Superman’s Dilemma

An Agile Tale – Superman’s Dilemma

At the beginning of each of the George Reeves episodes from the 50s, we were informed that Superman was:

“Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound”

Since then, more money has been poured into cinema. We have found he can do much, much, more than these already impressive feats. You may for instance remember when Christopher Reeve made the earth spin in the opposite direction in order to reverse time.

Apart from fighting Super Villains, Superman does a lot of good in this world. He regularly looks out for humans in trouble and helps them. There was that time a school bus full of kids was going to submerge in the river and he flew them to safety. Then there was the time when that train was going to fall from a bridge (also funnily enough into a river) because the tracks had been destroyed. Superman used his body in place of the missing tracks, so that the train and its passengers could safely pass over him. Another time he saved a very cute kitten from a very tall tree for a very sweet grandma. You get the picture; he does a lot of good for humans…..and their pets.

What is Superman’s dilemma?

This is Superman’s dilemma: which humans and which pets should he save? He is Superman, so he can do a lot in a day. But even Superman cannot be in all places at all times, helping all people (and rescuing all pets).

So how does Superman decide? He has some fixed obligations which he must fulfil. The rest is a moving list in which the items change in urgency, and therefore priority, frequently.

Superman must spend a certain amount of time each day playing his alter ego Clark Kent. He has to hold down a job as a reporter and a steady relationship so that he can protect his identity.

He also spends a certain percentage of each month battling Super Villains. They may not trouble him on a daily basis, but they come around frequently enough. You know the ones. Think about the Super Villain scale problems that disrupt you every few weeks.

Beyond this, he must make some tough prioritisation decisions. He has Super Hearing, so he can hear all the distress calls. However, he has to tune some out with selective hearing, so that he can focus on the higher-value distress calls.

How does Superman prioritise?

There are many ways he could prioritise, but there is no “right” way to prioritise. This is because the concept of “Value” is a shifting sand. What is valuable right now, may not be as valuable tomorrow. This applies not just to monetary value. The term value also applies to items that are more intangible such as the amount of knowledge to be gained, or an increase in brand perception. Value does not just represent money. And value is not a fixed target. It moves from moment to moment.

Using a good value-based prioritisation technique such as WSJF can be helpful. But more important than the prioritisation process you use, is that you review the validity of your goals and the prioritisation of work frequently. All the while, watching for those shifting sands around you.

How does he focus?

So, that is the first thing to consider in Superman’s dilemma. The second is how do you focus when there is so much to do. We only have the resources to deliver a finite number of things at any given time. So what about the things that we are falling behind on? The things that are not getting done and with each passing moment the likelihood of them getting done is diminishing. Would you be surprised to learn that I am going to suggest that you do…..nothing?

We must ignore those things left at the bottom until something in our current definition of “Value” makes them important to us. Otherwise, they will take critical time and focus away from the items we did choose to prioritise.

I’m not saying those things are not important, they were obviously important enough to someone to write up once, so they do have some value. However, they obviously have less value than the things that are getting done. Otherwise, these would be the things that are getting done.

Infinite logic

Those items that are not getting done can play on our mind and take energy away from the things that we should be focusing on. Superman being Superman can’t use conventional ways to deal with this. He has to use what I am calling Infinite Logic, the concept of which I heard described in an excellent podcast by Dave Prior & Dr. Alistair Cockburn.

The logic of Infinite Logic reads that if you think about the number of things that could possibly NOT get done, the number is infinite. By saying “Yes” to doing something, we are also saying “No” to doing many other things. This is because there are only so many things that we have the capacity to say “Yes” to. This means there is an infinite number of things that we have to say “No” to. Each time another thing does not get done, it just adds to the number of things that have not been done, which is infinity + 1. Which is of course infinity.

So this means that no matter how many other additional things do not get done, you have not increased the number of things that are not getting done. You can never increase the total number of things that are not getting done by not doing things, since that number is (and always will be) infinity. We really can’t digest infinity, so I suggest that we should not try to. You are not to “blame” for the things that are not getting done, as you are doing other things that you decided/were informed are more valuable. So, don’t let these things which you are not doing play on your mind and distract you.

The power and responsibility of prioritisation

The most important thing is that we take responsibility for making sure that the things which have been prioritised are the right things. Prioritisation cannot be based upon someone’s opinion of what should be done, or prioritised by whoever is shouting the loudest at you on any given day. Unfortunately, this is a very common way to prioritise. If you have some say in prioritisation, then you have the power to say what gets done, by whom, using which resources. Please make sure that you use that power wisely and for the greater good.

“Where there is great power there is great responsibility” 

Winston Churchill, 1906

No, it wasn’t Peter Parker’s poor Uncle Ben who said that. Pub Quiz’s everywhere, rejoice, for I have found you an answer to a new tricky pub quiz question.


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