Time to Timebox?

Katie St. FrancisAgile / Lean, Product

Hands forming a box around a clock

In the fast-paced world of real estate software technology, making the most of every hour can make or break success. Many types of knowledge work, especially software development, are inherently complex and often subject to unexpected obstacles that lead to delays. These challenges to progress might sound familiar to anyone who works in product development and can present themselves in some of the following ways: 

  • In-process work unexpectedly blocks related or follow-on work items.
  • One day the team thinks the work is about to wrap up, but suddenly you’re on day three of solving the same problem with no clear end in sight.
  • The progress on a work item is “it’s almost done” for several days.

To navigate this complexity while delivering customer value rapidly, we turn to a reliable technique: timeboxing, where you allocate a fixed amount of time to a specific task or set of tasks. When you timebox work, you set clear boundaries on when to start and stop a particular task.

Fostering Accountability and Limiting Scope Creep 

A significant benefit of timeboxing is its ability to promote accountability within a workgroup/squad/team. When a team member declares how much time they plan to spend on a specific work item, it becomes easier to see progress and hold one another responsible. When work is underway and an unknown complication arises (never happens, right?), it needs to be handled quickly. In this case, timeboxing could be in the form of setting and communicating a goal for trying to figure things out. Once the time is up, the need to ask for and receive help is apparent. This transparency fosters a sense of responsibility and collaborative problem-solving among the team. 

One common challenge in software development is scope creep, where work extends beyond the initially agreed-upon scope. Timeboxing can act as a defense mechanism against scope creep. When you allocate a fixed amount of time to a task, you’re less likely to entertain unrelated additional features or requirements outside the defined scope. In this example, perhaps you agree to a rough total cycle time for standard work items. The team should talk through the work and the appropriate next steps if it extends beyond that generally agreed-upon timebox.

Small Bits and High Quality

If you apply a general rule of thumb, such as one day of development time for any given work item – not including feedback, testing, and deployment – it is a starting point. This boundary helps keep the work items small enough to allow the continuous flow of incremental customer value and fast feedback.

Although this tool has many benefits, take care not to misuse it. There isn’t a reward for cutting corners to meet an expected outcome and it almost always results in accumulating technical debt. As mentioned in a previous blog post, we’re all responsible for quality. Cutting down on the time to complete work does not justify poor quality.

It’s Time

Timeboxing is an invaluable technique for working efficiently, especially in technology-based roles. In an industry where time is of the essence, timeboxing is a skill that can propel teams ahead of their competitors. It’s not about getting the timebox right, it’s about setting the goal, communicating it, having an open dialogue about progress, and continuously delivering high-quality value to our customers.