Team procrastination

Procrastination is the art of postponing work until it’s just too late to do it well. We start with good intentions and plan to get stuff done, only to end up rushing it out of the door to meet the deadline. It’s a weird human quirk and most people seem to suffer from it. The main driver is our brain’s love for instant gratification. One cookie now or three cookies later? Nom nom nom. Work on that paper that’s due in March or rewatch an entire series of the Sopranos? One more episode… You write down a solid rational plan, but your reptile brain can’t read.

If you haven’t seen this TED talk by Tim Urban on procrastination, I highly recommend it. Our rational brain is basically dominated by the Instant Gratification Monkey until a deadline causes us to panic. It’s only when we are confronted with real implications that we get working. That’s what makes you start on your slides an hour before the presentation.

The same dynamic seems to occur in teams. Have you ever walked out of a project kick-off with invigorated resolve? Let’s do this! Three months down the line, you still didn’t really start.

We swear to put out a Minimal Viable Product, but the definition of “minimal” seems to slip every week. We open new tickets but nothing ever gets “done”. When the deadline approaches, there is always last minute stress to get something shipped. And it’s usually not as great as we said it would be. Why is that? Sure, there is Parkinson’s Law, but that’s not the whole picture. Entire teams can procrastinate together.

Making plans is a kind of instant gratification. It feels like you’ve taken the big step to get started. You’ve set up a budget, define a scope and staffed a team. And then it becomes business as usual. That team starts out being extremely productive. There is a lot of collaboration. Everyone seems confident that we’re going in the right direction. Until this starts to die down.

A team loses focus because there is always something “more important” that comes up. Answering that mail now or work on the feature that’s due in March? Help the other team put out their fires or stick to the mission? An entire product team can be stuck in procrastination at the same time! Instead of focussing on releasing working software, they open up all kinds of other activities. Why? Because there is no penalty when we’re not on schedule. As soon as we can move unfinished stories to the next sprint, we know the panic monster is far away.

Look at the current state of your team and ask yourself: are we working like the deadline is near? Are we getting things done or are we trying to think our way to a better solution? Are we shipping or buying time?

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