How to Stop Overcommitting at Work: A Summary of Unplanned Work in The Phoenix Project

Image:  Primordial Chaos, No. 16, The WU-ROSEN Series by Hilma af Klint/Artvee

The Phoenix Project is a fictional story covering how an IT team leads its company, slogging through technological and organizational transformation. It’s an exciting way to learn more about software operations. It’s a business fable, not dissimilar from The Goal, The Wealthy Barber, or The Grumpy Accountant. I want to summarize one of the key concepts in it, that of unplanned work.

While I haven’t recommended it in my Best of Books newsletter yet, it’s still a good read, especially if you’re actually interested in technology, business, or learning about how work gets done. Outside of my work as an author, I also work in communications—say, marketing, or engineering communications—so I’m not offering a programming perspective here. 

In the first pages of the book, the CEO promotes the protagonist, Bill Palmer, to a VP, after letting him know his old bosses—the IT operations leader and the CIO—have been let go. It wasn’t surprising, as CIOs had always come and gone from the company every couple of years. 

Bill had survived, treading water in middle management, until this promotion. Now he has to get to work. He is introduced to an advisor character named Erik, who tells him his goal is to “ensure the fast, predictable, and uninterrupted flow of planned work that delivers value to the business while minimizing the impact and disruption of unplanned work, so you can provide stable, predictable, and secure IT service.”

The 4 Different Categories of Work

Erik advises Bill that there are four different types of work that he’ll need to figure out. Bill spends his next few weeks figuring it out:

I had called Erik briefly to tell him that I had discovered three of the four categories of work: business projects, internal projects, and changes. He merely said that there was one more type of work, maybe the most important type, because it’s so destructive…

That type of work, Bill realizes, had already mentioned: unplanned work. Bug fixes, crashes, escalations, etc., this was all unplanned work that was keeping his team from actually moving forward with its plans. 

That’s why Erik called it the most destructive type of work. It’s not really work at all, like the others. The others are what you planned on doing, allegedly because you needed to do it.

Unplanned work is what prevents you from doing it. Like matter and antimatter, in the presence of unplanned work, all planned work ignites with incandescent fury, incinerating everything around it. Like Phoenix.

So much of what I’ve been trying to do during my short tenure as VP of IT Operations is to prevent unplanned work from happening: coordinating changes better so they don’t fail, ensuring the orderly handling of incidents and outages to prevent interrupting key resources, doing whatever it takes so that Brent won’t be escalated to.

I’ve been doing it mostly by instinct. I knew it was what had to be done, because people were working on the wrong things. I tried to take all necessary steps to keep people from doing wrong work, or rather, unplanned work.

Because the IT team’s former leaders, and counterparts at other teams never quite scoped the proper amount of work needed, the IT team constantly cut corners. Each time that happened, new technical debt accrued. Eventually, this led to the company barely treading water; for example, the company’s inventory systems would crash, and the whole team needed to work all-nighters on a weekend, which meant they took some of the weekdays off… you get the idea. This mounting technical debt created a lot of chaotic unplanned work, so much so that Bill’s teammates couldn’t even get started on the planned work. 

Thankfully, this doesn’t literally happen exactly the same way in my lines of work—writing, or in tech marketing and comms—perhaps in the entertainment industry (*ahem* Kanye’s Donda album release)—but it does. I’d bet it happens in your line of work too.

For example, as a writer, publishing a continuous amount of content at my blog, let’s say, is much easier to do than ideating, outlining, pitching, writing, editing, and publishing a piece for a traditional publication. (Many ideas fade away at the pitching stage, hence why authors might hire publicists. Even on its own, pitching and building relationships seriously can be a full-time job.) Anyway, writing, as in programming and marketing, only becomes valuable to people once it’s available for reading

Similarly, in my marketing work, a large part of it involves shuffling and re-shuffling priorities, based on timing, response, and relevance. New needs come up, existing plans need to be pushed back or scoped down. The larger an organization, the more of this stuff will gradually happen.

How to Clear a Backlog of Unplanned Work

I find myself occasionally in situations like this; maybe the stakes aren’t as high, but my team and I are stuck between priorities. So, back to the matter at hand—we’ve outlined the problem, and we’re getting to the solution. Bill sums up his situation quite well:

“No amount of heroics on my part can make a big dent in the tidal wave of work that’s been allowed to get into the system. Because no one ever said no. 

