Work entry, in its simplest form, is the steps needed for work to be triaged to ensure that it is the right work, that it is ready to be worked on, and the priority of the work. A simple work entry process for a Scrum team includes the following steps:

  • People write stories, ideas, or requirements of varying quality,
  • Those items are evaluated and cleaned up,
  • Updated, well-formed stories are added to the backlog (become product backlog items – PBI),
  • Once on the backlog, PBIs are prioritized (and re-prioritized), and
  • In time, PBIs are pulled into a sprint.

A team’s work entry process is only one step in a value flow. Work entry gets a piece of work to the front door, after which planning, building, and delivering the PBI has to occur.  However if too much work is forced into the team, or the wrong work is available, or if the team is constantly interrupted by higher priorities, delivery will suffer. This is not the step to mess up.

There are numerous common patterns of behavior for bringing work into a team. One is the gold standard and the rest are a series of compromises. The patterns are:

  1. Prioritized, Single Point of Entry,
  2. Prioritized Pull with Prioritized Incident Push,
  3. Front Door Pull, Back Door Push,
  4. Prioritized  and Unprioritized Push with Incident Flow, and
  5. Free For All.
  1. Prioritized Single Point of Entry

In the single point of entry scenario, a team’s work funnels through a single person (usually with support and advice) that prioritizes the work based on a set of criteria. In agile, this is the process a product owner follows to work a backlog. The team pulls the work from the backlog as capacity is available to start and complete work with minimal delays. This is the gold standard for work entry at the team level. 

This work entry process is useful for avoiding five of the 8 causes of work entry problems

         ✓ Difference in goals

         ✓ Need outstrips supply 

  Pay practices

Project v Product Perspective

        ✓  Urgency/importance dichotomy 

  Class of services

        ✓  Control

        ✓  Yes’itus 

Delivery Pattern: Priority Order (close to first in, first out)

Ability to Deliver: Predictable

  1. Prioritized Pull with Prioritized Incident Push

I spent a period of my career with pagers and later the on-call cell phone strapped to my belt. To this day my blood gets pumping when I hear about a juicy production incident. For any organization, the ability to make money or deliver its service trumps every other priority.  This scenario reflects the reality of teams that work on products/projects and have to support the production environment. This approach to work entry sometimes is the best that teams in this scenario can do. When something important (read that as prioritized) breaks in production the team needs to find the time and effort to address within the work they have already pulled and planned.

This work entry process is useful for avoiding three of the 8 causes of work entry problems

         ✓ Difference in goals

             Need outstrips supply 

  Pay practices

  Project v Product Perspective

             Urgency/importance dichotomy 

  Class of services

        ✓  Control

        ✓  Yes’itus 

Delivery Pattern: Priority Order with interruptions (close to first in, first out)

Ability to Deliver: Mostly Predictable (unless quality is an issue)

  1. Front Door Pull, Back Door Push

The most important feature of the work entry process in this pattern is the back door for work to get on the team’s plate.  In this scenario, work goes from a stakeholder to the team or in some cases to a team member.  Work, in this case, is often done off books and interrupts work pulled by the team. The sprint goal and the goal of the team generate conflict even if it is under the radar that reduces the effectiveness and predictability of the team.

This pattern does not avoid any of the causes of work entry problems. One of the reasons this pattern exists is that everyone sees the prioritization process and feels like things are under control; they are not. This scenario is just like an infestation of carpenter ants, once the problem is apparent the damage is done. 

Delivery Pattern: Semi-erratic

Ability to Deliver: Unpredictable but not too terrible

  1. Prioritized and Unprioritized Push with Incident Flow

The final in-between case is just slightly less bad than a free-for-all. At least some of the work is prioritized and known. The combination of push and backdoor entry of work generates a mess leading to poor morale, poor quality, and irritated stakeholders. Users of this pattern rationalize using phrases like, “we must be responsive”, “saying no is not an option, and “this is a dynamic and exciting environment”. This scenario always, ALWAYS, ends badly for someone. 

Delivery Pattern: Erratic

Ability to Deliver: Unpredictable

  1. Free For All

In the free for all scenario, each person on the team sees themselves as a free agent out to maximize the perception of their individual utility so they accept work as they see fit. Work is either pushed to the team or individuals or individuals pull work without This is the worst-case scenario for work entry. This approach solves none of the 8 causes of work entry problems and is always a reflection of deeper issues in the organization. 

Delivery Pattern: Unpredictable 

Ability to Deliver: Inconsistent

Final Thoughts
Work entry is not the sexiest topic in agile, as a matter of fact, the topic is generally not understood unless a team has mature (or maturing) processes for working.  In several recent conversations, I asked how individuals and teams get the work they work on.  The answers ranged from “we triage the work with our product owner” to “the phone rings and somebody’s manager tells me what to do.”  I was also accused of being a killjoy for bringing the topic up during a happy hour (note to self — don’t do that again). Teams find themselves in one of the five basic patterns for a reason. Many times those reasons are not of their own making but rather are accommodations to behaviors the organization chooses not address.. For example, one of the eight practices causing work entry problems is pay practices.  Teams don’t own pay policies within organizations. Being able to recognize where a team lies on the work entry continuum is a step toward improvement. A step that can then build on ideas and coaching techniques for moving from chaos to predictability.