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October 25, 2023

Crunch time: How to avoid last-minute cramming in long-term development projects

Agile Roadmapping Integrations Project Management
Agnieszka Sienkiewicz

Working around the clock to meet deadlines takes a toll on  Agile teams. The longer crunch time lasts, the more demoralized and burned out people become. But there are ways to avoid this unhappy situation (or at least minimize its impact).

Defining crunch time

Crunch time, or crunch mode, is a well known phenomenon in the software development industry. It’s working extra hours for extended periods of time. Management might expect employees to work 50, 60, 70, and even 80 hours a week. The intense work often requires cutting breaks and losing sleep to dedicate more time to coding. Crunch time can last for months, but usually spans just the final weeks leading up to a release.

Reasons behind crunch time in software development

In a way, software and game developers have gotten used to crunch time. This infamous phenomenon has become so prevalent that people in this industry often see it as part of their job. But why does crunch mode occur?

Tight project deadlines

One of the biggest contributors is the underestimated project deadline. Most often, project clients, sponsors, or the company owning the product want the release to take place as soon as possible. 

Consequently, they set deadlines that leave very little room to accommodate any unforeseen delays. They also don’t consider the fact that developers often work on several projects at once. When that happens, their workload increases, but their deadlines aren’t usually extended proportionally.

Unrealistic client expectations

Clients ordering a project may be non-technical folks who have very little software development knowledge. For that reason, they might have unrealistic expectations as to how fast a specific digital product can be released. (Especially if the project is more complex than they realize.)

Scope creep

If the contractor doesn’t manage client expectations properly, the situation can lead to scope creep. Unaware of project complexity, stakeholders might introduce frequent changes in requirements. The new requirements, in turn, may force developers to work overtime. This is why it’s so important to keep the client informed about potential impact of project scope changes on the deadline. If you miss that preliminary step, definitely alert the client at the first sign of scope creep.

Consequences of crunch time on developers 

Crunch time, even if it’s considered normal among developers, takes a toll on them and also on their families. Working extended hours, sacrificing weekends, and disrupting work-life balance have serious after-effects. 

For starters, continuous and excessive stress can seriously affect developers’ mental health and overall well-being. This typically leads to burnout and job dissatisfaction. And despite the long hours, crunch time actually lowers productivity. 

But burnout doesn’t only hurt your team’s productivity and career prospects. It takes a mental and physical toll on them. Burnout leads to apathy, sleeping disorders, and heart-related issues, including high blood pressure and heart attacks.

Taking the long-term effects into consideration, it’s clear that crunch time a recipe for disaster. Employees working in a toxic and unhealthy environment can wind up seriously ill. And they might just quit for good! If they walk, you’ll have fewer developers working on your project, meaning remaining team members will need to manage an even greater workload. 

Burned out employees are also prone to mistakes. Their errors can cause you to deliver faulty products. So even if your company meets the deadline, your product will be buggy. This begs the question — is crunch time really worth it? And more importantly, how can you avoid (or minimize) it?

How to avoid (or minimize) crunch time

Unrealistic deadlines, poor planning, and scope creep can happen in any project. Without careful management, you’ll notice tasks getting delayed, resource capacity plummeting, and key roles being unavailable. To avoid crunch time, negotiate realistic deadlines, plan ahead, and manage key stakeholders’ expectations.

Set realistic deadlines  

To set realistic deadlines, you need to consider several factors. Among them are project complexity and scope, as well as potential risks and the availability and skills of your team members. 

If you run your project according to a Hybrid management approach, consider employing bottom-up planning or backward planning using the Gantt chart and Agile board. This will give developers an opportunity to brainstorm risks, dependencies, and other key factors that could impact delivery. Empower them to shape a realistic project schedule.

Take into account the right skills

In many cases, crunch in software and game development happens when management fails to take into account people’s skills. And the meaning here is twofold.

First, there aren’t enough skilled professionals available on the Agile team to complete the job on time. And second, skilled professionals often enter a project too late. 

So for instance, to ensure you launch a product that actually works, your testers need to be part of the cycle and test new features as soon as they become available — not when the entire product is mostly done. Or if your product needs writers, they need to start writing at the right time so they don’t become blockers for others (including designers and programmers).

So your projects need people with the right skills. And you need to have enough of those people on the team. You should also plan your project so those people do their job at the right time to avoid blockers and work accumulation (both of which can lead to crunch time at the end). 

BigPicture for Jira helps you plan for and manage skills crucial to your project. The app also supports you with planning around resource absences and their capacity at any point in your project lifecycle. This way, you can anticipate potential blockers and work around them to prevent delays.

Plus, even if your project is part of a program or project portfolio, you’ll be able to ensure that none of your developers work full-time on several projects at once. This way, you’ll know how much work you can assign to the members of your team. Using a cross-project overview, you’ll also be able to check whether the people you need can commit enough time to your project to ensure uninterrupted progress.

Capacity bars represent the workload for every team across the entire portfolio. You can track capacities and tasks for teams and individual people within a project, program, and project portfolio.

Assess and manage risks

Risks and uncertainties are inherent to any project. First, you need to identify potential threats to project success. Then assess their impact and likelihood with the help of the risk matrix. The risk matrix will enable you to build and maintain a real-time view of the evolving risk environment. And you’ll be able to prioritize the risks, measure their size and scope, and figure out whether you have the right resources to minimize them.

A risk matrix in BigPicture visualizing project risks based on their risk rating.

Keep an eye on project progress

No matter which management methodology you use, you should be able to track its progress. You could use Agile tools like Sprint burndown charts, Agile boards, project reports, or even visualize Sprints on the Gantt chart

Using Agile board, you can read the Sprint progress directly on the board. But if you want to go further, you can customize your Jira card to show progress bars for each task. You’ll find similar information on the work breakdown structure (WBS) in BigPicture’s Gantt module and Scope module.

The app displays progress for each iteration/Sprint. It also warns if the resources are overallocated in a given Sprint. Here, in Iteration 2, the Craftsman Team is over 4 story points.

Implement a no-crunch policy

As employers become more mindful of employee wellness, companies are working to prevent crunch time it in a number of ways. One approach is to implement a strict no-crunch policy. Embeds unbreakable rules into work culture, like mandatory vacation days, and overtime resulting in extra pay. This type of policy helps workers to be more productive during work time and protects them from burnout.

Just take care not to create a “perverse incentive” in which your team purposely works crazy hours to rack up overtime pay. You don’t want your best workers purposely cramming in order to earn more money. Instead, provide bonuses for better quality output, like a bug-free release.

Crunch time undermines product quality, team productivity, and employee satisfaction. Just because cramming is common doesn’t mean it’s unavoidable. With some planning (and an assist from BigPicture), you can say goodbye to crunch time and hello to on-time project delivery!