Improving Flow

Let’s start by recognizing something fundamental about the way the human mind works — we can focus on one thing at a time. It is common to overhear statements like “I’m a good multi-tasker.” What would be more accurate to say is “I can switch rapidly between multiple tasks;” the fact of the matter is, we need to recognize that we are only working on one thing at any given time.

For any kind of work, and for knowledge work in particular, keeping the number of things competing for our attention to a minimum at any given time is absolutely critical. In an Agile team context, concepts and practices that tend to minimize disruption to flow include:

Setting aside uninterrupted work time. Recognize that we benefit tremendously from having blocks of uninterrupted time to get work done, whether we are working individually, in pairs, or with multiple people.

  • It is common for teams to seek to formalize the preservation of uninterrupted work time, most often via a “Team Working Agreement” or “Team Charter,” where common provisions include: Specifying a block of time when we agree we are NOT watching a Slack channel, Email, or anything else that tends to interrupt flow (even if it’s as little as one or two hours a day, it can make a big difference).
  • Specifying a block of time when we agree we ARE reachable via Slack, Email, etc.
  • Setting aside one day per week (or more than one day!) when we do not schedule any meetings.
  • Getting as much mileage as possible out of the meetings we do schedule (and minimizing meeting quantity and duration).

Recognize that meetings are necessary, AND that there are steps that can be taken to minimize the impact that meetings can have on flow, by taking steps such as:

  • If multiple meetings on the same day are necessary, schedule them for as short a timebox as possible (which requires meeting discipline — for instance, being very precise about meeting objectives and outcomes, and setting aside only as much time as is really necessary), AND;
  • Schedule meetings consecutively, where possible (to reduce context switching)
  • For sprint planning meetings, recognize that we want to be able to answer two questions when we’re done: What can be delivered during the sprint? (i.e., how much do we as a team feel that we can confidently say we can complete). The Product Owner AND the team need to be present for this conversation. How will we do the work? (i.e., for many teams, that means determining which tasks are needed to complete individual stories). The Product Owner does NOT have to be present for this part of the conversation (and if the team has no Scrum Master, or if the Scrum Master has other meeting commitments, it’s common for the team to figure out the task-level detail themselves).

Minimizing Work in Process (WIP). Getting back to the earlier point about multi-tasking, here are two classic anti-patterns to avoid:

  • Anti-pattern 1: Committing to more work than the team can reasonably complete during a sprint. Instead, by including ONLY those stories in the sprint backlog that the team is confident can be completed, not only is there a greater likelihood the work will get done, but also, if the team runs out of work, they can pull in the next-highest priority story from the backlog.
  • Anti-pattern 2: Having the same person work on multiple stories at the same time. Instead, the desired pattern is to open a story, get it to done, then open the next-highest priority story in the sprint backlog. Note: Another thing to keep in mind: As Jeff Sutherland points out in his most recent book, Scrum: The Art of Doing Twice the Work in Half the Time, the two most common causes of Agile failure are: 1) Long sprints; 2) Large Work in Process (WIP).

What Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi Has to Say About Flow

In his TED Talk, just before he closes, the author of the well-known book about flow displays the following slide summarizing what’s he’s found to be typical of achieving a flow state.

  1. Completely involved in what we are doing — focused, concentrated.

2. A sense of ecstasy — of being outside everyday reality.

3. Great inner clarity — knowing what needs to be done, and how well we are doing.

4. Knowing that the activity is doable — that our skills are adequate to the task.

5. A sense of serenity — no worries about oneself, and a feeling of growing beyond the boundaries of the ego.

6. Timelessness — thoroughly focused on the present, hours seem to pass by in minutes.

7. Intrinsic motivation — whatever produces flow becomes its own reward.