Saving the product – will you row or bail?

I recently wrote about the widespread phenomenon of the evergrowing pseudo-committed backlog. In which case a backlog really becomes a backlog in the original meaning of the word: Unfinished stuff.

But having such a huge “accumulation of tasks unperformed” (as the Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines ‘backlog’) also often leads to another problem. Housekeeping gets postponed until later. Way later.

What’s the big problem?

Look at it this way – you’re sitting in an eight (the 8 person rowing boat with nine people in it) and your boat is taking on water. Slowly but constantly.
Actually the rate at which the boat is taking on water will lead to the sinking of the vessel about 500 feet before the finish-line. In the world of projects that would be the moment your product becomes unmaintainable.

What are the options?

There are some options to deal with the situation. Let’s look at a couple of them.

  1. You could just all stop rowing, start bailing and wait for a SAR-Team to pick you up.
  2. Part your team could continue rowing, while the rest starts bailing.
  3. You could designate one “bail person” and still try to reach the finish-line with the rest of you still rowing at maximum power
  4. … [lots of other options]

Replace rowing with “creating new features” and bailing by “doing maintenance” and you have a pretty good analogy to the situation we sometimes find ourselves in with the zombie-backlog.

To decide what to do, you might also want to add some more ‘real-life’ rowing challenges. For example the boat might stay afloat long enough to reach the finish-line if only one person is rowing and the rest is bailing, but that person would not last the whole distance. So a rotating system has to be put into place. (see any applicability to your product’s situation yet?)

Or take a thunderstorm (and the competition) coming up behind you. Depending on whether the rowers are also able swimmers you might put more people on the oars and risk the boat going under just behind the finish line to still win the race. If none of them are swimmers reaching the shore becomes more important.
Or you might invest more people at the bailing buckets and therefore not be able to outrun the competition, wich will cost you the race, but still get the boat out of the water before the thunderstorm which might otherwise cost you the season. (Depending on your funding and the availability of new boats)

The non-option

There is just one thing that you can’t reasonably do – keep on rowing like there’s no tomorrow. Because if you do, then –someday soon– there won’t be a tomorrow for the product.

Next time you look at the product and the backlog you might want to consider what to tackle – the oars or the bailers.

till next time
  Michael Mahlberg

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