Anton Skornyakov ADT podcast cover
Episode: 128

Anton Skornyakov - The Art of Slicing Work

Posted on: 28 Mar 2024
Anton Skornyakov ADT podcast cover

Anton Skornyakov is a holder of the esteemed certified Scrum Trainer certification, co-founder and managing director of Agile Coach and author of The Art of Slicing Work: How to Navigate Unpredictable Projects.

In this episode, Anton breaks down the concept of slicing work and how it can benefit businesses and organizations. He shares numerous tips and insights from his just released book, along with tangible examples of slicing work in action.


Links & mentions:


"If you just boldly move on and expect that none of the risks actually hit you, then you very probably will not deliver any value in the end, because some of the risks will undermine the whole result. So by starting with derisking your project, you deliver real value, you learn, and very often you adapt very quickly."

Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast, where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, content and community manager at Agiledrop.

Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in. I'm joined today by Anton Skornyakov, holder of the esteemed certified Scrum Trainer certification, co-founder and managing director of Agile Coach and author of the soon to be released book The Art of Slicing Work: How to Navigate Unpredictable Projects. In today's episode, Anton will tell us more about slicing work and the benefits it brings, and he'll share some examples of slicing work in action.

Anton, welcome to the show. Thank you so much for joining us today. Anything to add before we dive in? 

Anton Skornyakov: No, hello, and thank you for having me, Tim. 

Tim Butara: Awesome. Awesome. As we were just talking about, this is a great topic that will resonate greatly with a lot of our business oriented listeners. And obviously the first thing that we need to clear up to kind of set the stage for everybody listening right now, what is slicing work and how can it benefit companies?

Anton Skornyakov: Yeah. Thank you for the question. So slicing work is one way to break up work. And when we normally, you know, have big projects in front of us, we need, in order to manage them, to break the work up in different packages. And very often we do this unconsciously. 

And understanding the different ways we can break up work is very essential. It has tremendous meaning on how we can manage whatever comes after we break the work up. 

So, slicing work, the best way I know to introduce it, the easiest way to understand it, is to think of something that we typically work on. For example, preparing a dinner. If you are not preparing a dinner just for your family, because this is a small amount of work, you typically, typically people don't try to manage that, but imagine you have to prepare dinner for a lot of friends. You've invited over 20 people. 

So, you know, the amount of cooking is a lot, that is going to happen. So you need to kind of manage it and you can break this work, this dinner preparation up in two fundamentally different ways. 

One way is you think about, well, what are going to be the entrees? What are going to be the main courses? What are going to be the desserts? What are going to be the beverages? And then you think about what kind of people you've invited. Maybe some of them are vegetarian, some of them are vegan, some of them definitely want to eat meat. And you will think about the different dishes that you want to give them.

And you will create a list of all of this, you could say it's kind of the menu of your dinner. But it's even more detailed than a menu, because on this list you will find everything that is tasteable. Everything that you can put into your mouth and say, I like it, it tastes great, or no, that's over salted or something, right?

So this would be the so called vertical list. And what I've just done was vertically slice the project of a dinner into different little vertical slices, meaning dishes. 

Now, the other to break up the work would be to think of all the things you need to do in order to prepare this dinner. To clean and... to clean all the vegetables, to peel different vegetables, to cut them, to maybe season things, maybe preheat the oven, fry, and so forth. All of the different actions that you need to take. 

And you could have a huge list of all the things that you need to do. This second list, the list of those to dos, this is something we called horizontal slicing. And now you ask me, how can it benefit companies? Let's just take a look at this two lists. One list of all the to do's and the other is a list of all those dishes. 

And we ask ourselves, well, imagine the guests come two hours earlier. Somehow their flight got, you know, got pushed forward and they're there two hours earlier and they're already hungry. What will you do with the amount of work or with the amount of dinner? Which of the lists will help you reduce the scope? 

Because, you know, you won't be able to cook as long, so you'd have to reduce the scope. But which of the lists will help you? And it's kind of obvious, you cannot, you cannot just, not clean a knife or not wash some vegetables. You will reduce the scope of your work by reducing the dishes. And either the amount of dishes or you will take simpler dishes than you thought of. So, reducing the scope of work is something that happens on the vertical slicing level. 

