The language a team speaks says a lot about their culture and way of thinking. When solving problems there are two distinct streams of focus and they have drastically different outcomes.
When is it finished? vs Is it worth doing? are both equally valuable questions when building a product . The types of conversations they spin off differ in that the one brings anxiety and the other builds confidence.
When will it ship?
This question seems to be the foundation of the whole project management movement in a traditional sense. Asking this to a team will set everyone's teeth on edge as they scramble to try and marry an unending list of unknown risks, tradeoffs and scope changes with an arbitrary date somewhere in the future.
Does it really matter when it will ship? What defines a reasonable amount of time for changes to go into the wild?
- Bugs and Problems - Rather immediately or as soon as possible
- New Features - When it's done?
Adding a timeframe to building something increases the levels of anxiety. For both a business, that have to manage the monetary risks and tradeoffs of building a product and a product/development team that has to ship within those constraints. The age old dev triangle applies (Cheap, Good and Fast, choose two) and exists because of this idiotic question.
Anger and frustration usually goes into meetings like these and it's because this question does not have an answer that makes sense. The closest accurate answer to When will something ship is:
When it's finished
There must be a better way because angry, anxious and frustrated people is not a good place for teams to be at.
Is it worth doing?
Let me tell you a story.
Ignoring my exco member's incessant asking of when stuff would ship, I sat down one morning as we went into planning for the next cycle and decided to switch it up a bit.
It was a rainy day on the top floor and we were all still a little cold from the commute. It was mid season and no one really wanted to fight anymore with technical debt, decisions that didn't age well and a workload that never let up. I got us coffee and some doughnuts. It was great. We started our planning meeting 45 minutes late after eating in silence and hearing the rain on the windows. Exco joined as we got started, tired by all the running around and organizing things, also just sat there with us in silence for a bit.
I broke the silence by asking whether it was worth doing this big train-wreck of a thing at the top of our backlog and what value it will bring if we did indeed find a way to ship it.
After waiting for a bunch of time, the youngest dev on the team decided to brave an answer and it blew us away. He straight up said it's a shit idea and we are wasting our time. He had also thought a lot about this and suggested a simpler way to get more value for the type of problem we wanted to solve. A sudden flow of ideas started in that room because we got out of our own way mostly. We riffed on ideas for a couple of hours, finally coming to a conclusive solution that would in fact ship in less than a week but it didn't matter because it was worth doing in the end.
The person that ended up running this project saved upwards of a million rand a month for our department, never said anything in previous meetings because he was too anxious to suggest something because of the time pressures that existed in his environment.
Changing your conversations in the team is always worth doing
Worth and time rarely co-exist when building technology. Cyberpunk 2077 has been in development for 7 years and their whole outcome is to focus on the worthwhile things and not let time influence valuable work.
I am not advocating for letting indefinite projects run. I am advocating for a change in conversation when asking things from your team because that will result in a timely ship as an implicit benefit of motivated people doing meaningful work.
Cover photo by Colin Watts