A good friend once upon a time recommended that I read a book called “Deep work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.” I kind of smiled at the idea, since in the Google and Facebook era, it is kind of a cliche to say that we are distracted.
I mean … “distraction” is the word of the day in the era of internet — but we learn to live with it even so.
Nevertheless, I bought the book and threw myself into reading it.
Surprisingly, social media does not provide the most vicious distractions to productivity; communication channels inside a company can prove to be much more destructive. Little “pings” like emails or chat messages, if they are not managed correctly, produce THE biggest noise in a corporate environment — and significantly bigger if the corporation is geographically distributed.
So, if we filter out all social media distractions and we calibrate the work-life balance, does that mean we have created the perfect productivity context?
After asking my team, I realized that the answer is apparently not.
Instead, keeping an open dialogue with the team via daily 10–15 minute “check-in chats” remains key, as the team members themselves are the most qualified people to give proper feedback about how they spend their time and why.
So I started conducting daily “check in chats.”
But not just randomly, because my goal was not to meet with people simply to produce more “noise” in their already busy schedules. Rather, my goals were to investigate their issues and try to solve them, one at a time.
Increasing productivity has a direct correlation with optimizing time spent on each activity. We should all work diligently to eliminate blockers and automate redundant work.
The following questions guided my CiCs: “What blockers do you have?” and “What can I do for you to help you deliver better quality every day?”
After the first 2 weeks of evaluation, I managed to identify main blockers and distractions and rank them in order of their impact on productivity:
- Communication noise,
- Context switching disturbing focus,
- Technical blockers like unstable environments and inconsistent backlog,
- Boring work from standardizable and redundant work.
Good for you, bad for business
Any good corporation relies on strong processes. That is why sometimes, reactions to certain stimuli is slow — and therefore people prefer to use shortcuts for communicating in between departments.
But this can only work on the short term, as you might solve your very particular use case and be the direct beneficiary. However, if the problem persists across several departments, your “fix” has not impacted nearly as much as it could have.
As a result, exorbitant amounts of time are wasted fixing individual issues that could be addressed with one system-wide, cross-departmental fix.
Many projects handled by small team — a blessing and a curse
Normally, when you hear a large number of projects are being handled by a small team, the first thing that pops to mind is overload.
The large amount of projects is indeed a challenge, regardless of the team size. But from a productivity point of view, it can actually be fantastic.
The missing link? A rigorous process.
Rule #1: Enforcing your Input Quality Bar will allow you to hit 2 targets at the same time:
- Eliminate a time consuming operation;
- Reject projects with unstable environments — which will allow you to narrow your focus;
Rule #2: when running out of backlog, you will in fact be able to switch to another project without consuming any process-related time.
Basic research principles to “pound the productivity” correctly
Modern research is gravitating around 3 main principles: observation, experimentation and reasoning.
As soon as you have identified your goal, you need time to describe it and break it into as many measurable pieces as you can.
Therefore, you need to isolate context and be patient to gather enough data on which you could perform proper observations.
Weekly evaluation cycles
Experimenting with strategic decisions requires time to observe their effects. And in order to compare the effectiveness of your decisions, you should implement each variable for at least 7 calendars each to properly observe its impact.
Increasing productivity is just like free scuba diving — you cannot simply jump into the sea and dive to 20m below, because your lungs will explode. Instead, you have to do it gradually and — most importantly — give your team time to adapt to each stage.
BUT… you also have to know what depth you want to reach.
Therefore background research, then strategy and planning are key to your quest.
Save time eliminating redundant work by automating it
As soon as you observe how each team member spends their time, you’ll notice certain behavior patterns that are common across the team. You can use these observations and assemble them into a Time Motion matrix. The larger the team, the better the pattern.
Basically, for each unit you produce, there’s a sequence of activities that chain together towards the expected outcome — and each of those activities have a different length of time.
Therefore, replacing any of them with a tool that can do it automatically for each of your team mates results in more time for them to focus on new units to produce.
This operation can rely either on some out-of-the-shelf tool you can purchase (if there is an existing perfect match) or build one in-house.
The focus here should be on a proper cost comparison: how much does it cost to build a tool in-house and then maintain it versus how much does the out-of-the-shelf tool total cost over a 5 years span — which is a common product life span.
Pick your team wisely and coach them properly
When you staff for stars in your team, you will most likely find 3 situations:
- People who don’t match — and you have to let them go;
- People who match anything — these people rare unicorns, who are self-propelled and self-motivated, and to whom you only need to show the target and the rules you have in mind and they will reach it;
- The risk with self-driven people is that they get burned out easily. Oftentimes, they enjoy the game so much that they tend to forget the increasing targets. It becomes the manager’s challenge to avoid burning out this type of person;
- People who need guidance to match — these people need careful attention and thoughtful coaching;
- The risk here is the way you deliver your coaching. If you fail, either they get frustrated and you lose them or they deliver wrong results.
Surprisingly or not, no matter how much interest we develop into picking the right people and coaching them to do the right things, they sometimes eventually lose interest or they simply get bored and they stop being productive.
This is normal, but it’s important to identify (and fix) quickly.
The risk here is that they might start producing noise and thus propagate poor behavior to the rest of the team — which you need to avoid.
In order to avoid this problem, you will need to shrink the team in order to keep the productivity growing, in 3 steps:
- Eliminate bottom performers — and give the team some time to recalibrate;
- Hire new potential top performers — and guide them to the current status quo;
- Calculate the distribution score to evaluate the distance in productivity of each player to the top performer, in order to set visible goals for them (specially for the newcomers);
Recently, I was given the challenge to contribute to a team of 11 people that was assigned to work on 38 projects. Honestly, I was pretty intimidated!
Then, I remembered a pretty basic principle from another book I read a while back: “Emotional Intelligence 2.0,” written by professor Travis Bradberry: always ignore details, focus on the big picture and do the right thing.
As a result, 6 weeks later, I was running a smaller team of only 10 people, but our productivity grew by 70% — which reflected in a cost per unit decrease by 43%.
The team itself grew their capacity from 50 units per day (team average) to 90 units per day (team average). By implementing the principals I have outlined in this post, we saw remarkable transformations in the team.