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Do You Need a “not to do” list?

Agility encourages “Doing Less.” Doing less can result in delivering more value, more throughput, more ROI, more creativity, and more focus. Do less low-value activity. It’s easy to think about what to put into a product. We often get suggestions from a wide variety of sources—engineers, customers, managers, executives, the janitor, and other teams. It’s easier to say “yes” to various stakeholders than to say “no.” There is even a whole book on “Do Less.”

“Everyone tries to do too much: solve too many problems, build products with too many features. We say ‘no’ to almost everything. If you include every decent idea that comes along, you’ll just wind up with a half-assed version of your product. What you want to do is build half a product that kicks ass.”

—The founders of 37signals (W. C. Taylor, 2011).

We all have handy “To Do” lists, but perhaps we also need a “Not To Do” list. One guide for creating your list might be that for every entry on the “To Do” list, you make one on the “Not To Do” list. A product manager might create a backlog of features to do, and another backlog of features not to do. Having an explicit list of “not to do” features sends a message to everyone that this list is important. Even agile projects can succumb to the insidious “scope creep” problem. Deciding not to implement a feature isn’t enough—such features tend to creep back onto the backlog—so documenting that a feature has been placed on the “Not To Do” list is important.

Similarly, you might keep a list of all the meetings you decided not to attend (this one isn’t as difficult). As you start keeping “meetings to attend” and “meetings not to attend” lists, you begin to think about and refine the criteria for each. Actually, you will begin developing these criteria for each of your dueling lists.

You might consider celebrating your “Not Done” lists at retrospectives. Here are all the features we did; here are all the ones we didn’t do. Here are all the meetings we didn’t attend this iteration. Here are all the projects we didn’t start this month. Here are all the overhead items we pushed aside last quarter. Of course, we also celebrate what we accomplished, and we highlight that those accomplishments were sharply focused on value, on real customer solutions, and on creative ideas. By lining up both lists, we can concentrate on the all-important customer value ones.  

©2023 Jim Highsmith