Our principles in focus: do the smallest amount of good work
Once you’re breaking your work down, you can start to think about adjusting your perception of “done”
In the development profession at dxw, one of the principles we hold ourselves to is to “do the smallest amount of good work”. But what does that mean in practice?
One of the foundational principles of agile delivery is to work on the riskiest things first to try to reduce risk as quickly as possible. This is part of what sets it apart from other models like waterfall; when you’re working in an agile way, you’re planning and delivering at the same time. You deliver in chunks so you can learn from what you’ve done and keep adjusting the plan to keep the focus on delivering the highest value thing first. “Do the smallest amount of good work” reflects this idea.
What does “smallest” mean?
When writing software, we usually come from the angle of delivering a feature. Our work comes to us as a user story, or a problem statement, and we’re there to build a thing to solve it. Software developers are generally pretty good at decoupling features from each other to deliver the highest value changes independently of other things.
But how do we deliver those features? Many of us would pick up the task, work out what the acceptance criteria are, design an approach to meet those criteria, and disappear into our computer for a few days, emerging with a finished product, tested and shiny, ready to review. We review the work, deploy it, learn from how it fits into the application, and how it’s used to inform our next bit of feature work.
We can do better than that though. Most features we build are made of many smaller components. Hopefully you’re using your version control to tell stories, and keeping commits to small, atomic changes to help others read and understand what’s changing and why (if you don’t, go and read Tekin’s linked blog post now – we’ll wait). Often those smaller components are useful in themselves. Break them up and ship them in parts!
Okay, but in practice?
Consider an example. You’re adding some new behaviour to something that already exists, and you’re looking at the code and thinking, “if I changed the way this function works a little, it would make it a lot easier to build on top of.” Many of us would go ahead and do that refactor, build our new behaviour on top, bundle it up, and ship it off for review.
But there’s lost time between you doing the refactor and you finishing building the new behaviour. During that time other people in your team might be interacting with the same part of the system and they’re still working with the old, less good behaviour (and risking making conflicting changes). They don’t get the benefit of your refactor until you’re finished with the feature as a whole.
Instead of bundling your refactor in with the new behaviour, you could ship that refactor for others to use while you build the next thing. Sure, you might change it again while you’re building as you spot further improvements, but the foundations are there for others to think about and use. Your work is batched up smaller, making it easier to review and understand.
And importantly, you can identify something higher value than the thing you were initially setting out to build to work on next. You can put what you were doing down without leaving a load of code floating around, growing out of date, and future work can benefit from what you’ve done without the rest of the deprioritised thing.
This is an easy example, but the principle applies to most of the work we do. Most features more than a few lines long are built in stages that are useful on their own. By bundling them together, you’re depriving your team of the continuous value you’re creating. And if you’re off sick tomorrow, they have to wait until you’re well again to finish it or pick up whatever mess you left them (if you remembered to push your work in progress changes).
The agility created by working in this way is gold dust for teams. You can be reactive on the scale of hours and days, not weeks and months. You can go where you’re needed, and be constantly chasing that highest value work to reduce the most risk. You can adapt to the changing needs of other people in your team, jump on that thing that’s blocking someone else, and you’ve left things in a clean place for you or someone else to pick up where you left off.
It also helps train you to be less precious about chasing perfection. When building in this way, you have to internalise that your code is never “finished”. You can always make software better, but is doing that the most important thing right now?
If you’re shipping features incrementally, you’re teaching yourself that every step is useful and that you’ll come back and improve the bits that need it when you need to. And when you’re done with one part, you get to step back, take stock, and evaluate where the biggest win is now. You’re probably going to learn to stop and call a thing “good enough” a long time before you would have before, making you more efficient at delivering value. If you need to make it better later, you can!
You might be wondering about the burden this puts on others in your team. That’s a lot of pull requests to review, and you’re all too busy writing your own features to be constantly interrupted by code review, right? But don’t forget that each pull request you open is tiny – maybe a commit or 2 – and takes a couple of minutes to look over. And if everyone in your team is working in this way, you have lots of moments when you’ve finished 1 part and are about to pick up another to go and read someone else’s code.
Working in this way, it’s not unusual to ship 5 or 10 pull requests per team member in a day, keeping only the smallest things in “work in progress” state, reacting to the changing needs of the project, and getting those juicy dopamine hits from completing things.
How can I get better at this?
Have I convinced you? The first step is to think about how you’re breaking work down right now. If you’re picking up a feature ticket and getting stuck in, try stopping first to plan. Work out the first step you need to take for the feature and break that out into its own ticket. Deliver that first step all the way through code review to being merged before picking up the feature ticket again to find the next bit.
If you break your features up into smaller and smaller chunks until you have individual changes, you can then group them back together to balance the overhead of putting pull requests together and getting things merged with delivering value quickly. You’ll probably need to do this consciously at first, but over time you’ll pick up a sense for when to stop breaking something down. Eventually you might not even think about the breakdown at all and instead naturally find the “ship it” points in what you’re doing as you work.
Once you’re breaking your work down, you can start to think about adjusting your perception of “done”. Each time you deliver some working software, stop and think about whether the next thing you could build on top of it is actually the most valuable thing to do now. Have you met your acceptance criteria? Is there something else to pay attention to now?
Once you’ve got into the habit (and have convinced your team it’s something they should do too), you’ll start to be able to adapt your priorities between those steps. Eventually you’ll be able to adjust your plan entirely in service of the project goals. You’re learning from delivering the parts and can make radical shifts to priorities without worrying about the consequences of leaving things half-finished. You’ve delivered everything valuable, nothing’s growing stale in an unmerged branch, and can return to build on top of what’s there when it’s the right time. Or not if it’s never the most important thing to do. You might even learn to let those “unfinished” things go! Or so I’ve been told. I can hope!
This is all one person’s opinion (mine) and there are many other things covered by that principle to “do the smallest amount of good work” but hopefully it’s food for thought that might help you think about how you approach your work. If you’d like to talk about this idea, email me or find me on Twitter.