Cycles: A simple system to keep your team on track

Shaping projects can get messy without a good process in place. The article introduces the concept of repeatable, time-boxed cycles and highlights how teams can leverage the routine to get projects done.

How much can you get done with a small team?

I'm regularly amazed to see what some tiny teams can get done by working cohesively together.

One of the reasons some teams are so continuously effective over a long period of time is that they have an underlying system that keeps them on track.

Software teams have frameworks to tackle their product development. Medical teams have routines to successfully treat diseases. And athletes have strong systems in place to pave their path to athletic power.

Every system, of course, is adapted to a specific context, department or industry. Software teams run sprints, medical teams lead treatment cycles and athletes train in split routines.

But whatever the case, the idea is the same: To execute within an explicit, repeatable and time-boxed cycle. Followed by a period of rest before starting again.

It's a simple but powerful idea that enables teams to leverage compound interest by running in repeating sequences.

Whether you work in a large corporate, the government or a smaller company. Cycles help you to work better together as a professional team.

Let's jump right into it!

The Cycle

A cycle is a specific time frame (e.g. 6 weeks) in which a team sets out to reach defined milestones. Within the cycle, those milestones are translated into big and small projects. Each project consists of either an individual or a small team with one person in charge.

Cycle Overview

The idea is from Basecamp. The company got known for its unconventional business approaches through books like Rework and It doesn't have to be crazy at work.

Roughly every six weeks their teams start a new cycle of work.

"We believe there’s a great six week version of nearly everything. Occasionally some things fall outside of this limit — deep R&D projects, brand new tech we’ve never used before, etc. But we’ve come to discover that nearly everything important can be done in six weeks or less. And done well." (Source)

The best timeframe may vary for you but what matters is that the cycle is long enough to get meaningful things done and short enough to see the end in sight.

Additional Modules

Based on the cycle there are additional elements that help to leverage the routine and create positive feedback loops over time with your team.

Here are three crucial modules:

  1. Buffer
  2. Retrospectives
  3. Planning
1. Buffer

Whether driving a car or organizing the calendar of the week. Buffers help us to avoid traffic jams and stressful situations. With buffers, we have fewer urgencies to react to and more time to think about the best road to take.

That's why cycles only work overtime with dedicated buffers between each cycle:

Once the execution cycle is over, there is a set buffer (e.g. 2 weeks) before the next cycle starts. Within this period the team has time to tackle smaller tasks, reflect on the last cycle, do internal organization and plan the upcoming cycle.

It's very unnatural to think that way at work but it's crucial to move reflected, prepared and mentally healthy.

2. Retrospectives

Cycles unfold their real power when one cycle strengthens the following one. This can be achieved by implementing collective reflection to keep the team on track, learn and improve.

The retrospectives happen once at the end of every cycle. A good framework to use is the 4Ls FrameworkLikedLearnedLacked and Longed For.

Small tip: Sometimes it's hard to differentiate between lacked and longed for. Lacked describes a shortfall, something that is missing. Longed for is more future-oriented, something we wish could exist moving forward.

Remote Retrospective with Mural

Let's' start with a good retrospective agenda:

  1. Everybody has 20 minutes to think back and answer each of the 4 above questions on their own. Even when being in the same physical space it might be helpful to use virtual whiteboard tools like Mural or Miro. That way you'll have everything in one place and always accessible.
  2. Each participant gets 4 minutes to present their post-it's briefly. At this point, it's not about discussion but rather listening and maybe clarifying questions.
  3. Everyone gets 3 votes on what's currently bad (lacked & longed for) and therefore needs action.
  4. Everyone gets another 3 votes to vote on what works great and should be leveraged further.

Doing regular reflections with the team creates a learning culture and helps to stop running in circles, value the contribution of everyone and move with a collective brain.

3. Planning

Planning a cycle ensures that the team executes according to the overall strategy. This is valuable for two reasons.

Firstly it's an isolated session to brainstorm, suggest and decide on what projects will be most effective to what the organization is trying to achieve.

Secondly, it's about making good decisions upfront so that we don't lose energy, slow down or practice poor decision making during the cycle itself.

A good approach to tackle the planning session is to start by working alone, together.

  1. Everybody gets 45 minutes to calmly oversee the output of the last cycle reflection, think about actionable projects that they could tackle and note them on post-its.
  2. Everyone presents their ideas quickly and briefly before voting on what projects should make it to the upcoming cycle.
  3. Next up are weekly milestones. What are some weekly routines that you want to include in the next cycle? This could be anything from "Writing two LinkedIn posts a week" to "Sending out a newsletter every Wednesday". The cycle framework helps to act on those routines.
  4. Now you're ready for planning the actual roadmap. Again it's still helpful to keep everything together in a digital whiteboard tool so that you have everything together over time. Take 30 minutes to take the prioritized projects and assign them to one (or more) of the upcoming six weeks.
Empty cycle plan, ready for planning

In addition to those three modules, there are others such as weekly stand-ups or 1-on-1s with the team. But beware to not overcomplicate things in the beginning.

So, how much can you get done with a small team?

It's up to you. It's less about running as fast as you can and more about making the right steps, at a nice pace, and making smart decisions along the way.

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