Embracing Chaos in Workflow

Reposted from Medium.com

Not my actual office

It’s been a month. I’m an evangelist for agile modern workflows for businesses that traditionally haven’t explored those words. In my case, it’s a law firm. I’m even building practice management software that will hopefully be in beta in another month. That, of course, is two months too late for the current crisis. (I’m also a co-founder of an infinite collaborative canvas).

As a New Jersey business, we’ve had to rapidly adapt to working from home. Despite belief in transforming the workplace, my firm has been a slow ship to turn. So, when the world closed, in order to keep business running, I rapidly shifted to remote work stations and handing out laptops to my staff. Our current practice management system is server/client based, and so we just weren’t ready for this pivot.

But, getting shoved into remote asynchronous work has taught me a few lessons that are going to focus my development moving forward. These concepts build on traditional agile concepts, but allow for greater individual expression within a project.

Single Source of Truth but Many Views

There are a certain number of things that need to get done. For our firm, that may be scheduling hearings, contacting clients for updates, requesting medical records, writing briefs, and filing appeals. These tasks change for each client, but the processes are generally the same. Because of that, we work in a modified “kanban” workflow that includes everything from new client inquiries to post-hearing file workups. The truth is that one attorney or paralegal can only have so many balls in the air at one time. Everyone may need to work on a different part of a task though, and so a workflow may look very different for different roles.

Because of this, we’ve rallied around using a collection of boards that coalesce around a single board per task type. So, all cases that have hearings are on a single board with statuses based on what needs to be done. But, this is a place of reporting, not *doing* Instead, the paralegal who requests medical records organizes and tracks her work separate from that board as does the attorney reviewing the file and deciding on the development to be done.

Everyone rallies back to, and reports on the single board though, so the whole team can see progress in real time. We use assigned users to track work in progress limits through filtering. It’s an imperfect system, but we’re in a crunch.

Chaos on the path to the best Practice

A side effect of this is that everyone is organizing their own work in slightly different ways while still rallying around the team board. Instead of falling apart, or worse, causing the team to fracture into their own silos, every member of the team is both seeing the big picture and seeing their own role in slightly different ways. This unintentional duplication of tracking generates opportunities for everyone to catch roadblocks and offer suggestions to improve in different lenses.

It’s as simple as imagining one team member organizing tasks based on deadline (the date of a hearing), while someone else organizes those tasks based on the type of task (calling medical providers for records, drafting briefs, meeting with clients to prepare for court). Different problems show up when you look at your work based on type vs based on due date. There are a lot of other places this crops up (if one worker is using a simple to-do list to organize their work, and someone else is using a paper-based folder system, they’ll approach the work differently too). This is like taking the comparison between assembly line and single-piece flow, and exploring and benefiting from both (despite the well-known illustrative effect of single-piece flow in that video, we wouldn’t have cars if it wasn’t for assembly line, and both have their benefits).

This has a ton of benefits, but there is still a vision gap. While everyone rallies around the single source of truth and manually updates their work in that place, individuals can’t see each other’s organization, and so the possibility of not understanding why a co-worker is blocked by a task is high.

Collision Detection in all things

The key to getting around this collaboration gap is to use social tools, even for personal organization. Maybe that means you’re temporarily paying for more subscriptions than you need, (Todoist, trello, gdocs), but it’s almost unavoidable if you want to turn the chaos into something solid. The missing piece is to know who’s working on what. While we’re working our way through this lockdown, that means a lot of pinging one another in hangouts, but tools like front or missive for email have the right idea, albeit in the narrow world of email. It’s interesting that we lose a bit of presence with more modern tools. The original google hangouts would show a “read” icon as folks on a group thread read the message. You’d see where your team was and who still hadn’t checked in. Slack, and the Hangouts Chat for Gsuite lose this. There are rational reasons to lose this — not wanting to promote a nanny-state is a very compelling reason. But, when you lose presence detection, you lose collision avoidance.

Manually shouting out what we’re doing is useful, and, to a great extent, trading off responsibilities, so there’s an assumption of ownership on a task at any given time, avoids most of the problems, but what do you do when a stressed out client emails you and then immediately calls. One co-worker might be typing a response, while someone else is on the phone with her. Having a single view where you can see what your team is doing can be a huge stress-saver. Somewhere in this thread is the idea of letting everyone on your team take the same stack of things and put them together however they want. Whether it’s a task list, a kanban board, an email inbox or a canvas, the content that makes up the “thing to be done” will always be there, and when someone is working with that thing, the whole team will know. In the meantime, calling out what you’re doing is useful for ownership and also assessing what each other really need to know.

Messaging Over Meetings

Since I just finished complaining about some of the losses in messaging with slack and hangouts chat, let me tell you what’s great. People can communicate on these channels as urgently as they need, or not. Because we can add files in-line, that decision that just came in on a new case inquiry can be reviewed and addressed without ever leaving the thread. The whole office can get together and check in (or out) and sub-groups can discuss their own work at their own pace. We live in an age where people are violently learning to not be around each other. That can be jarring, especially after years of cohabitation. But, the urge to give ourselves over to zoom and constantly check in over video is an emotional, not a productive urge. It is much easier to send a message that can be addressed immediately if needed, or not. The non-linear nature of a messaging platform where conversations can be carved up and split off with deeper content coexisting with the immediate “this dude’s on the phone and it’s on fire,” kind of messages, is unique and an advantage that should be taken.

Asynchronous Improvement

As a final thought, part of the Agile Manifesto is continuous improvement. I’ve written previously about the challenges of tasking self-organizing teams with continuously improving where a lot of those stakeholders are reasonably here for a paycheck, not to create a billion dollar idea. But, in this remote-work-by-force reality, there are advantages in everyone having no choice but to reflect on their activities and to call out their work as it gets done. Roadblocks become clear and, when committed to writing, they become better conceived. Ideas can percolate across channels and organizational systems. By default, working with fewer resources and greater creative independence, improvement is a natural side effect, not a business consultant’s talking point. Take advantage of the time, let your teams figure out how to work in this environment if you’re lucky enough to have been able to keep your business running. If not, take this time to reflect and consider what parts of this moment may be worth keeping in the long term. Positive change is almost unavoidable.