot matchsticks, for example, but I’m good at the stuff on the stove My friend Matt who was with us is the grill guy if there’s something to be grilled even at my house He’s likely to be the one on the grill.

So when we’re thinking about what do we need to do as we prep for that meal? Well, we really just need a chopping capacity as we were getting ready and it kind of didn’t matter What our specialties were, but if we were like many software teams, we would have sent Matt out back to grill next week’s chicken, like just in case, like he’s good at grilling.

Let’s get the man grilling. And we didn’t need that. We needed him contributing to chopping. Maybe not the most intricate chopping something that is a little easier and safer. And in fact, it was even better for him to stand there and drink a beer and talk with us. Then to go grill some chicken that wasn’t part of that meal.

And I think it’s the same thing on teams where the person that’s pulling from way down the backlog in their specialty is doing the equivalent of grilling next week’s chicken. And we really need to say, even if it’s not your specialty, a little bit of extra chopping capacity for today’s chopping is the thing that our team needs.

Peter: Yeah, the idea of next week next week’s chicken I think that there are some good analogies to that which is you know You could freeze that chicken and then maybe it will be useful, but you’re gonna have to reheat it and reheated chicken It’s just not very good and and then you’ve got a bunch of chicken that you have to store and right there there are issues with that and I think the same thing happens because I could hear somebody making the argument They’re like, well, we’re not making food.

The thing we’re doing is less perishable. And so if somebody gets a head on their skill it doesn’t go stale in the same way, but my experience is that things do go stale in a similar way, if not the exact same way as chicken that the thing that we worked on back then now the next person needs to do their part of it.

And now I’ve got to try and remember what I did and why and how, and I’ve got to connect the dots for it. And maybe our understanding of what we’re trying to do has changed. And so. In the same way that chicken gets stale, really, partially done work gets stale as well and is not as tasty.

Richard: Yeah, there’s the occasional exception where something you see coming up the backlog has kind of a long pole activity with a particular specialty that’s in low demand right now.

And you can choose to make that bet. Like, we know this party coming up is going to need a lot of chicken and we should get ahead on it. But we should recognize that that’s a bet that you’re making or kind of an option that you’re giving up with a pretty strong set of trade offs. And it’s not the thing we should be going for by default.

Peter: Did you find this answer helpful? Would you give a different answer or would you add some nuance to the question? If so, let us know in the comments.

Richard: And like and share if you find this useful and be sure to hit subscribe so you can get notified when we post new content like this.

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