When you are juggling a bunch of work, whether it be in your personal or professional life, it can feel like everything is equally important and that there is never enough time to do everything. If you are working on a team this can get even worse as people will have different ideas on what is higher priority and which items deserve more time and effort. This can lead to many long and frustrating discussions and everyone might eventually start to feel stuck. One tool that I have found to be very useful in reducing the emotion around prioritizing work and helping teams move forward is a simple metaphor involving rocks, pebbles, sand, and a jar.
Rocks, Pebbles, and Sand?
The basic idea is that if you have a jar (fixed amount of time such as a sprint) there are only so many rocks (features) and sand (design tweaks, small changes, etc) that can fit. Typically teams and clients will gravitate towards sand first as these are things that are reactive or seem quicker / easier to accomplish. However, the rocks make up the items that will add the most value to the sprint. When you work on the sand first, the time / jar fills up quickly and doesn't end up leaving enough room for the rocks. However, if you work on the rocks first the sand can then fill in the gaps in between the rocks and you will ultimately be able to do more.
How Can it Help?
On Agile projects in particular, discussion around scope and prioritization can be very tricky. Everything can start to feel important and asking people to focus on the bigger picture and goals can be overwhelming. I have found that having a concrete and simple visual of rocks, sand, and a jar really helps people wrap their mind around focusing on the work that is going to make the most impact. In addition, the concept of having the smaller items / sand fill in gaps around the rocks gives a lot of peace of mind that the work will get done at some point even if not immediately. That makes it easier for someone to let go of a smaller issue and move onto something more important
Next time your team finds itself fighting over what to work on next or if you have a new product owner or manager who is saying everything is equally urgent, this simple metaphor can offer a good way to start a productive conversation.
Are there other simple metaphors you have used on your teams and projects to help people work better together?