Why “Don’t you Have Anything Better to Do?” Should Be Your Mantra

As agile practitioners, we need to focus not just on delivering value, but on delivering the most value we can within a given time frame. But precisely defining “value” can be challenging because what a person considers to be valuable might depend on their job title, social status, time of the year, and many other variables. Identifying that value, and then working relentlessly to deliver software that meets the customer’s current definition of value, is at the core of agile development. The Agile Manifesto mentions several processes and artifacts in software development, and divides them into two short lists: those that have value, and those that have more value. (If you haven’t read the Agile Manifesto, go read it now. It will take you 15 seconds.) This means decisions need to be made between what we can do and we should do.

It took me some time to realize this. I remember telling my boss when I was a new scrum master (-slash-product-owner) that we had a large backlog for several applications. My thinking was that if an item was on the backlog, it should get done at some point. He said that we should work on those items if there was value in them. Another time, we had scheduled time during the sprint to develop a custom module for an open source application that we used. This was a nice-to-have, but far less valuable to our customers than most of the other items we had in our backlog. My boss quickly shot that down and said we should only work on that kind of thing if we had nothing else to do. I resented his “meddling” both times, but eventually realized that he was right.

We generally use the phrase, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” as a way of blowing someone off. But in agile development, that should be our guiding mantra every day. It is another way of asking, “Is this the most valuable task I can be working on right now? Am I doing this just to feel the satisfaction of checking off an item on the list, or am I doing this because it is what the customer most wants to see in the next release? When I am done with this feature, will the customer be disappointed that I wasn’t working on a different one instead?”

So every day, ask yourself, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” Encourage the team members to ask themselves that. It will help them hold themselves accountable. And don’t be offended when they ask you that question, because it will help you remain focused on customer value as well.