Let me give you a couple of more examples of how it can benefit. So now, let's, let's think of delegation. Typically, we don't do our work all alone. We have people helping us. So imagine you have this dinner preparation and you have someone who can help you who is, you know, an adult, they can cook themselves. 

Would you ask an adult to just do one little, you know, to cut onions? Or would you ask them to make the whole dish? Well, if you have a huge kitchen, you may ask them to just cut the onions, because you will have other people doing other things.

Typically, you could ask them to do a whole dish. Now, when it comes, for example, I have, I have kids, if I ask my ten year old son to do a whole dish for me, chances are it's not going to be something that I want to show my guests. So, I would ask him to just peel the potatoes. Right. And then I would say, please just do this. And then I will check the, the peeled potatoes. Right. 

So what is the difference there? If I delegate the work of doing a whole dish to someone, what is the way I check the quality? I basically try the, say, fried potatoes, right? I try them and say, well, that tastes well, or no, they need more salt or whatever other ingredient.

How do I check peeled potatoes? I take a potato into my hand, and I look at it, and I look whether it's been peeled well, right? But that means, and it's a simple, and it's a very simple example, and I guess most of our readers would be able to distinguish a well peeled potato from a non well peeled potato, but imagine we're talking about something more complicated, like a real technical skill there.

For example, programming or designing something. In order to assess whether a good user experience design is really good, well, you need to be a user experience designer. You cannot just, you know, you can have an opinion if you are just a customer, but to know whether the work has been done well or not, you have to be an expert in it.

You definitely won't be able to assess whether the code on the front end of a website is well done if you don't understand and can't read code at all, and don't understand the framework, right? 

So the difference between vertical and horizontal slices is, if we delegate the one or the other, it changes how we check quality. And it has much more implications; we can, I don't know, maybe I should stop there. Oh, well, there is one more I would love to add because this is so often a topic in organizations. 

It's responsibility. With me, I often help my partner to cook and then there is this typical scene that, you know, it doesn't happen anymore because I kind of understood, but maybe you can connect with this, is you're asked to cut tomatoes.

And then my question is always, well, how thin do you want me to cut them? Yeah. Right. And then, my partner would tell me, well, how thin do you like them in this particular dish? Right? 

So what's going on there in this simple conversation is a basic ping pong of responsibility. And what I want to point out with this is in most organizations that I see, I work mostly with government or nonprofits or commercial organizations that deal with projects that have some kind of unpredictability, some kind of surprise in them.

And such organizations would typically have the... you know, I typically deal with leaders who say, well, my team, they don't act responsible. They just are interested in this, their little task. They don't want to think along with me. I have to micromanage things. 

And this is very often the result of their work not being sliced vertically at all. If you give someone the task of just updating a database... well, all they will be thinking of is updating the database. They will not think about what this database update will do to the whole result that will in the end be useful for your customer. 

So if you as a leader do not do the breakup of work in a vertical manner, you typically end up with people who do not think along with you. And so it gets much more difficult to adapt to any changes because you are the only one who can, you know, who sees the big picture and coordinates everything. 

So by being able to slice work vertically, so this particular divide, companies and organizations, not just business companies, they're typically capable of creating a lot of different opportunities to learn whether what they've done is something good, is something that is worthwhile, is valuable for the client.

And if you do not break up work in this manner, you typically end up. waiting for months or even years, depending on how long a project is, until you get any kind of useful feedback from your client. And you are not adaptable because you cannot change the scope. And you have people who are not thinking along with you, who are not self organized.

Tim Butara: You mentioned unpredictable projects, and I'm wondering what makes them unpredictable and why is slicing work particularly useful in these kinds of projects. 

Anton Skornyakov: Yeah. Thank you for this question again, because there is a lot of talk about VUCA world, the, the uncertainty that we have in our world because of the many crises and the many changes, like for example, AI is now changing a lot of technology and this is all true. All of these things are true. 

However, in my experience, what I call unpredictable or projects where you need to expect surprises is something that is in detail much, much more frequent than all of those different big factors that make our world unpredictable. 

For example, if you, if you've never done something before, if you are doing something for the first time, even if other people have done that before, for you, it will be unpredictable. 