Our mistakes were made long before it came to me. The mistakes were made by accepting the project and all the resulting shortcuts that Chris had to make before it reached me. 

How can we reverse this insanity?

Without being able to hire more people, and with a clear idea of what the key priorities are, Bill realizes that his team needs to stop doing business and internal projects, and changes, for a period of time. Instead, it will focus its efforts on paying off the technical debt, and unblock the work that was blocking the rest of the priorities. Bill is given a week of project freeze time to see how things work out.

The project freeze is where things start to look up for Bill and his team. It begins with them getting the buy-in to unblock themselves—and to stop taking on additional work—so that they can start producing results for the rest of the team. It helps them focus and make significant progress, faster. They also start looking into prioritizing, and seeing how the team decides to take on work.

Doing less, focusing, and prioritizing is one thing. So is “getting organized.” But each person or team also needs to actually understand the flow of work in order to figure out what’s happening—why tasks might be falling through the cracks, why projects might be under-scoped, and so on. In this fast-paced world, there’s a lot that can go wrong. 

Here are a few things I realized about my own efforts as I dealt with the concept of unplanned work:

Why Forecasting and Scoping Are Crucial

This sounds so boring (because it is!), and in my earlier years I neglected it. But I also dealt with a constant, and often spiky, sense of stress: I never had enough time to meet all of my commitments. While business was good, I also didn’t write a book as I had intended to until a year ago.

Image: Stagger chart/Tomasz Tunguz

Andy Grove introduces a stagger chart in High Output Management, which is really great—it basically tracks forecasts against actual time. I’m open to better places to start, but I think it’s a great foundation. The general idea is to set forecasts for the future, which should be getting closer and closer to what actually happens.

I’ve done really simple versions of this—just tracking hours in a notebook. I know there’s more sophisticated technology out there, but even getting started and a very vague sense has been super helpful. For example, this piece on Yeezy took 20+ hours, with a lot of it going to research that didn’t make the piece. It was fun, but ultimately not so valuable. This piece on Headspace took maybe half of that, with an acceptable (or perhaps better!) final product. 

It was then that I realized there were at least five different types of writing that I did, each one requiring different amounts of time. It also helped me make sense of the business of writing and creating; it’s tough measuring an actual hourly rate as an author. (I wager that most authors, to their own detriment, won’t do this.) 

I review this at varying levels of depth every week, but also—if I find myself swamped—make time throughout the week to figure out what’s going on.

I also learned here that I spent a lot of unplanned time in the research phase, so timeboxing and more deliberately taking in research would support my process. It would also make sense to organize the leftovers (ideally in my Zettelkasten); for example, the unused research for the Yeezy piece would end up in this series. I was sitting on a gold mine of material; while it’d be more fun to explore new ideas, it would make good business sense to release some of the unused work as well.

Keep a Flexible Scope

Of course, accurately planning a complex project might be practically impossible; it’d take too much synchronous time and talent. Some organizations use past projects as a proxy, but that doesn’t always work. So another way to do this is basically to set and keep a hard deadline, but to be flexible with the size of the project

I know organizations that used to bill by the week; they wouldn’t promise an end deliverable, just make weekly progress. This is also an interesting idea.

Make Slack

One of the most important properties of unplanned work—at least in writing and marketing—is it is chaotic by nature. It helps to not only resolve a specific instance of it, but to fix the root cause. And that takes time and energy!

So, it seems like a controversial point, but making slack into a schedule is valuable here. It means a person won’t be working at 100% efficiency all the time—no more back-to-back meetings stacked like Jenga in calendars—but it also means faster responses and solutions to unplanned work. 

Planned and Unplanned Creativity

The final thing I’ll say is that the human brain doesn’t seem to work linearly on creative work. Sometimes, if it’s primed, inspired, and motivated, a creative task can take a fraction of the time. Say, this blog post would’ve taken a few more hours if I hadn’t been actually interested in working on it, and if it hadn’t been brewing in my head for a few days already. There is, of course, the creative process; understanding it could help each of us prepare and plan accordingly.

The other thing is creative breakthroughs can take place in a split second; it usually isn’t conscious. Our job is simply to write them down and remember them, so we don’t forget them. Otherwise, it’d be easy for our brains to get overloaded.

So if you’re spending time in creative work, don’t plan too much—creative work is a balance between structure and chaos. It’s why a person working on something creative might want to keep a free schedule, at least for part of the day; that way they are available to respond to emotion or motivation—often unplanned!—that motivates them.

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