Timeboxing: What Is It for Anyway?

By Patti April - August 27, 2019

Timeboxing: What Is It for Anyway?
August 27, 2019 By Patti April

Timeboxing: What Is It for Anyway?

We all timebox in our daily lives whether at work or in private. Think about this: you have a doctor’s appointment and you know what time you are expected to arrive. Like a good patient, you arrive early or on time, but the doctor is running late. Sound familiar? They get you checked in and bring you to a nice little room to sit in all by your lonesome for what seems like an eternity. Once the doctor finally comes to see you they only spend 10 to 15 minutes with you. Then you’re directed back to their assistant and they move on to the next patient. Are they ‘timeboxing’ your visit?  How dare they, you have issues! 

The Importance of Timeboxing

Think about why they do it.  In order to maximize the number of patients they can see each day they must limit each visit to no more than 15 minutes. When the visits run over that time it causes a trickle-down effect where every appointment starts and ends late. If they cannot discuss your issue(s) in a 15-minute window then it probably means your visit is beyond a general visit need and they will refer you to a specialist or hospital. This means that their 15-minute timebox has a goal and that is to address simple and treatable issues for their patients, otherwise they must proceed to the next step.

Do you generally feel your visit is meeting the goals of why you are there?  Do you feel like you are being rushed by the doctor so they can move on to the next room?  I personally have a doctor that wants to talk football with me all the time when I visit because we both root for the same team.  While I’m always happy to chat with another fan, is the timebox really benefiting me?  Let’s examine:

  • I make an appointment for a specific reason.

  • I then arrive on time, as usual, because I’m that good patient. 

  • I wait in my little room for the doctor.

  • He pays very little attention to the notes by his assistant and immediately starts talking football with me.

  • My 15 minutes have been predominantly absorbed by his chitchat rather than talking about my reason for being there.

  • The result? My issue is not generally discussed, addressed or of highest importance. 

In my case, the doctors timeboxing is not benefitting me as the patient, and the doctor is not properly focused on what he should be doing during that time frame. 

Taking a step to ensure my time is utilized properly in that timebox, I deflect his commentary and return to talking about my issue(s).  If we have time left for chitchat great, but this way my visit is valuable for the 15 minutes I am given and we both come out with nice dialog between us.


Timeboxing in Scrum

One of the biggest changes and challenges for teams moving into a Scrum Framework is understanding what timeboxing means for their Scrum activities. Distraction, side conversations, not being focused, and going down rabbit holes are all things that derail meetings. In Scrum, timeboxing is intended to help minimize those things so that the activities are fruitful for all attending. You should be coming out of them with shared understandings and known outputs. Keeping discussions to a certain amount of time helps to ensure the most relevant conversations are being had and everyone is staying focused.

Now, let us think about this in the context of the work environment.  We have meetings on our calendar intended for specific agendas, purposes, etc.  When we arrive we expect that the meeting organizer (in Scrum this could be the Scrum Master, for example) will be facilitating it with an agenda we all can follow.  The meeting(s) have output goals that are generally known and a purpose outlined by the agenda. Consider the Daily Scrum meeting that is intended to run 15 minutes each day.  No more than 15 minutes.  In Scrum, it is believed that 15 minutes is all a team needs each day to quickly come together and discuss the work achieved the day before, current day and any impediments they may have so that everyone is on the same page.

How to Timebox

When the meeting has people that are distracted, talking or going down rabbit holes it impacts the purpose and value of the meeting and makes it more difficult to adhere to the timebox. Timeboxing can facilitate discussions about specific things and provide the most value to those attending without the distraction of unrelated topics.

Follow these simple rules for timeboxing and your meetings/activities will prove to be valuable to everyone and help promote agility:

  • If you are facilitating meetings have an agenda so everyone knows what needs to be covered. 

  • Keep things as simple as possible so the risk of distractions is minimized. 

  • Setup parking lots for those topics that need more attention so as not to derail the flow of the timebox. 

  • Manage the timebox as the facilitator to ensure your meeting isn’t taking a nose dive. Be mindful to everyone in attendance because each person’s time is as valuable as the next. 

  • If you are a Scrum Master, keep in mind your role as a coach to ensure that teams are aware of the timebox and why Scrum uses timeboxing.