How to Make Your Process Fit Your Work

You might think, given our backgrounds, that we’d always advocate for an agile approach, something like Scrum. And while that may be where we’d start for many teams, it’s only one style of managing work, and may not be the right fit for the nature of a particular team’s work. There are two other styles to consider.

How we manage our work has to fit the nature of the work. And, too often, it doesn’t, which leads to waste and frustration. In this episode, Richard and Peter walk through 3 styles of process that go with 4 different kinds of work.

Show Notes

Cynefin article

HBR article

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Episode transcription:

Richard Lawrence

Different kinds of work require different ways of organizing the work. On the one hand, duh. That sounds obvious. On the other hand, if you look at how leaders actually lead, you’ll see two things:

  1. Leaders who don’t put any structure around the work, just hoping their teams will figure it out.
  2. Leaders who automatically organize the work based on something that worked for them in the past in another context, whether they were a leader or an individual contributor at the time.

Either way, you often end up with a way of organizing the work that doesn’t fit the nature of the work. Planning things that aren’t really plannable. Treating emergencies as projects to manage. Iterating on things that just need a project plan and efficient execution.

Peter Green

You might think, given our backgrounds, that we’d always advocate for an agile approach, something like Scrum. And while that may be where we’d start for many teams, it’s only one style of managing work, and may not be the right fit for the nature of a particular team’s work. There are two other styles to consider.


In this episode we’ll describe the three primary styles of organizing work and how each is fit for a specific work context. But first, a reminder that this show is a free resource sponsored by the Humanizing Work company.

Humanizing Work exists to make work more fit for humans and humans more capable of doing great work. To that end, we do training and coaching in three areas:

  1. We help leaders lead empowered teams and individuals more effectively, including helping them set up context-appropriate systems for their teams to manage work.
  2. We help product people turn their ideas into good visions, good experiments, and good backlogs.
  3. We help teams collaborate better to produce meaningful outcomes on complex work.


If you or your organization would benefit from better leadership, better product management, or better collaboration, and if you find our vision for human-centric work compelling, visit the contact page on and schedule a conversation with us.

  1. Now, the three styles of organizing work are what we call Plan & Execute, Increment & Adapt, and Focus & Flow.


When it comes to figuring out which approach is the right one for any particular bit of work, we find Dave Snowden’s Cynefin sense-making model particularly useful. It puts names on different kinds of work based on their complexity. We’ll mention the names of the Cynefin problem domains that go with each style of work in this episode, and if you’re not already familiar with Cynefin, we encourage you to check out a couple of resources we’ll link to in the show notes: our article called “What You Need to Know About Cynefin,” and Cynefin author Dave Snowden’s original Harvard Business Review article that introduced the model.


OK, first we have Plan & Execute. Plan & Execute is what most of us think of when we think of traditional project management. It’s the best approach when the project is, in Cynefin terms, Complicated, meaning it’s not obvious what to do, but with good analysis and planning, experts can accurately predict what to do.

Plan & Execute typically has project phases, from gathering requirements, to analysis, to technical planning, to execution, testing, and integration. Different experts often focus on one of the phases, with sign-offs and hand-offs at the gates between the phases. You might do some iteration during execution, but typically, you’re managing to the plan vs building in emergence and change.

Teams working in this space often benefit from rigorous planning and tracking of the project to ensure things are executed according to the plan. If this sounds like a good fit for the work you do, check out the Project Management Institute for more information.


The second style of work is what we’re calling Increment & Adapt. This is the world of agile and related techniques, and it’s the best approach when the work is what Cynefin calls complex, meaning no amount of planning can predict exactly what to do and in what order. The only way to efficiently learn what to make and how to make it is to actually start making it, and then see what we learn as we do it.

Increment & Adapt typically has short iterations, from a day or two up to a month or even a quarter, depending on the ease and cost of iterating. For software, that’s pretty fast. For projects involving building physical things, that tends towards the longer end.

The key to this approach is figuring out where to start. Instead of planning every detail, planning for these types of projects involves picking the smallest slice we could deliver that would teach us what to do next. Our 80/20 Product Backlog Refinement course teaches our best-in-class techniques for doing this.


By the way, work can move from complex to complicated. Well-chosen early slices can move a project out of the complex domain into the complicated. So, we often see mature teams doing early experimental work and then shifting into a more Plan & Execute approach as their understanding of the problem and the solution grows. The trick, however, is only shifting approach when the nature of the work has actually changed, not jumping into the Plan & Execute approach because you really, really want to be able to do a long-term plan.


The third style is Focus & Flow. This the style characterized by calls and tickets, where we do one thing at a time, as efficiently as we can. It’s where techniques like Kanban, limiting work in progress, and improving cycle time are important tools.


Focus & Flow is the right style for two very different categories of work, and there are some nuances in how to use it well in those two categories.

The first category is what Cynefin refers to as Clear, which is predictable. We have a queue of items to work on, and we’re knocking them off by following best practices and checklists as efficiently as we can. Think of a shipping fulfillment team, or a cleaning crew.


The second category where Focus & Flow is the best style is where the work is Chaotic.  It’s highly unpredictable. In this domain we can’t plan what is going to come next. We’re on call waiting for the next emergency, we respond to and address that one, and then we prepare ourselves for the next emergency to come in.

There are many kinds of teams that address both of these categories, like an operations support team that deals with some requests that are “give me another one of those,” and other requests that are closer to “Houston, we have a problem.” So, it’s possible to use Kanban techniques like classes of service to distinguish between those two kinds of work and apply different policies to them.


In our company, we find ourselves with all four kinds of work and, therefore, we use all three work management approaches. We have complex work around developing new products and services and bringing them to market. We have small projects that just need to be planned and executed. And we have week-to-week operational stuff like getting this show out the door that uses the Focus & Flow approach. And we occasionally have fires to put out, which jump to the top of the priority list and get our focus.


These three styles don’t encompass every possible scenario a team may work with, but they’re a great place to start, and they help you avoid the problem we mentioned at the top of the episode, where you end up with a work approach that just doesn’t fit the nature of the work you’re doing.

So, think about your work, and consider–which of the three styles are you using? Does that style fit the nature of the work? If not, how could you modify it to better fit? And thanks for tuning in!



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