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Getting unexpected work requests when your team is already very busy can feel like a huge inconvenience and stressor.

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Let’s say you have a team who is busy executing. You understand the high-level priorities, and you believe the things you’re working on are important. Your work is aligned with the strategic goals of your organization, your plan has been signed off on, and all the priorities have been vetted.

Then, suddenly, a new request comes in. It could be from your manager, your product manager, or another team. And it doesn’t seem to line up with the important things your team is doing. What do you do?

This is something that happens to all of us, at all levels. It can be upsetting and can feel very threatening: What do you mean you want me to do this other important thing? I’m already doing important things, and I’ve told you about all the important things I’m doing. Why this? Why now!?

Fortunately, there are some techniques you can apply when responding to unexpected requests to make these situations feel a little less threatening. In this article, I’m going to share three tactics that can help you to expose the misalignment between you and the requester, so that you can get your team back on track.

Tactic 1: Ask where this request falls in the priority of everything your team is doing

This is an obvious starting point: Tell the requester all of the things your team is doing at the moment, and ask them which things are okay to slow down or stop doing in order to fulfill the new task. This allows you to clarify the impact of the disruption to the team so that together you can decide whether the new request is important enough to switch to. You might even track these disruptions to make a case for adding members to your team in the case where you are regularly unable to meet new demands.

This tactic seems like it should be a default, but I’d caution you to be careful about applying it too much. When overused, this tactic could make you seem like you’re not a team player and that your default is stonewalling and leaning on bureaucracy. I’d advise using it only when your team is very busy, the request is very disruptive, or you believe that it might cause problems with other teams or projects to change your priority list. Avoid using this for every little request, especially if they’re coming from ‘important’ sources (which can be anything from your customer service team to your boss’s boss to a partner team who does favors for you in return). 

Tactic 2: Explain the context of your work and ask why the new request is important

When you get asked for a new feature that is closely related to your work, but not on the planned priority list, that is an opportunity to realign with the requester. From your understanding, the most important thing about the project is to deliver certain features. The new request doesn’t seem to be on the priority list at all, or perhaps it’s something that you already decided is a nice-to-have and not a must-do. You have a lot of work to do if you’re going to meet the deadline to get the committed features done, so why do they want to add a new thing?

This is a somewhat different approach to asking about priorities, and it can help people understand the magnitude and consequence of disrupting your team in a way that just asking for prioritization doesn’t. It’s also a more collaborative way to approach requests, letting your counterparty see that you want to understand their perspective. Sometimes they have context about the project or goals that indicates that the new request is in fact more important to the success of the project than the other planned work. By working together to reach a mutual understanding, you may find ways to adjust the plan so that the new request is now met by a slight change to planned work. If the idea is valuable, it’s worth adjusting your roadmap to deliver a better outcome.

Tactic 3: Use the request as evidence to bolster support for other unscheduled projects

Sometimes, a request seems out of left field, but when you examine it you realize that you could use it to pursue your own agenda. For example, if you’re asked to speed up a particular system because it is causing bottlenecks, you might roll that into the evidence you’re gathering that you need to spend more time on system observability and monitoring so you can catch these issues and fix them faster. By showing that an outsider deems a certain type of work important, you can persuade others that the project you want to get off the ground is worth pursuing. This is a great way to create a win-win scenario from an unexpected demand.

This is an advanced technique and one that is worth developing because it forces you to think about the other ‘important but not urgent’ work your team could be doing, and encourages you to test your ideas by looking for more places (like the requester’s team) where that work would show value.

Conclusion

Getting unexpected work requests when your team is already very busy can feel like a huge inconvenience and stressor. Often, however, these requests are opportunities in disguise: They are a chance to teach someone about your team’s work (and maybe make a case for more people!), a chance to understand a partner’s perspective and apply it to make your product better, or a chance to bolster support for work that you want to do but is currently unscheduled. So before you default to either stonewalling or thrashing your team to meet new requests, take a moment, examine the situation, and see if you can use this to your team’s advantage.