We Can’t Break Physical Laws. We Can Break Ourselves Against Them. Part 2

We Can’t Break Physical Laws. We Can Break Ourselves Against Them. Part 2

In a previous blog I shared how unfinished tasks tend to constantly interrupt our thoughts, create anxiety and affect our productivity. Research has proven that in human endeavors, once expectations have been set, our brains seek a conclusion. If that conclusion is not forthcoming, the brain “stays open” to receive it. Zeigarnik effects result from our mind’s tendency to seek conclusion: when leaving tasks unfinished to focus on something else, we experience anxiety and intrusive thoughts about the uncompleted tasks. Since multi-tasking is simply diverting our attention from one task to another (basically making the new task an interruption), our brain won’t allow us to fully focus on the new task because we have left the previous one uncompleted.

Kanban core practices not only help alleviate these effects, they can spin the Zeigarnik effect on its head and use it to our advantage. Here are several ways how this works:

  • One of the Kanban practices is to “Limit Work In Progress (WIP)” based on available capacity to complete the work. This practice supports our brain’s natural inclination to seek closure by finishing what we started.
  • Another core practice is to “Manage Flow”, meaning that we want to reach the optimum cycle times possible for everything we do. Besides a definition of “Done” teams define a definition of “Ready” that helps prevent starting on work they could not complete due to missing information or unavailability of subject matter experts (SMEs) along a value stream.
  • In the event that information or people are not available, the affected work item is blocked visually indicating that work cannot continue until the blocker is removed. The physical act of blocking a work item cancels Zeigarnik effect by providing the closure our brains seek.
  • Author and psychologist Perry W Buffington described the Zeigarnik effect by stating that people tend to remember negative experiences and feelings longer than positive ones. In our world this means that we hear more often from our stakeholders about what we haven’t done for them and less about what we delivered. Drawing upon this phenomenon, in our Kanban consulting practice we coach delivery teams how to consistently review with customers how delivered work is always completed at the expense of other work not being done. This leads to better prioritization, less escalations and minimizes interruptions.  This approach is part of two other Kanban practices: “Develop Feedback Loops” and “Improve Collaboratively, Evolve Experimentally”.

Do you have a lot of unfinished business like a multitude of projects, tasks, and priorities that constantly change, requiring you to stop working on something and start working on something new or on something that was already on hold? Is the unfinished business (The Zeigarnik Effect) hunting you? Do you know how to forecast the capacity you or your team has and how to improve it?

High performance or high productivity require staying focused and avoiding multi-tasking or disruptions. Kanban practices can help you and they are easy to adopt alongside any other processes you already have in place. Our Certified Kanban Foundations Course will help you get started. Let us know what questions you have.



Zeigarnik, B.V. (1927). Über das Behalten von erledigten und unerledigten Handlungen (The Retention of Completed and Uncompleted Activities), Psychologische Forschung, 9, 1-85

Perry W. Buffington, Cheap Psychological Tricks (Atlanta, Georgia: Peachtree Publishers Ltd., 1996), pages 93-95.

I get this question a lot. And I ask back “What business problems are you trying to solve?” Each method has great potential when applied within the right context. If you are already using one of them, it doesn’t mean that you can’t use practices from the other. You should adopt any practice that enhances your current toolset for solving business challenges.

Here is a good article that takes a pragmatic approach on how each one of the methods can be used based on what is best for your customers: What is Best, Scrum or Kanban? – http://www.agileconnection.com/article/what-best-scrum-or-kanban

CC Pace provides a variety of Agile services, and we can help you build your toolset as your business needs change. This blog site is a great forum to ask methodology related questions. What do you want to learn more about?