Feb 18

Crunch: how to avoid it in long-term development?

Crunch in IT

Crunch is as old as the IT sector. Working overtime on weekends and holidays with deadlines looming over is one of the most unpleasant and devastating things for any dev team to happen. The longer the crunch lasts, the more demoralized and burned out people are. Fortunately, there are ways to avoid crunch or minimize its impact. 

What is crunch? 

The game industry is well-known for its infamous examples of crunch affecting people’s lives, but the phenomenon is present in every deadline-oriented IT sector. 

The founding story of crunch came up in the mid 2000s. Then, a spouse of a developer in one of the world’s biggest game companies spilled about the absurd amount of work her partner had to endure. As the saying goes, an avalanche starts with one pebble thus other employees spoke out about inhumane workload, which led to their burnout and lack of communication with their partners and family. Every few years, a new story about crunch in the gamedev industry resurfaces as a sad reminder of what bad planning and poor resource allocation can bring to dev teams. 

The outcome is always the same: burned-out workers quit their jobs, leaks about lousy management and unpopular, often borderline irresponsible decisions go to the media, and the company faces a PR crisis, which affects its valuation. All ends with a scathing article that sums up every misstep, each missed opportunity, and arrogance of those in charge. Later, the circle of crunch can begin once again. Different people, same mistakes. 

Other IT sectors are not free from crunch either. Only a proper response can help to avoid or minimize its impact on the organization. Smart backwards planning that starts with a deadline and goes back to the period of time when teams have enough time to finish the project is paramount in crunch-prone segments of the IT market. 

How to avoid crunch? 

Crunch happens for several interconnected reasons. Fortunately, there are ways to counteract them. 

1. Reasonable approach to resources

In long-term development, it’s necessary to measure and recognize critical elements when planning work. The foundations are the team’s work capacity, a workforce for each product, and, of course, preparing a good roadmap with realistically set, flexible time goals, in case of any delays. 

It’s worth mentioning that BigPicture can help in planning at both project and portfolio level. While planning it’s important to create a dedicated issue type representing a project or initiative. This should be followed by defining the required skills and estimations. Such a task can be used to both forecast and plan resources but also to show the impact on the currently managed projects.

Without considering these aspects, crunch can begin as early as in the pre-production phase. It won’t be visible at first, but accumulated pending tasks will surface and strike back sooner or later.

2. Haste makes waste 

There is an old saying that a rushed project will always be bad, and a delayed one has a chance to be good. Another phrase says that the premiere’s fixed date almost always means that teams will go into crunch mode to meet their deadlines. That’s why some companies never announce their product release dates in advance, or they do it at the last moment possible, to be sure that everything is polished and good to go. If they use a hybrid approach, they tend to use backwards planning, supported by BigPicture. Customers tend to forgive the delay of a good product or flawed product with cutting edge technology, like foldable phones, now resurrected by the biggest telecom companies after a decade-long hiatus. Yet, the clients loathe undercooked solutions brought on time.  

3. Anti-crunch policy 

Nowadays, as crunch has gained much more infamy, companies strive to prevent it in many different ways. One of such is a strict anti-crunch policy. It implements unbreakable rules into work culture, such as mandatory vacation days, voluntary and extra-paid after hours, or competitions, like paying workers bonus money for not opening work email on their leave. It helps workers to be more productive during their work time and protects them from the burnout syndrome. 

4. Reliable data in place 

Controlling multiple teams’ performance can put some obstacles in the manager’s way, primarily when different tools and approaches are being used. Data supplied by work teams are the basis for Project Portfolio Management reporting. Their validity is necessary. A human error or rounding data up or down to “polish” some indicators can affect data’s reliability. In later product development, when this corrupted data delays progress, members and leaders can start to question or distrust other members’ skills. That’s why BigPicture has been designed to support both classic and agile approaches, as well as hybrid initiatives. With BigPicture, keeping up to date with the most reliable data is easy to focus on more people-oriented tasks. 

5. At all costs, avoid the death march and keep the crunch short

Regardless of any circumstances, crunch happens. Usually by the end of the development cycle, when critical aspects of the product must work seamlessly or at least correctly. What’s important, using an agile or hybrid approach makes errors and mistakes more easier to find in the early phase of development. This way, managers can shut down pointless or potentially harmful initiatives, so the crunch can focus on bringing actual value to the product. It’s exhausting but makes sense and doesn’t last long. 

What if someone notices, yet decides to ignore it that teams are working on something destined to fail? In such a case, product development transitions into a death march – a period of prolonged unsustainable overwork that usually ends up with a fiasco. To understand the death march better, Edward Yourdon, who wrote a book about this topic, defines it as a project whose “project parameters” exceed the norm by at least 50 percent. As he explains, the schedule has been compressed to less than half the amount estimated by a rational estimating process; thus, the project that would normally be expected to take 12 calendar months is now required to deliver its results in six months or less. 

Reasons may be different: an over-optimistic approach to a schedule of high management, lack of proper documentation or external expertise, that can assess necessary time, resources and potential risks. Death march usually leads to the rise of internal tensions, conflicts, burnout syndrome, and possible mass departures. 

With BigPicture, project managers can easily track data from teams with different approaches and present neat charts and graphs, as well as assess the risks of each initiative to prepare a proper response  should problems and delays occur. Deep integration with leading task management tools also  improves data validity and reliability throughout the reporting ladder. With BigPicture, software development can become less of a chore, and more of a challenge. 

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