Someone Always Makes Progress

Room enough for everyone to work...

...non-primary tasks are dominating the team's time, keeping it from moving forward with their primary goal. There are common complaints of distraction.

✥ ✥ ✥

It is important to keep a team moving forward and to avoid getting stuck on the obstacles. You need to pay attention to every task, including small diverting ones. But you also need to complete the primary task by an important date.


Whatever you try, ensure that someone on the team is making progress on the primary task.

✥ ✥ ✥

If you do not complete your primary task, nothing else will matter. Therefore, complete that at all costs.

You can employ one of a broad range of particular solutions and tactics depending on the exact forces to be resolved. The following specializations are example refinements of this pattern:

But, in any case, you will always be closer to your final goal — which is not always the case when dealing with distractions.

The psychological effect of this pattern should not be underestimated. If the project is hit with many distractions, it can be demoralizing to see work grind to a halt. However, any visible progress will help the entire team stay focused, and will encourage them to get through their particular crisis, so that they too can once again make progress.

Carried too far, this pattern might lead you into trouble for not adequately addressing the distractions. But too many distractions are usually a symptom of some other problem; see, for example, FireWalls.

Sample situations:

A. Scylla and Charybdis, Atalanta. In the ancient Greek story, Odysseus had to get his ship past Scylla and Charybdis. Scylla was a six-headed monster guaranteed to eat six crew members, but the rest would survive. Charydbis was a whirlpool guaranteed to destroy the entire ship. In this paradigm of the dilemma, Odysseus chose to sacrifice six people so that the rest would get past Scylla's cave.

In the Greek story of Atalanta, Atalanta was assured by the gods that she would remain the fastest runner as long as she remained a virgin. So she told her father, the king that she would only marry the man who could beat her in a foot race. The losers were to be killed for wasting her time. The successful young man was aided by a god, who gave him 3 golden apples. Each time Atalanta pulled ahead, he tossed an apple in front of her. While she paused to pick up the golden apple, he raced ahead, and eventually won.

You could interpret this story as containing the moral that Atalanta should not have stopped to pick up the apples - that would also illustrate the point of this pattern. I choose to view it more metaphorically, that Atalanta represents distractions trying to beat you to your project's deadline. The apples are members of your team, whom you will separate from the main team one at a time to ensure success.

See [BibRef-Csikszentmihalyi1990] and [BibRef-DeMarcoLister1976].

A version of this pattern first appeared in [BibRef-Cockburn1998].