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The Ooo Shiny Syndrome

by Kent McDonald

One success factor for project teams is that all the team members are focused solely on that one project. Agile approaches offer a person the ability to focus, but removing external distractions is not all that is needed to get focus to occur. Team members also need to have some self-discipline to keep that focus. I've always assumed that knowledge workers would prefer to be able to focus on one thing at a time, but I have found several cases in the last few weeks where knowledge workers suffered from the "Ooo Shiny Syndrome" and got distracted from their main responsibilities.

A team I worked with recently had a problem staying on focused on one task. They work in an agile environment, and given the lack of prescriptive processes, commitment and self-discipline are key characteristics for success. The team would commit to work on a particular backlog item, and several of the members would invariably find something else they thought was more interesting and work on that instead, ignoring the tasks they had committed to and slowing progress. It's a perfect example of the Ooo Shiny Syndrome.

Ooo Shiny Syndrome is difficult to overcome. I know, because I occasionally face the same affliction during my own work. But the damage I inflict when I distract myself generally only hurts me. In a team environment, this syndrome can be particularly harmful. If team members continually ignore the work they committed to in favor of something else which seems much more entertaining, they stall work on the important things that led to a team commitment in the first place. This slows the overall progress of the project.

So how do you counter Ooo Shiny Syndrome? There are no easy answers, especially if you are working on an agile team that does not want to go back to micromanagement. The approaches I find most helpful all center around helping team members strengthen their self-discipline.

There's a difference between coaching someone to strengthen their self-discipline and micromanaging team members. In this case, some of the team members tried to hold their teammates accountable. But it was a fairly new team, and the relationships were not terribly strong yet. As a result, the team members who were being held accountable felt like they were being attacked.

The team members had every right to expect everyone to pull their weight, but sometimes it comes down to how that message is conveyed. One way is to avoid being too accusatory when trying to keep everyone on task. "Well what have you been doing all day?" may not be the best way to open that conversation. A less confrontational approach is, "I notice this task has been in progress for three days. Is there something that is blocking its completion that the team can help with? Or is this item so large that we need to break down into smaller chunks that we can complete sooner?" Focusing on the task itself, not the people who are supposed to be performing them, can help you avoid some defense mechanisms that people may put up. Either way, regular reminders of commitments made can also help people stay on task.

Sometimes, people don't stay focused because they want to dig into something while they are still thinking about it. Help these team members capture passing thoughts for later. You just identified a new risk, a new question you want to analyze, or some new piece of technical debt? Note it on an index card or sticky note and put it in the backlog. You haven't forgotten it, and now you have noted it for further discussion so that the team can determine when it is appropriate to investigate further.

Successful definitions of done, or asking when you'll know when you are successful, are good at many levels. Knowing what success looks like at the product, release, and sprint level is great, and it can be just as helpful to have clear understanding of what success looks like for a particular analysis effort, or even a particular meeting. Use those definitions to give people some indication of when they are done.

In some cases, you may find that you need to break the jobs down into much smaller tasks. Some people have trouble focusing on one thing for too long, so if you break a story down into sufficiently small tasks, it's easier to take one thing and complete it, and then move on to the next one. (Notice how some personal productivity techniques can be helpful here?)

If none of these techniques seems to do the trick, you may have to let the project team fail. The way Agile methodologies are set up, failures result in fairly quick learning, and the overall damage to the project and team is fairly well contained. If your team continues to get distracted and work on things that aren't associated with their actual commitment, they will eventually fail to meet that commitment. When that happens, you can have a discussion around why the commitment was not met. You may have to work through some excuses that didn't really have anything to do with the real cause, but eventually you'll arrive at the fact that people were working on things not directly associated with the sprint.

Ooo Shiny Syndrome can be a pervasive ailment, but it doesn't have to spell ruin for your team. Try countering it with these techniques, or try avoiding it by raising your team's awareness of the importance of making and sticking to commitments and the self-discipline required to do that. Also remind them that no one would really like the alternative -- micromanagement.

Related Links
Keep track of your time sinks for a few days and find out where the Ooo Shiny is sabotaging your work. Track visible deliverables to give your team a view into those tasks that have been 80% done for six weeks now. Track your definitions of "done" in our completion criteria guidelines, so everyone knows what they're working toward. Find out more about Agile management techniques.

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