The Power of the Small Slice

Recently the focus of my coaching has been working with Agile teams to prioritise work. It’s been challenging. But not because ‘everything is priority #1’, but more because their work is too big. “But they HAVE to be big! It’s BIG work!” is a common answer, but do they? Is it? What would it mean to identify a small slice?

In my experience, nothing cannot be taken from the big to the small, sliced in a way that makes it more achievable, bearable and less anxiety-inducing.

Why are small slices important?

1. They allow us to make decisions

This is a big one, and at the core of the challenges being experienced by many teams with prioritisation.

Consider your life. What is more important? Your parents or your children? Your cat or your dog? For many of you these may be easy choices, but let’s assume you love them equally. It’s impossible to prioritise one over the other, and nor should you ever have to. However, if the choice is between taking your child to emergency over having a cup of tea with your mother? Easier choice. Walking your dog or taking your cat to the vet because they won’t stop sneezing? In either choice you’re not saying one person/pet is more important than the other, but rather their specific need is more important than another specific need, at the time. It’s the same with our work. We might have some big projects going on, and choosing between them is difficult, but when we slice the work up, we can make priority calls over the slices. These priority calls will depend upon the value of the work at a particular time.

Nor do we need to choose what is more important – our work or our recreation time. Watching the next season of Big Little Lies? Okay, maybe one episode, but then it’s back to creating content for my online course.

Cake might be considered unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean we don’t eat cake. We have a small slice, or split a slice with a friend.

2. They allow us to do SOMETHING

We avoid ‘paralysis by analysis’.

This is also why we prioritise often. As time passes, things change. What might seem more important today may be less important next week. A small slice completed this week makes room for another small slice that may not have seemed important this week but is critical to be done as soon as possible. If we’re halfway through a giant piece of work, it’s harder to put it down and refocus without context switching. Being able to do something (or more importantly, finish something) beats doing/finishing nothing.

Small slices mean small steps toward a bigger goal. When we commit to the small steps we inch closer to our goal with tangible proofpoints (of finished work) along the way, not to mention everything we learn.

3. They allow us to adapt

Context switching is one of the biggest productivity killers of our workplace.  Finishing one thing and moving onto another is so much easier on our brains than being part way through one thing and having to stop to focus on another big thing. Then pause that before looking at another big thing. I just suffered brain overload writing that sentence… This cognitive load costs us, and as thought-workers we cannot afford this kind of cost if we want to do great work.

4. They make us feel good

Achieving a small slice (finishing something) releases dopamine, the feel good hormone that then encourages us to achieve more, which means we feel even better. We also release dopamine when we eat chocolate – a good fall back if we fail to finish a small slice I guess…

Why do we resist small slices?

Four fabulous reasons, yet still we resist. Why do we resist breaking work into small slices? Why do we persist with the impossible job of choosing between things that cannot be chosen between that results in doing less than what we need to? Or worse, nothing?

In a nutshell, it’s our tendency as humans to employ ‘all or nothing’ thinking. The type of thinking that stops us from doing anything if we can’t do it ALL. The type of thinking that tells us to eat the whole cake because we’ve eaten one slice. The type of thinking that stops us from taking even a single step towards our goals. This thinking almost stopped me from doing anything on my online course but, thanks to the power of the small slice, I have, well… a small slice. You can find it here.

All or nothing thinking is crazy. Chipping away at a project or commitment and making gains is better than doing nothing at all. However, all or nothing thinking may have served us well in the past. For example, when things weren’t changing as rapidly… In the fast-paced world we now live in things are likely to shift so much (and so fast) that those small slices and small gains are not only great, but critical to our survival. In the past it may not have been essential – we may have been able to work on those big project-sized chunks of work with very little changing. Small slices are now an essential part of our decision making and goal-achieving paradigms that allow us to adapt to that change and help us feel good at the same time. What more do you need? Apart from another small slice of cake of course…

Next blog…. Now you know why small slices are so important, next we’ll talk about how to do it, and how to do it well! Need help right now with this? Feel free to get in touch.



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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.