TBM 30/53: Healthy Forcing Functions (and Paying Attention)

I keep returning to this definition of a forcing function:

A forcing function is an aspect of a design that prevents the user from taking an action without consciously considering information relevant to that action. It forces conscious attention upon something ("bringing to conciousness") and thus deliberately disrupts the efficient or automatised performance of a task.

I love the idea that we use forcing functions to snap us out of automatic action. To have a conversation. To consider information. And that forcing functions—by design—disrupt efficiency (at least in the short term).

Thinking about recent events and work burnout, two questions come to mind. First, how can we use healthy forcing functions to prevent deep burnout? Second, how do some ways of working have the opposite effect and increase risk of burnout?

Let's start with an example of an anti-pattern. Quarterly commitments fall apart in the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. 90/1 days is a long time. Without other well-designed forcing functions (e.g. WIP limits, thin-slicing, etc.), they make the situation worse. They promote burnout. Conversely, when a team actually has sustainable flow, the need for a big-batch commitment fades. The right conversations are happening continuously, and predictability is a natural byproduct.

Systems that rely on pushing a team to the cracking point and then easing off (yes, this is a thing), will fail. The same goes for expecting people to push back and/or make more reasonable commitments. Even in the best of times we are susceptible to overconfidence and overcommitment. We want to please. This time will be different. Now throw in a pandemic. High stress. Challenging self-care. Family. Kids. School. Doesn’t happen.

The irony is that the managers asking people to be good at pushing back and not overcommitting, often don’t live by their own advice.

So how about healthy forcing functions?

My teammate and I recently decided to immediately take next week off. For my European friends on their summer vacations, this must seem funny. Isn't that what everyone does? Not here. Not now, sadly. The days are merging into each other, and for a while we were waiting for the situation to improve. Now it is getting worse! We realized that in a chaotic environment the best thing to do is act before it is too late.

We have also shifted to 6w mission cycles. I've used these on and off for more than a decade and they are great. 6w is long enough to get something meaningful done, but short enough to be a healthy forcing function. You pay attention! You don't go on auto pilot. As I pointed out in my review of Ryan Singer's Shape Up, when you work in 6w missions, you also find yourself working in 1-3d nested cycles. Finally, we set up weekly usability testing blocks to make sure we are connecting with customers instead of automatically delivering. Right now it is very important to listen and connect.

In another initiative we are doing 20 minute micro-sprints. Life is so unpredictable in a one-bedroom apartment with a working partner and a two-year old always at home, that 20 minutes is sometimes all we can do. The funny part? We are getting more done.

Recent examples of healthy forcing functions from different companies:

  • Single batch flow

  • One week recharge after each major effort

  • More involved kickoffs (but then more flexibility)

  • Carve out 10hrs focus time a week

  • Two no-meeting days a week

  • A continuous flow goal vs. a batch goal (e.g. maintain ~N items for trailing X weeks)

The key goal of this post was to share that forcing function quote, and then to hopefully inspire you to think about how you work. Are the forcing functions doing their job? Or making things worse? Are people paying attention, or slipping into increasing levels of dissociation and numbness?

How can your team co-design healthy forcing functions to avoid burnout?