Project Management

Don’t Let a Growing Work Item Count Affect Productivity

Dovile Miseviciute ·

Passionate content marketer looking to bring better solutions to the project management space. 2020 - Present Marketing specialist at Teamhood. 2014 - 2020 Marketing manager for Eylean.

productivity pradadox

Managing projects is no easy task often made even more complex by the ever-growing work item count on the To-do list. While the extending list of work items is a sign of growth and moving forward, without a good system in place teams face loss of productivity and often get overwhelmed. Could this phenomenon be postponed or even avoided? It sure can if you are ready to implement effective systems and tools to help your team cope in such situations.

Where we lose productivity

Most projects start out with an idea that builds and grows into a large effort worked on by a group of people. The beginning is rather simple – you have the main goal and start looking for ways to make it a reality, in time more people come along and things that have to be done become clearer. Work item count starts increasing and you set up a simple tracking system like a basic Kanban board to note down ideas and track what is being done.

At this point, most managers use something like this – 4 sections to differentiate work items and keep tabs on what is in motion. Backlog is for ideas, To do for planned work items, Doing for work items in progress, and Done for completed work items.

engineering template kanban

A system like this works great at the initial stages of the project, but once things get going it quickly becomes messy. With more people joining the team and more work items being added to the board, it becomes difficult to see what has to be done, to identify priorities and to understand what is currently going on. Team members have to spend time looking through the task board and consult with their colleagues on what they should be doing next, which means they are not delivering completed work items and the productivity starts going down. For a while, a good leader or a manager can take care of task delegation, but as the work item count keeps increasing, this becomes ineffective and other solutions are needed.

Keeping up with changes

A situation like this is especially true for the beginning stages of a project when new tasks are being added at an advanced rate. At first you may think that there is no problem with productivity as it is natural to have the ratio of new versus completed items shift. But teams soon notice, the average of completed work items is going down. Which means, the project management system in place is no longer effective or as we like to call it the team has reached the tipping point.

productivity tipping point

At this stage the Kanban board that worked fine initially can no longer effectively visualize the growing number of work items and management is overloaded with delegating work instead of focusing on the future vision of the project. The good news however, this does not mean everything is lost. By focusing on three key aspects of your process, your team can actually gain back lost productivity.

1 – Strong leadership

First up, while you may be tempted to forget task delegation and focus on grander things, strong formal and informal leadership is very important at this stage of the project. As your processes are still being created it is up to the management to clearly communicate goals and get everyone aligned. Allow your team to be on the same page as you and it will be easier for them to make decisions that best serve project goals without having to consult you.

Learn more about the best leadership tools.

2 – Standardized process

As your team and work item count is growing, another thing to look over and refine is your process. At this stage it is no longer effective to have one person manage everything and it makes more sense to create a standardized process that everyone can easily follow. Once you have the process sorted, update your Kanban board to reflect it.

Use process columns in the WIP section to clearly define what actions have to be taken for each work item. This way even the newest team members can quickly pick up the standard way of operation. To make sure your team does not get lost in the ever growing backlog, introduce rows to prioritize work items. Using a simple system like Urgent, Regular importance and Low importance will allow your team to immediately know what they have to work on next and save time on delegation.

kanban priority

3 – Involve Stakeholders

Lastly, with an ever growing work item count it is more important than before to actually focus on the highest priority items. And the fact is, you may not be able to tell which of the items are the most important ones. So instead of wasting your effort and having to rework items with changed priority, make sure to consult your stakeholders. By working closely with them you will be able to adapt and change the course of action before you have spent weeks working on something that cannot be used anymore.

Even if you have reached the tipping point and noticed your productivity going down rapidly, by applying these 3 practices you will start taking control of your project once again. And even if you do not get all of the productivity back, it will definitely flatten the curve and keep your team working smoothly while you are not a slave to work item delegation duties.

Learn about the best project management practices.

Past the Growth Stage

Effectively managing the growth stage of the project is extremely important, but projects usually do not end there. Instead they continue and keep growing even larger, creating more difficult processes and further increasing the number of work items in the backlog. As your project matures, you may yet again face loss in productivity and in some extreme cases teams reach a point, that the productivity is so low, adding in more work items can no longer affect it.

While it may seem like a good place to be, remember that here the productivity is at the all time low or ironically at the peak. Your team is overwhelmed with the amount of work in the backlog and can barely sort through prioritized items to know what they should be doing next. Once again, the need for micromanagement and team overhead rises, minimizing any chances of productivity going up.

Creating a Steady Effort

Depending on team maturity, size, practices and tooling, the peak can be reached in a very different timeframe. For some this will be only a few weeks, while others will manage for a few months before getting to this low point. Either way, if you see productivity going down once more, taking action to control your situation should be your first priority. Here is how to prevent the peak:

1 – Scalable work organization

First and the most important point in improving productivity at this point is setting up a process that not only works, but can also be scaled. It is important to understand that same process management decisions will not be just as effective with 150 new tasks per week as they were with 20 new tasks per week. Thus you have to look for project management systems and a way to organize work that can be scaled alongside your company.

