Distributed Management and Work-Life Integration

Reading time ~ 4 minutes

This was posted on my office wall recently…

It brought home what the last decade of international teams and ubiquitous business email access has achieved for many of us software professionals.

Since the late 1990’s I’ve worked in globally distributed or virtual teams. There’s a huge amount of positive things to be said about the working experiences I’ve had with these teams over the years.

  • My cultural boundaries have stretched
  • I’ve had opportunities to work with great people all over the world
  • I’ve learned a mountain of cool stuff
  • I’ve met hundreds of new friends
  • I’ve visited amazing places
  • and…

  • I’ve left my family at home most of the time.

Sadly small children and transcontinental business trips don’t really mix. My family have been incredibly tolerant and I always look to bring something back for them. They have a pretty tough ride but they support what I do and I appreciate their patience.


With teams in the UK, India and the US there’s almost always a full working day of support, conversations and questions that happen outside the normal working timezone. As the pressure to deliver and support these teams has increased I find myself checking my work mail when I should be attending my family.

I recently reached the point where I was clearing my emails down during public holidays so that I could filter through and achieve something when I got in the following working day.

I check my email during breakfast at 6 or 7am and reply to things that came in during the US evening or India morning.

I commute to work and check my mail again to find another series of mails from India and a few UK early starters.

I check my mail when I get home from work to respond to anything urgent that came in during my commute.

I check my mail before bed in case there’s anything new that will derail my plans and priorities for the following day or that I can respond to before the US working day is over and 24 hours are lost on a decision.

(I also occasionally make time to write this blog, enjoy my family, study and maintain the house)

If I don’t clear my morning and evening international backlog my day job doesn’t have time & space to get done but this is all at the expense of other parts of life.

So how do I get things back under control?

WIP Limit vs Buffer Overrun

Here’s where Scrum, Lean & Kanban meet personal time management…

Set yourself a WIP limit. When that’s full, decide what doesn’t happen or has to be traded out. If you don’t make a decision, something will fall on the floor and chances are you’ll have a pile of half-done stuff. (a buffer overrun).

Build a visible backlog and keep it groomed. When new work comes in, prioritize and size it. (Take a look at the Covey Matrix as a powerful means of prioritizing). If I don’t have clear visibility to my backlog of work (not just my email inbox) then once again my mental buffer overruns and things fall on the floor.

This is where my problems are – relying on my mental buffer and inbox to be my primary and secondary backlogs!

Determine how big your backlog should be and whether it should be tiered (e.g. week, month, quarter). Just like a mature agile team, don’t build a backlog that’s bigger than your planning (or thinking and coping) horizon. If it’s important it’ll come back when you have the capacity.

Next, just like your agile projects, get your backlog visible. When new work comes in, take your stakeholders to the backlog and have a prioritization and trading out conversation.

Some things will have time deadlines and some of these you can’t avoid so what else has to give? If you have more items with time deadlines than you can cover, take your stakeholders back to your backlog and force the prioritization discussion again.

I recommend pipelining work into “emergencies“, “small“, and “not-small“. This is enough to provide an interesting mental mix but aim to limit multi-tasking to a maximum of one item in each area. (Clarke Ching has some fantastic insights and demonstrations on why multitasking is evil).

It’s also worth rewarding yourself. You’ll find items that fall in the “distraction” quadrant of the Covey matrix are often where some rewards lay hiding. Identify a few interesting, fun things and make sure they get some airtime in with all the priorities to pay off some of your priority fatigue.

Simple right?

OK, this won’t break the email addiction but it will help manage the personal backlog and priorities more effectively.

When it’s personal rather than a project this seems so much harder.  With all that time teaching teams to trade out and prioritize, it’s time I started to eat my own dog-food.

Epilogue: This article has been waiting in my backlog for a couple of weeks to be rounded off before publishing. Yesterday the manager I’m pairing with planted a large kanban board by my desk with a list of the top priority management goals and activities that we have on our planning horizon right now down the left hand side and the associated tasks and states all prepped up! It’s not our entire backlog but it’s well more than we can achieve in the next 2 weeks and covers all the known top priority things.

Now it’s time to start managing the load properly again.

Are You Empowered?

Reading time ~ 2 minutes

Many large companies want to promote a culture of empowerment but what does that really mean?

In a small company or start-up you often truly are empowered to act beyond your boundaries.  In fact it goes beyond that, you’re responsible for acting fast.

Chances are if you don’t pick things up that need dealing with, either someone else will and leave you feeling distinctly mediocre or your team or company will suffer. Either way, the culture of empowerment in small companies transforms into shared accountability.

In a large corporation, does this really still work?

Whilst we may think this is a problem with corporate culture, it actually depends most on individual managers.

In a traditional hierarchical organization, telling your management staff that their teams are empowered sounds very noble and supportive but in reality it’s seen more like abdicating support. Pushing empowerment at this level usually means you want something done for free with no risk to yourself.

There’s a difference between staff being told they are empowered and actually being empowered.  In fact, as a senior manager; empowering your staff requires you to make it safe for your teams to act.  One great way to do this is to lead by example.

In a conversation with Dan North early last year, his quip really stuck with me…

“You are anointed with empowerment, go forth and be empowered.”

Here’s what’s often hidden behind the words…

  • There’s an approval process you need to go through beforehand.
  • When you’re done, I want a full report with metrics on my desk and a 1 slide PowerPoint summary for the executive team.
  • Here’s a catalog of things you can’t do or touch and people you can’t speak to.
  • Don’t screw up or it’s your ass on the line.

Let’s break that mindset…

First, take a look at your constraints. What things are you really not allowed to change. Probably nothing – as long as you can demonstrate something better.

Sadly, most of us have a mortgage and/or family to sustain, a career to maintain, are on the line for getting stuff delivered and are way over-stretched.  That’s not a very empowering position.

Truly empowered people are able to take calculated risks and perform valuable actions that they know are the right thing to do, they ask for forgiveness & approval later if needed and most of all, they have their manager’s unflagging support, even when they fail.

As a Manager, don’t abdicate your responsibilities to your teams; give them the tools and safety they need to really be empowered so that they can make a difference and feel supported in doing so.

Why The Manifesto For Half-Arsed Agile Software Development Is Actually Important But Not Enough

Reading time ~ < 1 minutes

“That is, while the items on the left sound nice
in theory, we’re an enterprise company, and there’s
no way we’re letting go of the items on the right.”


Not mine but this resonates strongly with my experiences. I’ve seen varying levels of agile interpretation including this during my career so far. (By contrast, the team closest to the original principles that I worked with hadn’t even given their working practices and culture a name.)

The sad fact is that it’s all too easy to fall into the checkbook agile, control & distrust trap in large organizations. What I like about this spoof is that it captures Ron Jeffries thinking from this article in a concrete and direct way that even the most disconnected exec should recognize what their teams are doing wrong.

It also uses a subtle but powerful tool that makes this worth paying attention to rather than just reading, chuckling and inwardly despairing.

In trying to understand what you should do it’s important to understand what you should not do. The original manifesto is vague. Many of the myths that cause execs to distrust agile when they first read the manifesto are made manifest due to its vagueness. Similarly, developers that see a get out of jail free card on having to do anything but cut code in the manifesto are able to do so.

The negative ad-libs at the end of each point in this cynical version provide a clear “bad” marker; a new, tangible triangulation point to avoid.

What we need are equivalent “good” triangulation points based on business reality for large-scale software development rather than a noble vision so that we can help our teams and managers do the right thing.