Difficult, large, or unpleasant tasks sometimes stop us in our tracks. We know we should work on them, but procrastination sets in, and nothing gets done. It could be something new to us and we do not know how it should be done? Or then it could be so important that we are scared to do anything in fear or messing things up. For these situations, go for: minimum viable action.

Minimum viable action simply means the following: what is the smallest action possible, which would stop procrastination, proceed the cause and offer feedback on the chosen direction.

Minimum viable product (MVP)

Minimum viable action is a derivative of minimum viable product (MVP). MVP has been a well understood term in product development for 20 years. The Lean startup movement definition of MVP is “what is the set of features in a product that offers maximum amount of learning with the least effort?”. With an MVP, the team works in small steps to confirm that their direction is correct. 

Minimum viable test (MVT)

With growth hacking, the term minimum viable test (MVT) has been introduced. With MVT, the growth team is looking for small tests to perform many times a week. The tests tell the team what kind of product changes work better than others in maximizing customer acquisition, revenue and minimizing churn.

Both MVP and MVT have shown Agile product development organizations that it is better to always consider small actions that are easy to do. They also provide information and feedback on the direction to take. With minimum viable action (MVA) – I like to suggest we take this to an individual level.

When should minimum viable action be used?

Teams use MVP and MVT when there are uncertainties to be tested. They can also use them to slice large and looming tasks into smaller, more easily digested ones. 

In the same sense, minimum viable action can be used when:

  • We are stuck because it is difficult to start a task
  • We do not know exactly how to progress 
  • The task is unpleasant
  • The work ahead of us is large and seemingly insurmountable

Difficult tasks as MVA

Sometimes tasks are difficult to start because we don’t know if some actions would benefit the task or hurt it. We have the same problem as the teams using MVPs or MVTs. Taking the MVA in these cases can offer us confirmation that the style of action makes sense. 

If the MVA tells us we are headed in the wrong direction, we would have invested only a small amount of effort to find this out. In the same way, if we are unsure how to perform a task, an MVA can help us overcome the fear of failure.

Unpleasant tasks as MVA

Unpleasant tasks are often postponed. We don’t like to start them and want to only do the things where we get satisfaction from. The MVA can also help us here. As Mark Twain once said, “we should try to perform unpleasant tasks first thing in the morning”. With the MVA, we are reducing the unpleasantness to the minimum. 

Feel too tired to go to the gym? What could be the MVA? Put your gym clothes on and go sit in the car. It is going to feel pretty dumb doing that and then walking back into the house. I bet you end up driving to the gym. You can further trick your brain that you will stay there for 5 minutes only.

A practical example

You don’t like to work on the customer project status report? What would be an MVA on this? How about this: 

  1. Open the presentation
  2. Change one letter on one slide
  3. Save the file

That took all of one minute. Now, what would be the next MVA? Now that you have the file open, it is going to be easier to continue. How about working on it for 10 minutes longer? It is not a Jedi mind trick, it is for real.

Backlog refinement MVA

Maybe the team finds backlog refinement unpleasant. “We don’t want to waste our time in meetings – we would rather just code.” What could be an MVA for the team in this case?

  1. Select one upcoming backlog item and open it for everyone to view the title and description
  2. Ask one question about the item (“does this mean…”) 
  3. Write the team response down as acceptance criteria

That took all of one minute. That is all backlog refinement is in practice. You may choose to continue until you have a few acceptance criteria in place.

Another backlog refinement MVA

The team does not like to prepare backlog items for refinement sessions. What would be an MVA?

  1. Select one upcoming backlog item
  2. Ask the team who could prepare the item for refinement
  3. Talk to the person about what is expected – description, splitting ideas, acceptance criteria
  4. Send the prepared item for team to read before the session

That seems a bit large for an MVA. How about just number 1 and 2? That would only take a few minutes of time. Much better!

Quantum action

Quantum mechanics in physics, talks about quantum as the minimum amount of physical property involved in any interaction. For example, a photon is the smallest amount of light there can be. It sounds eerily like minimum viable action, doesn’t it? 

Schrödinger’s task – we don’t know if it is dead or alive

Another concept in quantum mechanics is uncertainty principle – we cannot know both position and momentum of particles at the same time. The poor cat of Schrödinger was both dead and alive at the same time because of the indecision of a radioactive particle. Some of your tasks may be similarly dead and alive until you start using minimum viable action.

Let’s call it quantum action instead

If you find MVA to be a bit of a clumsy term, feel free to call it quantum action. That is what I started doing. I have started asking the question “What could be the quantum action I could take to proceed with this issue?”. Asking this question has helped me move on with tasks and activities that were otherwise stuck for weeks or months. Let the same question help you and your team.

Published: December 15, 2021

Updated: September 8, 2022

Software developmentDevOpsAgile