Planning and prioritizing is a wicked problem that has plagued humankind since time immemorial. – Corey Ladas
There appears to be a logical and linear three-stage process of better prioritization as you become familiar with kanban. The process follows the three main characteristics of the cardwall and how they insidiously work their way into your psyche.
Stage One: The Visual
Simply viewing the tasks on the kanban cardwall makes them conspicuous. The tasks on the cardwall have a shape or a volume. They consume space on your board, and you can only fit so many on at a time. Your brain sees this and suddenly - perhaps for the first time - your workload has a coherent form. It may be overwhelming, but now you can see it, and begin to do something about it.
A necessary drive for prioritization stems from this physical form. You want to only fit tasks in that finite space that are going to do the most for you. At this point, you’re most likely to do this by sight, as you complete one task you’ll grab the next one that “looks best.” Let’s call this immediate gratification prioritization. It’s better than letting fate guide you and is an excellent start.
(Remember, the numbers are your WIP limit. You can't have more in a column than your limit.)
Stage Two: The Permanent
The cardwall should be on the wall (or always visible). It is permanent. You don’t put it in a box at night. You don’t hide it when the boss stops by. The cardwall is your professional superego. It is reminding you of what you are doing, why it benefits society, and what will happen to you if you don’t finish. If you have colleagues, they can see what you are doing. If your personal kanban is shared, they may even have a stake in your task completion. With your kanban staring you in the fact all the time, you may want to start having some logical prioritization scheme that is more thoughtful than immediate gratification.
At this point, you might want to set up columns of priorities. This might resemble Corey’s Priority Filter. Corey’s Priority Filter creates “buckets” with limited capacity that show tasks trickling down from your backlog into your ready-queue. Here, you are starting to plan for future prioritization. At any time, you can rearrange things, but the priority filter lets you set up a prioritization that shares the same permanence as the kanban itself. Let’s call this progressive filtration.
Stage Three: The Tactile
The cardwall is tactile. You have to reach up and grab something and move it around. As it moves, it has a flow. You begin to see how you collect, collaborate on, and complete different kinds of tasks. Even in the most chaotic of situations, there are rhythms to types of work.
What is happening now? You are constantly doing work and therefore constantly physically interacting with the kanban and your backlog. You work with the priority filter for a few weeks and nothice that prioritization itself begins to get a flow. You recognize that as tasks enter your backlog, some will seem more important on some days that others. Some have higher value to the team than others. You will gain an appreciation for the variables of your prioritization.
At this point, your prioritization matures a little more. You now understand not only what you want to prioritize but how you are prioritizing it. You are quickly doing analyses when you look at the priority filter. These analyses may include questions like "Which task is making me money?" "Which task has a pressing deadline?" "Which task is politically sensitive?"
At one point, Corey and Eric Willeke asynchronously put their heads together and came up with Perpetual Multivote. This process recognizes that good decision making has both temporal and social components. Whereas context shifts over time for people, what seems important to them also changes. Perpetual multivote places backlog items on a visual board. Voters get a certain number of tokens and can vote any time and as much they want for the upcoming backlog items until they run out of tokens. They can likewise reallocate their tokens whenever they want as well. They can see how their peers vote, and can make their decisions based on that context. In the picture above each line is a backlog item and each dot is a vote from a team member.
Perpetual multivote clearly represents the tactile nature of the cardwall. It might be called contextual prioritization. You can use it as an individual by identifying your personal elements of prioritization and making those the dots. So where the color blue may have been team member Julie, it can also be an attribute of your personal value needs "income generating" or "deadline approaching" or "politically sensitive".
Do You See What’s Happening Here?
Right now, some of the most popular games for portable platforms like the Nintendo DS are games like Brain Age that in effect, help you train your brain. They’re like the antidote for cage fighting. These games work not so much by teaching you math or algebra, but by getting your brain to react to certain stimuli that promote attentiveness, appropriate response, and retention.
Your brain can learn to think “better” simply by being sensitized to the actions of better thinking.
Kanban does this as well by creating a physical space (the cardwall) in which these concepts (tasks) can live - where the human brain can grasp and manipulate them better. People learn in different ways. Some of us are visual learners, others are auditory, some contextual, some literal...Vive la différence, sure – but for those who have tried to manage la différence … history is filled with managerial pain and anguish.
Cardwalls tend to equalize varying learning styles by presenting information with a logical flow and cadence. Everyone from your scattered ADHDer to your hyperfocused Asperberger can grasp a kanban – because it does have elements of context for all learning styles.
Like Brain Age, kanban starts to train our brains to see work in a new way. Not as an unfocused pile of tasks and subtasks and subsubtasks, but as a set of tasks with very real impacts on our lives. As we begin to see the form and flow of these tasks, our abilities to prioritize can improve.
This is post four in my Personal Kanban series.
Kanban examples built in AgileZen, review coming soon.
Multivote image from Corey’s Multivote blog post. (Why mess with perfection?)