agile, thin slices

How Thin is too Thin?

#MyAgileYear April is all about delivering early and often. And this often means slicing things into small, or thin, slices (manageable chunks). But a question I am often asked is: how thin is too thin? Possibly not the best question to ask before a holiday centred around chocolate, but let’s explore.

You Can’t be too Thin

The Duchess of Windsor once said “You can’t be too rich or too thin”. She was obviously talking about Agile stories   – where we aim to slice them as thin as possible. But before we get out the scissors, there are some guidelines. Every story must deliver value. And this value can be either:

  • to deliver a revenue goal,
  • to learn, or
  • to set us up for something else in the future

Many teams fall into the trap of making their stories very big because anything smaller would not deliver any value. Anything smaller cannot be shipped to the customer. Ideally many stories can be shipped, but in order to learn and grow, not to mention ensure technical debt is under control, we need to slice our stories so we are either:

  • delivering a shippable component,
  • conducting a spike or similar activity to learn, or
  • doing a technical pre-requisite or dependent task first.

Or any variation on the above.

Why so Thin?

It’s all to do with how our brains work. As humans we are blessed with a pre-frontal cortex that allows us to anticipate, plan and make advanced judgments (to name a few – it really is an amazing part of the brain). This ability has allowed us to explore the planet, travel to new planets and cure diseases. We have the amazing ability to break a huge task into manageable chunks. Without this we would not have evolved to our position at the top of the food chain. So we don’t just break things up into small slices because we can, but because in order for us to continue to evolve and solve complex problems we simply MUST.

Resistance to Slicing

Despite our advanced brains we still resist. We resist the opportunity to make our lives easier. Why? Like any skill it requires practice to get better, and we may not be practising as much as we could. Take de-cluttering your home. It would be crazy to take on the task of de-cluttering by attacking all your rooms at once. For a start there would be stuff everywhere and the whole job would become completely overwhelming. The win for you though? You wouldn’t be finished, so you are less open to criticism. Except from your spouse, partner or room mate who isn’t a fan of socks on the toaster.

Map this across to a work task like preparing a presentation. you could lock yourself away for days or weeks producing the perfect presentation. Or, you could iteratively prepare it in parts, seeking feedback along the way. I know what is easier but it’s amazing the people who choose to make their lives hard. Some say it’s fear of failure. Some say it’s fear of success. I say it’s:

Fear of Negative Feedback

Whether we acknowledge it or not, that is what is holding us back from slicing our work thin and sharing it. Because it means we need to finish a component early which opens us up to criticism. Many of us don’t know how to receive criticism. And, to be honest, many do not know how to give it in a constructive way.

Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway

Does this resonate? That butterflies feeling in the stomach before you make that phone call, before you press send on an important email, or before you stand up in front of a room to give a short update? Do. It. Anyway. The more you do it, the better you will get at delivering value often. And the better you will get at taking criticism. And you will learn heaps, trust me.

I recommend starting small. Take a look at  your to-do list. How could you slice some of those to-dos a bit more thinly? And achieve something small? And then something else? Play along with #MyAgileYear in April and let me know how you go!



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About Emma Sharrock

Emma is the author of The Agile Project Manager: Thrive in Change with Agile. An experienced change leader, Emma is passionate about working with people to facilitate successful change. Emma utilises Agile techniques, coupled with the Agile mindset to coach leaders and teams to achieve their business goals.