When we have a single massive task in front of us, we only have one choice. Commit to doing it, or say no.
The most straightforward way to successfully complete a task is to divide and conquer – and the order of three allows us to do that.
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Although splitting a massive task into smaller ones has its own set of problems, leading to premature decisions about architecture and scope, it can help to look at a task in relative terms.
Inspired by the Powers of Ten—which provides the visual archetype for zoom-in/zoom-out systems such as Google Maps—we started exploring ways of communicating a mental model of scale by relating the large to the small.
Read more: Why is estimating task completion so hard?
The order of three
Three is arbitrary. It could just as easily be another number. But it’s a powerful number.
These units of time are not meant to be an exact representation of exactly how long something should take. We use it as a method of understanding scope using a rough, relative scale.
While acknowledging that exact estimates are unrealistic and flawed, we can still look at proposed streams of work. It’s important to assess the level of detail and planning needed to execute successfully at each level.
It’s also important to seek coherence and cohesion in planning across the entire scale. That way, short term achievements contribute effectively to longer term goals.
Something can be done on the spot. It’s the speed of writing an email or pull request description. Short-sharp-quick bug-fix speed. A rare estimate, but worth considering if you’re into the ideas popularised in David Allen’s GTD methodology.
Something can be done in a single span of concentration. This is the peak performance part of your day. It’s the time that it takes for the core of a major new feature or concept to materialise.
In a three hour burst of creativity in 1973, Stevie Wonder spontaneously wrote, sung vocals and played every single instrument to record Higher Ground, which Rolling Stone recognised as one of the 500 greatest songs of all time.
The steady flow of a feature, bug fix or prototype through design, development, testing and code review. The best part of a week’s work, and the distillation of sustained focus and energy over a short period of time.
Our heads of department are most comfortable with their teams committing to tasks at this scale. Enough time not to rush too fast, but short enough to deliver value quickly.
The ideal length for projects. Provides enough time and space to respond and adapt to changing information, and short enough to provide immediate value to the business, while reducing the impact of failure.
Concentration and focus is compressed, and can be best directed towards short-term results. At this level it’s harder to go off track or have major work derailed by priorities changing in-flight. That’s a greater risk for projects longer than three weeks.
The tactical roadmap that underpins a broader strategy. Three months is a middle horizon, somewhere between short term gains and quarterly goals. This is the absolute upper limit for any project that most teams building business software should commit to.
If it’s going to take longer than this, frame it as a program of work made up of smaller interdependent feature streams and projects. You can then split separate streams up into three week chunks and execute in parallel where possible.
The strategic roadmap and long term vision. The technology investment horizon for infrastructure and long term platform transitions.
Executing this well requires long term consistency and careful management of tribal knowledge and shared context, with incoming teams needing to build on lessons learned from the achievements and mistakes of previous teams in order to keep accelerating and growing.
It’s important to remember that the order of three is not a tool designed to enforce rigid constraints, but more like a thought exercise – a way to conceptualise tasks and their demands. So what do you think of the order of three? Do you think it will help with task estimation – in software development, and in other areas of your business?
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