For you, it will be... there is a lot of things in the detail that you don't know that they matter if you've never done something like that before. I have, excuse me for bringing up this dinner example, it's just that there is, there is one dish, for example, that I, at some point had to learn how to cook cause... or not, it's not actually cooking is preparing. It's called tiramisu. It's this Italian dish. 

Tim Butara: I love it. I love it.

Anton Skornyakov: Yeah. Yeah, same here, and it's typically not so good if you buy it at the supermarket. So at some point I learned to do it, and the first time I've done it, so if you've ever done this, there's, this is a dish, it requires a lot of steps, and in the end, there is this moment when you put the biscuit into some coffee and liquor mixture. And so, you might think, well, I mean, you have, you have a great recipe, right? You can find a lot of recipes for tiramisu. They're very detailed. They will tell you everything. 

But if you do it for the first time, at least when I've done it for the first time, and I've heard of other people who had the same experience, that at some point, at the very end, you put your biscuit into this coffee and you let it soak for too long. Because that's what you normally do. You don't know that the biscuit is very easily soaked. 

So, you leave it there for too long, you put your tiramisu together and what you end up having is a mush, mass... that is tasty, and I guess your family and friends would still enjoy it. But if it was a product that you would give to a customer, you know, you couldn't sell that. That's not something you would present to a customer who actually, you know, ordered tiramisu from you. 

So with this example, what I just want to say is, every time you do something small, every time you do something for the first time, and most organizations do something for the first time, you are dealing with some form of unpredictability. 

In fact, you had, you had a guest here at the podcast. I've heard Jack skills, who was talking about unmanaging processes and organizations and reducing the amount of time spent in management. And he also says that all projects are actually a result of something new. Actually, that's an interesting point of view, because so far I've heard of people saying unpredictable projects, but the fact that all projects are dealing with something new, was new to me.

And the interesting part is whenever you deal with unpredictable things, you need to expect to be able to adapt. Right? And the moment when you are not expecting to adapt, you are trying to be as efficient as possible. And efficient means trying to achieve a fixed goal with the minimum amount of resources and time that you invest.

Right? That's an important distinction between effective, because efficiency is something we call the minimal economical principle. You have a fixed goal, you try to achieve it with a minimal amount of resources. While effectiveness is actually maximum economical principle. It means that you're trying to achieve a maximum result with a fixed amount of resources.

Right? And it's a very, you know, economic basics 101, but in most organizations, we're trying to kind of maximize the impact with minimal resources t,hat doesn't work. You can only maximize one or minimize one. You can optimize only, always only for one goal. And when you assume that you are dealing with a fixed goal, what happens is, and we come back to this horizontal and vertical slicing.

Imagine you have a fixed scope for your dinner, which of the two lists that I just gave you would help you to maximize efficiency? It's typically the horizontal list because that allows you to say, oh, so let's peel and boil all the potatoes for all the three dishes that we have with potatoes. Let's cut all the vegetables at this one table. So, and it's way more efficient. 

And this is actually how professional restaurant kitchens are organized. Right? You have a station there where everything is cleaned and peeled. Another station where meats are cut. Because in a restaurant you know that you have to prepare the same dish 50 or 100 times in the evening. Right? That's a different thing when you're preparing a private party. 

So when you are doing something that is, where you expect some kind of surprise, that's what we call unpredictable in projects, and when we do that, we cannot, or we kind of have a difficulty with going for efficiency.

Because imagine we kind of tried to optimize everything, so we boiled the potatoes for three different dishes, but now the surprise happens and our guests turn up two hours earlier. Right? 

Now we have to kind of reduce our dishes. What if we reduce one of the potato dishes? Suddenly what happens is we actually peeled potatoes and cooked potatoes that we are not going to use at all. So we create a lot of waste. 

Tim Butara: Yeah, I remember all of these examples from the book. I loved all of them. Just perfect analogies for something maybe less tangible for listeners to get a grip on. And I love the distinction between effectiveness and efficiency. I think that that was one of the things that I really wanted to discuss with you because they often get confused.

They're like, almost buzzwordy or like, oh yeah, you should be efficient. You should be effective. But you've just demonstrated and highlighted and made a very strong point that they're not actually the same thing, that they vary greatly. 

