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Schrodinger's Work Item and the Quest for Value

This article is a guest contribution from Julie Starling, ActionableAgile customer, and was originally posted on her blog. Jump down to read more about Julie.

We're all familiar with Schrodinger's cat right? The cat in a box which has the state of both dead and alive whilst the box is closed … when the box is opened it is one or the other.

I can't help but see the parallels to work items in our system.

Schrodinger's Cat

Schrodinger's Work Item

An active item in our system represents both potential value and waste ...until we deliver it, we do not know which it is.

Potentially Valuable – In most instances, we engage with our customers to understand what is valuable to them. Even in cases where direct customer communication is limited, we often hold a genuine belief in the value of what we're delivering. However, complete certainty about its value remains elusive until we actually deliver the item and receive feedback. Only when our work item is in the hands of our customers can we truly determine whether the time invested has indeed been valuable.

Waste - Until we deliver the item, the time we are spending on it can also be considered waste, as until it's delivered there is always a risk it won't be delivered and the time spent up until now will have been for nothing… these situations happen all the time and can be for a number of reasons, be it a change in strategy due to a global pandemic or change of requirement from our customers and everything else in between. It can also have been waste if we deliver it an no one uses it, it doesn't deliver the expected outcome or if we don't get any valuable feedback.

Let The Cat Out The Box

Whilst we understand that work in our system is potentially not valuable, we shouldn't be using this as a reason to not be experimental with what we deliver! Instead, we should think about getting work items out of our system as efficiently as we can. This way we can find out if it was actually valuable as quickly as possible, learn from this answer and move on with this new knowledge. Compromising quality is also not the answer!

Two ways to get the cat out of the box...

1. Don’t Start! If you haven’t started working on an item then you haven’t started potentially wasting time. You can then put your efforts on keeping work that has started active and flowing.

2. Finish It! If you’ve started...then finish! One way to get an item out of a system is to finish it.

On their own they may seem like two obvious and probably unhelpful points. However if we look at the bigger picture, we shouldn’t start items until we know they have the best chance of flowing through our system. When we do start, we should be managing that work in progress always with a goal of finishing.

We want to keep our work flowing and keep the work as busy and active as possible. If we start items before they can flow there can be a lot of sitting around in the system. The longer the item is in the system the possibility of the item being waste just increases as the world around us changes or items become stale.

Don’t Put the Cat in The Box, But If You Do, Don’t Keep It In There Longer Than Necessary

In essence we shouldn’t start work until it’s the right time for our system, and when we do start it, we should be managing the work in progress with the goal of finishing.

There are a number of ways in which we can manage work in progress, including...

1. Limit the amount of Work In Progress By not having too much in our system we are able to focus on what is active, less context switching and spend our efforts on keeping our work busy (keep work busy before people). If you are in a situation where you have a team of busy people and a number of work items that aren’t actively being worked on, then you probably need to start controlling your WIP.

2. Make items small The smaller work items are the easier they are going to flow through your system. We need to make sure our items are right-sized and represent the smallest possible chunk of potential value. This will help flow but it will also help us get the necessary feedback we need to know if we need to pivot in the quest for value. With this approach if the world around us changes and what we were delivering is no longer relevant, we’ve also minimized the amount of waste.

3. Take action on items that are unnecessarily aging Any item that is staying in the system unnecessarily long needs action taken on it. This could range from splitting the work item down, resolving blockers or even kicking it out of the system! But how do we know if an item is unnecessarily aging? ...I’ll be covering that in my next post.

Diagram of text

Similar to the state of Schrodinger's Cat being unknown until perceived, our work items exist in a superposition of potential value and waste. That is, until they are delivered and observed by our customers. Actively managing the work in the system shortens the time to understand its fate!


We can’t assume all work will be as valuable as we expect when we decide to do it. Work not finished has a dual nature of both potentially valuable or waste until we deliver and get feedback. To get the answer to ‘was it valuable?’ as quickly as possible we should be focusing on flow. Keep items in our system for a short of a time as possible. Keep inactive time to a minimum. Whilst work is in our system, we should be actively managing it with a goal to getting it out (at a high quality) as soon as we can. Techniques such as managing WIP, right sizing items and taking action on aging items help us to do this.


About Julie Starling, Guest Writer

Daniel Vacanti

Julie is passionate about the efficient delivery of value to customers and avoiding the illusion of certainty. In recent years she has specialized in how data can be used to drive the right conversations to do this. She encourages teams to use data in actionable ways and adjust ways of working to maximize their potential. She has spent over 15 years working in and alongside software delivery teams. In her spare time, she loves to travel, snowboard, and is obsessed with houseplants!


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