How to Assess the Value of Old Data and Its Effect on Aging

Up until a few months ago, my office was a disaster. I had a ton of old data:

  • Paper in reverse chronological order on surfaces (most recent on top).
  • Printed articles to read.
  • Notes from previous workshops I wanted to integrate when I updated those workshops.

Over the past year, as I realized the pandemic would probably change what and how I offered for workshops, I've slowly recycled or filed all that paper. I did discover some treasures among all that paper, such as bookmarks. But that's it.

I realized something important: I had plenty of old and aging data. The older the data the less value the data had.

Worse, the fact that I had a ton of aging work, the less I wanted to attack that work.

Those are exactly the problems Daniel, Prateek, and I discussed in Aging Fun with Drunk Agile (Video). Even if I had organized the data (in a roadmap or a portfolio), I would have had to take the time to work through it all. That time wasn't valuable to me. But maybe the data was?

How Much of That Data Was Valuable?

Here's the data that was valuable:

  • Writing contracts. I do have writing contracts for some of my writing, so I filed them. I know when I have the rights to my writing for hire.
  • The ideas for updating the workshops, not the notes themselves.

Nothing else was valuable. Nothing.

Why? Because I changed what I offered during the pandemic. Or I could find the information online. My ideas about what to change in the workshops were great. But the actual printed copy of the workshops themselves? No, because I plan to change how I offer these workshops. (Just as you change your products.)

My data had plenty of persistence and very little value.

My principles for assessing the value:

  • Does this involve a legal agreement or a tax issue that will matter for my work? File it.
  • If this is an idea, how can I capture the idea without committing to that idea? I used Notes to capture but not commit to those ideas.

I know that the good ideas come around again.

Good Ideas Circle Around

Some ideas invite you to take them and start. They tempt you to start them now and let everything else age. (I wrote about this in Manage Your Project Portfolio.) You always have these choices:

  • Stop what you're doing now and start something else. (Note we're not doing more. We choose to stop and then start something new.)
  • Put the new idea on the parking lot to decide when to start it.
  • Make a note of the work and see when the idea circles around again. Good ideas circle around again very fast.

Don't let your work age. Assessing all that work takes forever because you have more and more to assess. (Even if the work is just cleaning up your office.)

Aging Makes Everything Take Longer

Little's Law says that the longer things take, the longer they will take. Here's the equation:

Number of items in the queue = (the arrival rate of each item) x (average time spent in the queue)

In the case of my papers, the number of papers continued to increase because I offered workshops. Or researched, or wrote. (I worked.) The longer it took me to decide what to do with everything, the more items arrived and the longer my queue got. My number of items increased. (This is a reinforcing feedback loop that reinforces longer decision times!)

This is exactly the same problem as reassessing possible work in the project portfolio, or the bug database, or stories in a roadmap.

I kept all that paper for four good ideas—that I already had. And even if I “lost” a good idea? I have plenty of good ideas, and so does your staff. We don't have trouble with good ideas—we have trouble implementing fast enough.

How do we decide? I have guidelines for me.

My Guidelines for the Value of Old Data and Its Effect on Aging

In general, old data doesn't offer much value. The ideas might offer a lot of value. Not the specifics. And reassessing all this old data makes everything take longer.

Here are my guidelines:

  • How often do you feel you should review this old data? If often, and it takes you a long time, throw it all out. (In the discussion with Daniel and Prateek, I suggested you make a copy of that database and put that data somewhere. Then don't bother looking at the data. Start new.)
  • If you finish work on a regular basis, your old data doesn't offer much value at all. Instead, the old data traps you into thinking it's valuable. That old data might prevent you from seeing new possibilities. Put the old data somewhere and don't look at it again. (You might need to restrategize for the organization.)
  • Watch your decision time to see if you have trouble with aging. Are things taking a long time? Are you adding more to your list every day and reducing the list less often? Stop adding more. Start finishing more. Or, throw everything out and start again.

Aging items kill the momentum from either teams or managers. The old stuff pulls you down. You're not getting the value you think from all that data. (That's a Cost of Delay problem.) Instead, throw the old stuff out. The good ideas and the valuable data will circle around again.

Let yourself finish small chunks of work and go to the next thing. Track more universal measures, such as cycle time. That's what I'm doing. And my office is clean. Well, clean enough.

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