And also I appreciate you giving the shout out to Jack Skeels. I also loved recording the episode and chatting with him. So it's nice to hear that it's resonated with other listeners as well as guests. 

Anton Skornyakov: You have, you have great choice of guests, but let's, let's move on with the, with the topic, I guess. Yeah. Well, if effectiveness, I don't want to say efficiency is impossible, but if you, when you start with a project, you need to be clear on where you have your parts that may offer surprises. 

You don't know what the surprises are going to be. That's in the nature of the surprises that you don't, you can't foresee them. But you know what parts of the project you are least familiar with. And where you're not familiar, where you're doing something for the first time, this is where you need to expect surprises.

Like when I would prepare the Tiramisu right today, it would be like for the 20th time. I don't expect any surprises to happen there anymore. I know how to do that. 

But if you're doing something for the first time, even if, you know, even if you are doing another website, but for a completely different customer, for a completely different industry and you already hear from their request, that sounds like something new. I haven't done that part before. Well, guess what? This is the part where you want to be effective and not efficient. 

Once you've set yourself a clear goal, you can try to be efficient about that. But you need to have a clear goal hierarchy. Kind of, what is my first goal? To be effective? To even have an impact with what I do? With our project? 

And once we've fixed one particular little piece of what we want to achieve, then we may be efficient for one day in doing it. That's, that's not a problem. But kind of the, overarching goal would be effectiveness.

Tim Butara: Man, you, really need to share that tiramisu recipe with me. 

Anton Skornyakov: I would love that. 

Tim Butara: Right. So yeah, the next part of the conversation, maybe I want to talk about why is slicing work more effective than making drastic changes to leadership and culture, and also how should leaders approach slicing work to get kind of the best results from it?

Anton Skornyakov: Okay. So those are two very different questions. So, the first one is about leadership. So I wouldn't say it's kind of, it's more effective or not effective. It's two sides of the same coin. So you won't be able to change culture or create a different kind of new leadership in your organization without this, I would call it hard skill as opposed, even though leadership skills and communication skills, I actually, I don't really like the soft skill part, calling them soft skills, because very often they're very not soft. It's dealing with your own emotions, reflection and so forth. Very important parts.

However, I've made this experience with multiple organizations that I worked with where I had leaders in front of me who were really trying to make a difference. They were role models, great role models, of different form of leadership. However, they just didn't have this very hard skill of splitting work.

And when you don't have that kind of skill, what happens is you basically end up micromanaging, even though you don't want to do it. I had a very good example of this in a training of mine, where an officer from the German Bundeswehr explained to me, Anton, what you're explaining to us in the training is basically something we know in the Bundeswehr happens all the time.

And the rule is that in order to change the structure, to change how you lead, how people behave, sorry, in order to change the culture of how people behave, you need to change the structure first. 

And when people join the army in Germany, basically, the first thing they need to get to understand is that they are not just there for themselves, they're there together with their unit.

And so the first thing that they do is, in the first weeks, they have races, like hurdle race, like all the different, the different things that they do. But the individuals are not, their time is not measured. What is measured is the time of the last person from your unit who goes through the goal. 

And that very fast shows every new recruit that what they need to take care of is not just their own time, but their whole unit, and to help the one who is the slowest

in the unit. 

Already after a couple of weeks, people, the way that people think about performance changes, they're not thinking about their own performance. They're starting thinking about the performance of their unit. And it is vital in the army. That's why the army obviously knows why to do that.

But it's exactly the same in most organizations. When we develop products that require multiple professionals to work together, to collaborate together, it doesn't matter if the front end developer is the highest or the best product developer in the world, if what ends up making a difference is not just the front end, but also the back end and also the design and also the testing and also all the other parts of the product, right?

So we need them to act as a team. And that means that what we want to request from people is not could you please do this one horizontal part, do say front end design or do, I don't know, research what we want to request from people is an actual result of work, which is, again, a vertical slice. 

So this ability of you to slice projects in multiple small pieces allows you to create teams that will then own their results and from there you will have a lot of leadership challenges, people will have conflicts with each other. They will... you know, all the things that you need to deal with as a leader is going to make a very big difference if you have a great leadership style, but it cannot replace the fact that you need to give teams, give people actual vertical slices to do.

