What does team capacity even mean anyway?

We pretty much agree it’s not right to refer to people as resources (or at least we should). It’s disrespectful and dehumanising. It smacks of an outdated industrial mindset where people were thought of as interchangeable cogs in the machine, easily replaced by the next person in line.

So, in avoiding that problematic term, we seem to have replaced in with the term ‘capacity’. What does that mean? Is it just a different term for the same kind of thinking or is it something different?

When we say ‘capacity’, we often mean it as short-hand for ‘who does what work when’. If we take the definition of capacity as ‘the maximum amount something can contain’, then when we say, “the team is at full capacity this month”, we mean that a group of people (who) are already doing all the work they can in the time they have available. We think of the ‘who’ and the ‘what’ as fixed (throwback from the industrial mindset) and the ‘when’ as the variable. “The team might have more capacity next month”, means we expect them to have more time next month and the work they couldn’t fit in this month will have to wait till then.

But in modern digital work all those things are variable. Not just when, but who and what too.

Who might be on the cross-functional team could change, but also what skills, knowledge, time, processes and environments the people might have could also change. These things vary depending on the work. A developer using a new language and unfamiliar systems to what they are highly-skilled in will take longer.

What the work involves also changes. Understanding the work, doing the work of figuring out how to do the work, realising the problem the team thought they were tackling turns out not to be the real problem, doing the work of coordinating the work. It all has to be done. And it all changes with each new piece of work. Even the same work changes as a team gets more practiced at doing it.

What gets in the way of the work also deserves a special mention. Teams doing one piece of work that takes four days or four pieces of work that take a day each is taking the same amount of time, but in latter the work-in-progress is much higher. That’s four times the coordination required, four times the dependencies, four times the context switching, four times the amount of knowledge people have to keep in their heads. Not having the right tools or systems necessary for the work also gets in the way.

To help us understand these variables we can think about them on a sliding scale.

  • What – the type of work ranges from delivering known, fixed, repeatable outputs… to… achieving uncertain, novel outcomes.
  • What gets in the way – the amount of work-in-progress ranges from low, where the team can focus on one piece of work at a time… to… high, where the team has lots of distracting priorities.
  • Who – the people on the team range from highly-skilled, knowledgeable, have the right processes in place, etc., for the type of work … to… learning (either because they are inexperienced and haven’t developed yet or because the type of work is uncertain and new to them), setting things up, improving practices and processes.

The more we’re on the right of the scales, the more impossible it is to estimate team capacity, and in fact, the more meaningless the term becomes. We should accept that.

When we have conversations about team capacity, it’s useful for us to be clear about why we’re having those conversations, what question are we really asking. Sometimes, when we ask, “how much capacity does the team have next month”, we’re really asking, “can the team do x work next month”. That changes it from a capacity conversation to a prioritisation conversation (which isn’t necessarily any easier, but there you go).

But where this becomes really useful is in changing the conversation from ‘capacity’ to ‘ability’, from how much can the team do, to how do we help them be more able to do different things better. How do we help team’s improve on their ability to achieve uncertain or novel outcomes, to drive down their work-in-progress limit, to learn new things, to work at a sustainable pace?

We’ve gone from harmful assumptions about resource utilisation, to understanding how the variability of digital work makes capacity a meaningless term, to talking about improving a team’s ability to do good work. This is where the impactful value is for teams, leaders and organisations, not in making sure everyone is always busy or in guessing when a piece of work will be done, but continually improving team ability.