An Unconventional Look at Increasing Productivity at Work
It’s the start of a new year and even though I don’t believe in setting new year’s resolutions, I catch myself sitting down and making a list of everything I want to achieve this year. The problem I face is that each year my list seems to be getting longer, carrying over undone items from the previous years. That’s why I vowed to stop setting new year’s resolutions a few years ago. That sinking feeling that I never seem to get things done, with my bucket list getting longer and longer.
In all fairness, I do get a lot done. Really a lot. Compared to the average person I have met in my life, I have done more and learned more and been to more places than the vast majority. So it’s maybe unfair to say that I never reach my goals. It’s rather that I have really big goals and a desire to do everything. At least once. In fact, that’s my motto in life: “Try everything once”. I’m making good progress, but it sure isn’t easy and it does mean that I have to be as productive as humanly possible. Because life’s too short to rush if I want to get to everything on my list.
Travel the world once. Yes, every place would really be nice. How else would I know if there’s anywhere better than where I’ve already been? And I surely can’t die without seeing the Northern Lights, climbing Machu Picchu, learn to tango in Buenos Aires, dive the red sea and been island hopping in Greece on a private yacht?
Then there’s also my wish to be a barista in a coffee shop once, own a co-working space with raw wooden tables and lots of white and natural light, be the founder of a (successful) technology startup, write a bestselling book, live in a French-speaking country for at least a few years (maybe forever), learn to ski, be a yoga teacher, design a (good) game or gamified experience, study improv theatre, walk on fire. Deep breath. Did I mention all the books I want to read, the art and dance and dinner parties and conversations I still need to have? You get the picture. And these are only some of the most important items on my bucket list.
Ambitious? Or crazy?
The problem is that you don’t write a best selling book in a year. Or learn a language (properly) in a year. Or travel to all these extraordinary places in just one year. Or become a yoga teacher in a year. Honestly, I’ve been practising downward dog for the past 15 years and I’m still not getting it right.
I usually feel a bit embarrassed when I ask other people about their wish lists or new year’s resolutions. I’ve only ever met one person with close to as many ambitious goals as I do. Most people have a focused and conservative list of maybe 3 or 5 realistic items. Usually, it includes something like lose 5kg or improves my golf handicap. “You put that on your list? Isn’t that the same as brushing your teeth or washing your hair regularly?” I think as they say it but keep it to myself. It makes me feel confused or greedy or crazy or all of the above for wanting the things I want.
The thing is, over the years I’ve realized that whatever you really set your mind to is inevitable to come true, eventually. Just probably not the way you thought it will happen. It doesn’t matter how much you earn, how old you are, where you come from, or your education. If you really want it, you can have it. I’ve learned not to give up on the dream itself, but on how the dream will come true.
Do you spot the problem in my thinking? I actually don’t believe it’s impossible to do and have all these things. So each year my list gets longer and each year my list of habits get longer too. Write every day. Learn something new. Move more. Do more. Live more. My ideal day is about 72 hours long and counting.
“So what does that have to do with productivity at work?” you ask. Good question. Thanks for asking.
Unconventional productivity hack #1 – Make it achievable
The upside of my ever-growing to-do list is that I never get bored and I can talk about pretty much anything. It has also taught me the art (or rather a pain) of perseverance and believing in yourself when no-one else does. Most importantly, it taught me an important lesson in productivity.
Hypothesis 1: The more achievable a task or project, the higher productivity
Sounds obvious, right? So obvious in the fact that I feel hesitant to explicitly mention it. Maybe because everyone else seems to get this lesson looking at most people’s yearly resolutions compared to mine.
Yet, thinking back to all the large projects (and even smaller ones) I’ve been involved in, none of them started off with these criteria being met.
So what’s the big deal, you ask? All these projects delivered in the end, didn’t they? Yes. They did.
However, organizations in the software development industry have an average reported productivity rate of between 10 – 15%. Yes, it is not a typo.
On average 10 – 15% of all time spent is directly contributing to the successful delivery of a product or service. Or, to put it in terms of non-value added time, that means about 80- 90% time wasted on non-value add work.
Imagine what you could ship if you could increase your productivity at work to just 30%?
The irony is that this is probably one of the easiest and cheapest productivity at work fixes to implement, yet most people don’t see the value of this. So let me try to explain why it makes such a difference.
Connection and Flow
Connection. It all boils down to a sense of connection to the end result.
In large projects, typically, the team works on only a small, fragmented part of the system. They rarely meet a real user or complete end-to-end workflow. Often they don’t even interact with all the team members contributing to the same project. This leads people to disconnect from the result. When they are disconnected, they don’t fully comprehend the consequences of their actions on other parts of the system and they possibly don’t care that much either. As long as what is in their control works. As long as they get paid at the end of the month.
In lean terms, flow is your ultimate goal. When the production line flows smoothly, productivity at work soars. That means each part smoothly flows through the system from inception or idea to final delivery of a sold product. When there is a problem in the process, the flow is interrupted until the issue is resolved. It doesn’t matter whose fault it is or in whose department or team the issue is. It means a hold-up in the process and that translates to the flow being interrupted. Interrupted flow = lower productivity.
In software development or the service industry, there is no difference. It’s just that the work is mostly not visualized adequately and waste has become acceptable as a norm. But just because everyone does it, doesn’t mean it’s right.
Making a project or task feel more achievable, requires the team to have a clear connection to the end-results as well as how they fit into the bigger picture and where they are in relation to these goals. It’s exactly like the moving marker on your GPS constantly showing you where you are to help you get to your destination. It zooms in on what’s relevant now (the Kanban or Scrum board) while keeping a visual reference to the end destination (product vision or goal).
By visualizing a roadmap with well-defined milestones and project vision statement, such as the example to the right, a project suddenly feels more achievable. The goal is to connect the dots that will lead you to your vision, understanding that the road is a curvy one paved with all sorts of obstacles along the way. The roadmap is vague and possibly abstract with a high-level goal which merely guides your decisions. It shows the stepping stones to break down an unachievable big goal into something that can be done right now.
In this example, the first phase of the project was geared towards building a network that will allow for enough traction to build the actual product vision for a startup, which was an internet of things application. The first phase is necessary to get to the third phase but does not necessarily feel as if it is productive as you’re building something other (virtual business cards) than what the vision actually is. However, without first getting the information and network to collaborate with, the end result of a collaboration app is impossible.
While the team is working on one of the smaller milestones that might feel irrelevant to the end goal, they can easily reference how this relates to the end-goal. These goals serve as a judge to determine whether what you propose to do is actually productive or not each time you have to make a decision. It helps keep the team on track by preventing them by getting distracted doing what might be viewed as productive but turns out not to be. How many times have you gotten so involved in the details of a project and what each granular piece should do that you lost track of the ultimate goal?
A visual roadmap makes a big project feel more achievable. It serves as a guide. It helps you to take the next step up the mountain when you can’t see the peak, knowing that each step is in the right direction, and thus a productive step.
With more than 20 years experience in the software development industry, Kate specializes in helping teams get unstuck, communicate better and ultimately be more productive. She believes in efficiency through fun implementing lean, agile and playful design as tools for process improvement and organizational change. Her goal is to create more happy, healthy and whole workplaces where each person thrives and productivity soars.