It's a necessary condition for the change, for transformation to happen. And culture and a new form of leadership, the need for this will automatically surface once you ask your teams to do vertical slices, but it won't happen otherwise. You can have a great new leadership style, but people still being micromanaged in organizations.

So that's why I'm kind of making this claim. I think it's a more important topic to slice vertically than to change leadership. The need for changing leadership will surface automatically if you do the other thing well. 

And now the second question you asked was, so how can they apply this to get optimal results? So in the book, let me, let me say a couple of words about the book. So I've written this book. Even though I'm a SCRUM trainer, not for technical leaders at all. It is a book completely free of technical jargon. Because most people that I work with and I try to explain this concept to are actually leading governmental agencies or nonprofit organizations.

And most of them don't have a background in software or technology and typically they get lost when you start using examples or words from there. So what do we do to get optimal results? 

So the patterns that we are using to slice work and or to get to those vertical slices and the patterns that I describe in my book, they're completely independent of software. And I give actually an example of a government agency, an example of a nonprofit and an example of a commercial company that is not doing anything with software where you can actually see what slicing work means in real life for them. 

And I also give a lot of tools and a step by step process of that you could apply, but I think it would be too long for me to explain it. And it's a visual thing, so you kind of, the visuals in the book help you understand it much easier, but I can give you this one. I think it's the key thing. If you understand this one, you will be able to get at least 50% of the value already from this concept of vertical slicing. 

The main point of most projects is that we do not deal with uncertainty directly. So when you are, for example, leading any kind of project, you're right now influencing a particular project in your organization and you think, well, how can I create more vertical slices for me?

Take five minutes, sit down and think of your project and imagine that it is complete. The time is over. The deadline is over and the project has failed. The project has failed in any possible way. Take yourself for five minutes into this horrible possible future. I tell you, this is going to be good. This is going to be really worth it, this five minutes, even though it may not feel well for five minutes. 

But if you spend five minutes in this potential future where every possible thing about your project has failed, and then you think about, okay, what of the risks that I just identified in this five minutes, of all of this scenarios that my project can fail, what of all of these things is an actual risk that, you know, I believe could actually happen, is even slightly possible? 

And if you, once you have this list, it's kind of a prioritized list, right? So where you see, oh, those are the highest probable risk with the highest impact. Then the last question, and this is the question that leads you to the vertical slices, is: think of what result could we produce that once it's there and once we get feedback to this result, we know for sure that this risk that I just identified isn't there anymore.

Tim Butara: So it's basically value slash impact slash result. 

Anton Skornyakov: Risk reduction. Yeah. Result. Yeah, absolutely. The value of each of such slice is either that it directly brings value to your client or it reduces a risk that you will not be able to deliver the value to the client later on. But if you just boldly move on and expect that none of the risks actually hit you, then you very probably will not deliver any value in the end because some of the risks will undermine the whole result. So by starting with derisking your project, you deliver real value, you learn and very often you adapt very quickly and then you can deliver a project often in a similar but not exactly the same way that you thought of at the beginning. 

Tim Butara: And you just mentioned like an example of a government project, of slicing work in action. Anything else noteworthy here? You know, any other cool projects you'd like to share?

Anton Skornyakov: Yeah. So one of my favorite examples actually from a government agency that doesn't do anything digital. I'm just wondering whether... okay, well, I'll just go with it. So there is one agency that I worked with and, you know, I'm not allowed to use names or use the real process. So the story that I'm telling in the book is... it's similar to what really happened, but it's not exactly what happened. 

And this government agency, you need to imagine they are responsible for housing people. Especially housing refugees. And a lot of parts of the government, they do not need to be agile really. Cause for example, when we think about registering people who moved from one place to the other, the government does this kind of thing 10 million times a year. And that should be a very efficient process, right? That should not be something you were really tremendously innovative about. 

But when it comes to housing refugees, that's not something where you can... it's not a repeatable thing.

Because, well, as you know, we right now have a war in Europe. And we have other reasons why people flee from where they live. So the influx of refugees is very, very unregulated and very random, right? So at some point, suddenly there is say a couple of thousand people standing on the street from one day to the other, because there is something terrible happened where they live and they just had to flee.

