Creating Visibility Around Unplanned Work

by Patrick Delany

In almost every IT organization unplanned work is a never-ending killer of predictability, reputation, and team morale. When an agile team is pulled off planned user stories and features for serious production issues or urgent last-minute requests from other areas of the enterprise, the planned work slips. Often, it slips a lot. This causes teams to miss their commitments, hurts their credibility with stakeholders, and ultimately creates low morale in and around the team.

Nobody wants this situation, but too few IT organizations and teams find their way out of this spiral. However, it does not have to be this way. The first step in slaying the unplanned work dragon is to acknowledge it exists, start planning for it, and track it in your agile ALM tool. Here are a few steps to get you started:

  1. Create a placeholder user story called “Unplanned Work (Iteration Number)” and estimate the placeholder story in story points. Estimate the story based on a percentage of the team’s velocity. If your team’s velocity or capacity is 30 story points and about 25% of your workload is unplanned, create a 13 point story for unplanned work.
  2. Make these placeholder stories the top story on the board for each iteration because it will likely be the highest priority.
  3. As unplanned work arrives, enter the unplanned work as a new story. Place the new story on the Team’s Backlog, not the current iteration.
  4. Tag the story to the appropriate unplanned work tag. Tags make it easy to create dashboards and reports on unplanned work by team and type with trending over time.
    1. Unplanned-Project: For project requests not planned during PI Planning
    2. Unplanned-L3: Escalations on incidents from Level 2 that need to be resolved
    3. Unplanned-Incident: Other support activity that is not a project request or an escalation from Level 2
  5. Pull the story into the current iteration when approved by the Product Owner or when agreed to by the entire team. The team should estimate the new story in story points just like any other story. Decrement the placeholder by the same amount as the new unplanned story.

Please note that Step 5 may cause some pure agilests to cringe, but it works–pretty well! The placeholder story creates a sufficient planning buffer, so the team does not over-commit during iteration planning. Decrementing the placeholder, as new unplanned stories are added, maintains velocity consistency and predictability. Finally, adding a story vs. a subordinate task reflects the independency and customer value of each unplanned request. Each unplanned request is of value by itself where tasks do not independently deliver customer value.

By following this process, with all the teams on your agile release train and using the tags, you will be able to do the following: create reports, make dashboards and charts showing the types, create quantities, generate sources, and produce impacts of unplanned work. Utilizing what you have learned today will help you towards achieving the next and most important goal of eliminating unplanned work. Stay tuned for a future blog post on that topic!

Patrick Delany is a leader in lean-agile enterprise transformational and a Scaled Agile Coach/Trainer with over 20 years of information technology leadership and consulting experience. Patrick has transformed technology organizations, programs, and teams across multiple industries and technology disciplines including management services (operations, program, portfolio), applications development, and infrastructure.

Patrick Delany is a SAFe SPC 5 certified agile coach

Patrick Delany, MBA, SPC5, PMP, CSM, ITIL v3
Senior Lean-Agile Transformation Coach Consultant