The Darker Side of Unplanned Work

Dylan N Evans
4 min readMar 18, 2022


10 years ago, The Phoenix Project took the IT world by storm. It spoke to the deep dysfunction in many teams, of a million departments blamed for when things go wrong but never credit when things go right.

The solutions it proposed also sparked a fire: that the resulting conservative approaches to change management wouldn’t help, and that the principles of Lean, Six Sigma, and Statistical Process Control could.

The book offered a huge insight: thought is just another work product. IT work has almost no physical aspect: there’s no inventory, no giant molds or presses, and no distribution centers. The output of IT is just thought, carefully written down. Once you consider the resulting thought as inventory or Work in Progress, you can apply the tried-and-true process engineering approaches: reducing waste, Just In Time inventory, kanbans, etc.

If you haven’t read it, I recommend. Even if you don’t work in tech, the lessons apply to similar disciplines. Marketing, Finance, HR, and Legal match the same pattern, and even services such as medical care or management consulting. Heck, it probably works for psychics and math teachers too.

The Phoenix Project categorizes work into four categories, which I’ll summarize below:

  • Standard work is the work you’re paid to deliver. Maybe it’s typing out scans of handwritten doctor’s notes. Maybe it’s doing three-way matches for vendor invoices. Maybe it’s leading yoga classes.
  • Project work is the effort you apply to improve standard work. Maybe you reduce the hours each delivery takes. Maybe you reduce turnaround time. Maybe you reduce the variability of a dependency.
  • Customer projects are done to improve the value of what your standard work delivers. Maybe you’re adding features. Maybe you’re improving the consistency of the work product.
  • Unplanned work adds no direct value. These are the fires and the emergencies that prevent you from doing the first three. The book spends a lot of time on unplanned work, explaining that you often get the most productivity gains on a team from just reducing unplanned work. I have noticed independently that unplanned work is the most tiring and demoralizing, so suspect that reducing it also makes teams happier and reduces burnout.

It Goes Deeper

After I read the Phoenix project, I started seeing work in those categories. It inspired me to change my work habits to reduce the impact unplanned work has on me and my teams. In the book, unplanned work is usually described at the team level — usually system outages (because IT). The spirit is even more subtle: unplanned work happens anytime someone says, “stop what you’re doing, please do this thing for me now.”

Unplanned work is an interruption, with all the implications about the costs of context switching. Personally, it also risks disrespect: the requester implies that their request is more important than whatever they displaced. It takes away autonomy, planning, and self-management. When most work is unplanned, you lose the ability to prioritize, will be less efficient, and most importantly, cannot optimize. That can be a dark place.

Often personal unplanned work is caused by:

  • poor planning. How often is your emergency caused by someone else’s procrastination?
  • people wanting special treatment. If you have a two-week backlog of standard work, people may try to jump the line and ask you directly.
  • inadequate process. Perhaps people are interrupting you with requests because that’s the only way they know to ask for what they need.

The book has many solutions at the team and organizational level, and I’ll augment them with a few others I’ve learned.

  • Set boundaries. If you comply with requests to skip the line, you will teach people that the line is optional. Use emergencies as an opportunity to educate people about the value of your team and their existing work: “What would you do if this didn’t get done until Friday?” or “Is your request more important than these other projects?” Lencioni had some great thoughts about how poor personal boundaries can spiral into deep dysfunction.
  • Create processes. This has so many names, but the core concept is simple: figure out what your team does, then create standard processes to deliver them. Process Engineering is the subject of countless books and a consulting industry worth billions.
  • Marketing. If you want people to use your process, they have to know about it and it must be easier than whatever they’ve been doing. There are many ways to achieve this and they all boil down to good marketing. You must convince people to use the intakes you’ve designed instead of bothering you. This allows you to scale: instead of triaging each problem as it comes in, you can explain up front what you do, then let them figure out how they want help. Common approaches include searchable webpages explaining your team’s services, regular presentations to potential consuming groups, and Call To Action buttons to make it easier for them to get started.

In the the next article, we explore how culture can stymie the best efforts to improve organizations.

This story was originally published on Salty On Security.



Dylan N Evans

Talks about root causes, failure, and continuous improvement in business, cybersecurity, and day-to-day life.