Still using that Kanban board? It may be a good time to upgrade it once more. However, this time just adding new rows may not be enough and at this stage of the project you should think about extending the task monitoring onto two separate Kanban boards. One for planning and prioritizing work items and the second one for tracking work progress.

This way you team or teams do not have to see the large backlog filled with items and can focus on priority work items placed in their process board. Tracking them through the progress steps and focusing on the execution. While management can do their work in the planning board separating different types of work items by rows and their priority and readiness to be delegated for execution by columns.

scrumban bucket planning new
engineering template kanban

Learn more about integrated project management.

2 – Culture of improvement

Once work item management is sorted, you should also pay some attention to the culture and mindset set within your company. Most productivity issues rise out of stale processes and unwillingness to change. Thus, your next step should be implementing a culture of improvement. Create an environment where your team can look for new and better ways to do things. Listen to their ideas and keep innovating.

3 – Reduce direct communication

Lastly, to gain back lost productivity you should look at the amount of direct communication your teams do. Whether this is due to inefficient communication, unclear process or simple habit, you should look to only keep the direct communication that is actually beneficial to the process. Maybe you started a certain type of meeting as a small team and it no longer works for a large company? Maybe more defined process steps and prioritization columns can save your teams a couple hours of deciding what to work on next?

Look over where your teams spend time talking to each other and you will surely find ways to improve productivity.

All of these efforts will allow you to push the curve and thus reduce the loss of productivity in the later stages of the project. Or if you are already at the peak, you will get a chance to gain back productivity that was lost and keep improving throughout the project.

Tooling to sustain productivity

Choosing the right tools for your project and process management can be a great way of implementing clear work processes, team structure and enabling your team to sustain productivity no matter the work item count. Following are the 5 tools we recommend considering when dealing with productivity issues brought on by increasing work item count:

1 Kanban systems

Kanban is great at many things, but without a doubt visualization of work is its strongest aspect. No sheet or list can compare when it comes to a visual task board created based on Kanban. It allows the team to quickly overview and understand large pieces of data and keep on working on the most important items at all times.

When we talk about managing a growing amount of tasks, Kanban boards are great. They allow you to track each of the items through process steps to know what is being done at all times. Moreover, you can divide your backlog into multiple sections and enhance it with priority columns. Making it easy to let the team know what has to be done next.

Teamhood kanban project management

2 Helicopter overview when planning

Planning large projects where new tasks are being added is not an easy task. And it is not made any easier if you are using a sheet or a list for everything that has to be done. Make your planning efforts simpler by using tools that create a helicopter overview of all the work items.

A timeline view, like this one in Teamhood, with task dependencies will visualize all of the work items according to their start and due dates and will allow you to draw dependencies between them to better understand scope and duration of the project. This way you will be able to see how the new additions affect your plans and take needed action.

projekt zeitleiste

3 Actionable Agile metrics

While you may not be familiar with Agile, you can still use its actionable Agile metrics to keep productivity up. For example, measuring team velocity – how many tasks have been completed by the team during a certain time, will allow you to monitor productivity and identify any possible issues early on. While actionable items will let you know of any tasks that are overdue or stuck in progress and allow you to band the team together to drive them into completion.

While you may be apprehensive about this at first, it is important to understand that these metrics are not devised to control or punish the team. Instead, they aim to provide a signal that for some reason productivity is down. Creating an opportunity for the team to investigate their process and implement better practices altogether.

More on practices that help prevent exceeding the project deadline.

4 Documentation system

The amount of documents you are using in your project changes from team to team. However, no matter the amount you use, having trouble accessing important documents when you need them can create huge issues.

Instead of sending documents over e-mail or keeping them separately, you should look into tools that allow you to attach important files to tasks directly. Making it easy to access the information and work on the documents together with the team. Thus, saving quite a lot of time and retaining productivity.

5 Clearly defined work process

Lastly, without a doubt the biggest loss in productivity happens when an employee is unsure of what they should be working on or how they should be doing one thing or another. For this, it is important to remember that you should first create a standardized way of working and make sure it is clearly communicated to everyone on your team.

Whether it is through documents or tools, the team should be able to check and understand the standard operation at any time. This allows them to make decisions faster, work without interruptions and enhance productivity.

Final words

In many teams productivity is largely affected when the work item count starts increasing in the backlog. To avoid this you should establish clear processes and practices, enable your team to make decisions and provide them with tools that will allow to keep the productivity up throughout the project. This way, you will be able to retain velocity and keep on track without getting distracted.


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