And there is this government agency, they are responsible for giving them some kind of shelter. Now, typically this part of the organizations that I talk about, they acquire new buildings, but this typically takes six months or so, you know, they have to find a building, negotiate a contract, then put some furniture there. All of that takes up a lot of time, but this people are there right now. 

So what you can do is... the standard solution would be create a new building out of containers, which is you know, better than sleeping on the street, but it's definitely not something, you know, anyone really wants. And what this government agency is mostly caring for is that this refugees are integrated as fast as possible into the society so they cannot just, you know, live off benefits, but actually can contribute, can find a job, can do some language courses, can integrate in the society so they are not just benefiting from society, but also contributing to it. 

So they have this idea. Why don't we try to find already existing inhabitants of our buildings who maybe would be open to welcome someone into their home? This would normally be, this would normally mean that people have not enough space to live. It would be quite crowded in this flat that someone would offer a place in. 

But what if they still wouldn't want to do it, because for example, it's a single mother with a kid and she would love to have another single mother with a kid living with her in the same, even though it's a small flat, but this way they could arrange and take care of the kids while the other person is trying to work, right?

So it can have benefits, even though people have, you know, are crammed in a very small space, but some of them still may want to welcome someone else. Now, that's a tricky project. How do you do that kind of thing? It's an idea. It could work, or it could not work. Normally, you would take, like, how the typical government works here, they would create a concept. They would have to write it down very clearly. They would have to prove that it works legally and architecturally and facility management wise and so forth. 

Then, once there is a concept written, it would have to be negotiated and agreed upon by the leadership and it would be even a political decision. And then, once this happens, they would go and try to find place in existing buildings. Now, this whole process again would take months. 

And very often what they would find out in the end is, well, it doesn't work, because people don't want to welcome other people. Even though the idea is nice, it doesn't work. 

So instead of that, how would they slice this kind of project vertically? Well, they would think about the risks. I guess the highest risk is no one wants to, you know, welcome anyone into their homes, even though it may benefit them, but, you know, they don't want to do that. So how could we check this? Well, why don't we just take one particular building, one building where, I don't know, 50 families are living, and try to house five people in this building in this one week.

We just do whatever is needed. We take a team of someone who knows the legal parts, the architect, the facility manager, and we do that, and they try to basically house people within this one building. And after a week we'll find out, oh, many of our ideas didn't work out, but some of them did.

Maybe the elderly people are actually open to welcome other elderly people into their homes, because this way they have company. And they're not so specific about how much space they need. And you found it out after a week. Not after three months of project planning. 

And now you can approach the second week, you can approach another building already knowing what you've learned from the first week and try to settle five elderly people there. Right? 

And if that works well, you kind of develop guidelines and after a month you already have, you know, empirically proven guidelines on what works and what doesn't. That is, you know, that is what we, what we call agile way of working. And it doesn't have anything to do with software. It's still very much a vertically sliced project.

So maybe that gives your listeners an idea of what we're talking about here. And if you want to find many, many more examples, you can, you know, you could read the book. 

Tim Butara: I love the examples. Like when I was reading the book, it felt like, you know, a fictional story with cliffhangers and everything. Like my favorite one was about the croissants and why they're not selling. I was really like eager, like dying to learn how that would get resolved, what the issue was. 

So I definitely recommend everybody listening right now, if they want to learn more, even though, Anton, you've done an excellent job of giving us a whole plethora of awesome insights and invaluable information from your book already. But still, if people would like to connect with you or pre order the book, where can they do that? 

Anton Skornyakov: Well, you can find everything about the book on And if you want to connect with me, there is a website from my company at It's the company you also said that I co founded and managing in Berlin, Germany.

Both ways of connecting are great. My book is going to publish, I think, in exactly one month, 21st of March, and you will be able to find it anywhere where you typically buy books, like Amazon. 

Tim Butara: I think our schedule is a bit full till the end of March, but it shouldn't be too long after the book gets published that this gets published too. So, Anton, thank you again so much. I really enjoyed this discussion and I'm sure listeners will enjoy it as well.

Anton Skornyakov: Thank you very much for having me, Tim. Have a great day. 

Tim Butara: Thank you. You too. And to our listeners, have a great day, everyone, and stay safe. 

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