Last Spring while working in London, my colleagues and I spent one evening exploring the city and found ourselves in the Sunday evening crowds around Piccadilly Square. Wandering around, we came across a Haagen Dazs® ice cream shop and thought we’d order one of their delicious milk shakes. Like every other time we’ve been on the road and thought one of these delicious ice cream confections sounded good, the place was reasonably busy. We took our place in line (or the queue if your in England) and patiently waited our turn.
It wasn’t long before some self-important guy with fancy shoes bust in expecting his order to be taken—however he’d tried to enter at the wrong end of the queue. Upset that he had been ignored (while uttering a number of expletives) he stormed out frustrated that the person behind the counter had the nerve to expect him to take his place at the back of the line.
This is not an uncommon problem in many organizations. All too often it feels like the squeaky wheel gets the most attention while more important work sits patiently in the queue waiting. Sometimes because of the title or authority of the “squeaker,” insignificant work gets top priority—which makes capacity planning problematic at best and impossible in many cases.
In my opinion, before we can accurately capacity plan, we need to effectively manage the queue. This is much easier for project teams that work on the same types of projects on a regular basis; and more challenging for companies that are always doing one-off, special projects—but it can be done.
When I first started managing projects I used a whiteboard to manage the queue. It worked, but it required me to capture email requests, assignments made in meetings and other requests manually. I’d then add them to the queue, prioritize them and begin the project planning process. I liked the fact that the whiteboard was on the wall in front of my desk and that I could keep an eye on my projects and how the team was progressing—but it wasn’t very efficient. I spent a lot of time at the board updating status, re-prioritizing and making notes. Good, but not great.
Although I’m not a certified “Scrum Master” I have led a Sprint or two. I like the idea of the backlog, which is a lot more efficient than my old whiteboard, but it has its limitations.
Managing the queue becomes really important when your team does a lot of ad hoc work like my team does or provides shared services to your organization like many in IT, marketing or HR. Sometimes things fit nicely into a work breakdown structure, but this isn’t always the case. In a recent webinar, I heard Forrester’s Tim Harmon suggest that for most knowledge workers, over fifty percent of their work is what he calls unstructured/ad hoc work. In conversations I’ve had with project leaders over the last year, they all tell the same story: there’s a lot of work done by project teams that are short-duration one-off requests from colleagues, managers from other departments and peers that eat up a lot of team members’ time. Sometimes the project manager might know about these requests so he can accommodate them within his or her capacity plan, but not always.
I use our software to help manage my queue. Some of the most commonly requested project types are templated with the building blocks (established by best practice) already in place so we can apply them as needed to any upcoming plan. Internal customers can enter their request into the queue and I can prioritize, plan and execute as needed. Even one-off task requests come through the queue so I can add them to my work list, prioritize, take care of them myself or assign them to another member of the team. Managing the queue makes it much easier for me to address the likelihood that a new project request can be completed and when it might be executed with the person making the request. The queue informs the discussion about capacity and prioritization—making it easier to say “no” when needed or to “pivot” and change gears when required.
Before we can manage capacity, we need to manage the queue. I know what works for me. What works for you?