Agile Organization

Stop Playing Tetris with Product Development

Product developer John Cutler likes to use the game Tetris as a metaphor for everything that can go wrong in software product development: There is limited control. The emphasis is on high utilization, even if the wrong moves are being made. Everything is moving, moving, moving—but without a sense of sustainability at a high level. Cutler writes in an article how to stop playing unwinnable games*.

Crushed by Priorities

First, Cutler provides lots of examples of how development can, at different scales, fall into Tetris territory. Maybe stories are added into a sprint for the explicit reason of hitting a desired velocity and not for any other reason. Maybe the user experience team is asked to “get ahead” on its work, without considering the significant dependencies that it will create. Or maybe teams just never pause to pay off their technical debt. In all cases, thinking is too short-term, and optimization is being emphasized at the wrong intervals.

To get away from Tetris thinking, Cutler shares these recommendations:

  • Emphasize the importance of “pulling” work over pushing it.
  • Emphasize a culture of “doing more with less” over “constantly outputting.”
  • Leverage work in progress (WIP)/process constraints.
  • Visualize dependencies as they fit into the whole.
  • Address technical debt.
  • Map your assumptions.

About WIP and process constraints, Cutler writes this:

WIP constraints serve as a forcing function for continuous improvement, a catalyst for pull, and a signal that the system is straining and needs some TLC. Think of every piece/level on a Tetris board as WIP. Unfortunately, WIP constraints are counterintuitive: we look to estimates/guesses to “size up” the work and “fill up” the system. This is a recipe for dangerously high utilization rates and long, long lead times.

For further thoughts on how to stop playing games with product development, you can view the original article here:


*Disclaimer: Tetris is totally winnable (and that’s not even the fastest line clearing anymore).

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