The Shrink Law of Agile

Shrink Law of Agile, Prabhaker Panditi -

Parkinson’s Law meets its match: The Shrink Law of Agile

How long does it take to paint the Statue of Liberty?  If a team has hundred days to clean The Titanic, how many days will they take to do it?  What if they have fifty days, instead of hundred?  Though hard to believe,  the answer to each of these questions may be same.  Each task will take the time allocated for it!

That’s Parkinson’s Law at work. Work increases to fill the time available.

C. Northcote Parkinson introduced the Law in his article in the Economist in 1955.  “The total effort which would occupy a busy man for three minutes all told may… leave another person prostrate after a day of doubt, anxiety and toil” he declared. Originally aimed at the  bureaucracy, you can see the Law at work in everyday situations.   The Law may sound funny, outrageous, irrational, insulting…until you look at others’ work.  Not yours of course, other peoples’. 

The Law applies to almost all human endeavor.   Exceptions are only few.  Agile  is one of them.

When the going gets tough, the tough…lower goals.

Agile not only ignores Parkinson’s Law, it actually reverses it…to start with. 

In Agile,  work reduces to fill the time available. Reduces!  I call it the Shrink Law of Agile.

The ‘time’ element may include other components like complexity, expertise, experience, energy and inclination. But given enough time, most of these can be mastered. Time, then is the crucial factor.

Here’s Shrink Law in action.   In a Scrum sprint, who chooses items to deliver from the Product Backlog?  The team itself.   Let us assume that normally a team of six completes fifteen story points in a Sprint. If the team knows that two members will be on vacation, will it still commit fifteen? Most probably not.  It scales the commitment down.   Even for unplanned absence,  it would be legitimate for the team to reduce its original commitment.

Parkinson’s Law Catches Up

But that is the end of Agile’s escape from Parkinson’s Law. Once story points are reduced, Parkinson’s Law kicks in.   The reduced work then expands to fill the time available!  This is a corollary to the Shrink Law.  Of course, teams can surpass the reduced target. How likely is it?  You decide. 

Is Shrink Law good or bad for the project?

As I explained in my earlier article on Psychology Behind Agile Success,   Agile lets the team adjust  the challenge of work to suite its capabilities.   Combined with other psychological factors discussed in that article, this leads to greater productivity and stakeholder satisfaction.  Persisting with original amount of work despite reduced resources starts a vicious downward spiral of poor code quality, technical debt and team burn out.  Shrink Law prevents this.  The Law ensures  that ‘sustainable’ pace is tuned to available resources.

On the flip side, Shrink Law may provide teams with an easy way out.   Challenge leads to innovation. It stretch team’s abilities, takes them out of the comfort zone and helps them grow. By letting the team scale down commitments for every resource shortfall, Shrink Law robs the team of challenge.    The alternative is not to dump unmanageable work on the team but to gently expand team’s abilities by occasionally taking them out of its comfort Zone.

But in the end, it is not an argument about good or bad.  Shrink Law is neutral. It can be used or abused.  What does your team do?

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  • Ram says:

    Interesting Insights!!

    December 8, 2012 at 4:50 pm
  • Gautam says:

    Parkinson’s law eventually does catch up, we as humans love to procrastinate, ponder over work and expand work to fill with time. Estimation is tweaked and commitments manipulated. All Sprinters Beware and try to prevent this !

    December 11, 2012 at 1:56 pm

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