Category Archives: Productivity

Overtime Hurts the Everyone

Late last week, a client and I were discussing a struggling project. The client mentioned his project team regularly works nights and weekends to meet the deadlines he had scheduled. I was stunned. This was months into a years longs project.

    There are 3 things fatally wrong with this management strategy:

  1. It devalues both the worker and the work.
    If the work doesn’t need alert, well-rested, and focused people – a machine should be doing it. Conversely, if the people don’t need to be alert, well-rested, and focused to accomplish the work – they’re on the wrong assignment.
  2. It hides the need for additional people and better tools.
    Regularly working overtime means there’s demand for more people and the company would rather exploit their existing staff than fill the demand. Productivity actually decreases throughout the day and after long enough, turns negative. This work-longer mentality keeps helpful people unemployed while others are overworked – both cases destroy health and families.
  3. It hides the need for realistic project scheduling.
    We all may be able to work faster, 9 women can’t have a baby in a month. Things take as long as they take, regularly working overtime hides this fact. Putting lower-quality time (overtime) into project introduces more defects, actually prolonging the project.

For other arguments against overtime, crunch time, and aggressive planning, I recommend:

You Really Won’t Know Until You Build It

I caught Charlie Lazor, talking about building furniture and houses at the University of Minnesota this evening.

I found this quote on prototyping invaluable:

“We spent so much time arguing whether or not it work, and when we prototyped it, it worked remarkably well. We could have saved so much time, if we had just built it sooner.”

My full write-up on his talk can be found at: Your House as Furniture.

More Slack Keeps Projects on Track

Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you are planning. – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Swap in “project” for “emergency” and Eisenhower’s statement is equally as true. Yes, projects are as unexpected as emergencies. If all the variable of a project were known ahead of time – processes, timeframes, resources – the project would already be complete. Projects are in fact the process for answering these questions.

When I was working for a WiFi startup a couple years back, my product manager spent a good chunk of his days in Microsoft Project. Every day, he would tweak the Gantt charts to reflect the current state of the project, and print out the revised plan.

Then as the plan came off the printer, some new information would arrive making the new plan obsolete.

Lately, I’ve been involved in a number of enterprise software projects all at the early planning stages. Project 1 is starting with a Gantt chart. Like all Gantt charts, it depicts a tiered, linear, hand-off process. This is inherently ineffective.

A more effective, collaborative, and true-to-life model is a weave [WorkingPathways_ProjectWeave.pdf]. The pdf illustrates the weave model I helped a design agency work towards.

Another effective planning model comes from Frank Patrick and has traction in the Agile Software development community: the Hurricane model for predicting uncertain futures. The crux – we know where the project is now and some notion of time it takes to get in any direction, but we don’t know exactly where the project will be at that time. That’s the classic quantum mechanics trade-off: you can measure velocity or precision. Not both.

The most effectively run projects I’ve observed are based 2 principles;

  • Slack:Project schedules should have 2 forms of slack built in – 1 day per week and 1 week per month. Only schedule work for 80% of the available time. That’ll keep the schedule flexible enough to adjust for all the unknowns you’ll discover along the way.
    Read more on slack in the excellent book Slack : Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency
  • Keep a loose association between work and resources:
    Define the pile of work and define the members of the team. Don’t define it in any more detail than that.

I think Steve Pavlina sums it up nicely:

“No plan survives contact with the real world.”

Success Comes in Small, Cheap Projects

Instead of spending milions of dollars on “The Superbowl Ad”, why not spend that money cranking out beermat campaigns, till you find one that really works? Using beermats in small, test markets, you could easily create 50, 100 (500? Who knows?) campaigns for the price of one decent Superbowl/TV commercial. It would be a simple, cheap and quick way of working out the necessary language to resonate with the beer-drinking public. – hugh @ gaping void

I met a art professor in college who believed everyone had 500 bad drawings in them. Only after getting the 500 bad drawings “out” would you start drawing well. Some professors asked their students to complete 1 or 2 drawings in a 3 hour studio. This professor – 50. Fifty drawings, each from 5 to 20 minutes a piece. Each one to find out what works and what doesn’t. No erasing. If you’re not happy with it, start a new one.

This quick and cheap way to success stuck with me and is one of the underlying principals of Working Pathways. We’re continually asking, “What’s the simplest, quickest, most effective way to reach the project’s goals?”

With this perspective, we’ve reduced turnaround times for some of our client’s research initiatives from weeks to hours. We solicit feedback continually. We provide long-term ‘teach a man to fish’ success.

We’ve all got 500 bad ideas in us, Working Pathways is here to help you get to the good ideas more quickly.

UPDATE: This notion of small, quick, projects paving the road to success is re-iterated by Robert Rodriguez,

“The more experience you give yourself the better prepared you are for the next project…”

This by way of Anita Sharpe’s Thought for the Day, Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Once More, In Half the Time

I apologize for the length of this letter, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter. – Mark Twain

Twain was referring to the fact that refining something down to it’s essence takes iteration. Each iteration abbreviates the time necessary to produce and consume the item. I offer the Van Buren Law of Iteration:

t^n = (t^(n-1)) / 2


t = time for a given task
n = the iteration

I’ve written about the similarity between collaborative work and Improvisational Comedy before (Stop Asking Questions, Yes, and – not But, Want Better Collaboration Improvise). In this installment, I’d like to discuss the the Improv training game Scene Replay.

  1. Start a scene.
  2. Improvise for about 3 minutes.
  3. Replay entire the scene in half the previous time.

With each successive repetition, more of the uninteresting bits are automatically edited out and the scene becomes more engaging and entertaining. The first attempt takes the longest because those involved are discovering what needs to happen. After the third and fourth attempts, everyone knows what works, where the engaging parts are and the transitions between them. The same procedure works for any type of knowledge work.

Think of a small work-related disaster, an unsaved file getting corrupted – and becoming unsuable, for example. Revising the document again, will take far less time than originally because you know exactly which changes to make. You can cut out all the unsuccessful bits – getting to the good stuff, making it better, and getting done more quickly. The thinking parts are done – it’s all about execution now.

How do you implement the Van Buren Law of Iteration?
A quick way is the following exercise:

  1. Take 5 minutes to tell a good – patient – friend a story.
  2. After you’ve completed the story – tell it to them in 2.5 minutes.
  3. Repeat until you can tell the entire story in a single sentence.

Yes, and – not But

Improvisational comedy, like all team sports is about effective, high-energy, spontaneous collaboration. One of the seven major tenets of Improv is building off each person’s comment and suggestion with “Yes, and…” rather than dismissing it with a “but…”.

“Yes, and…” extends, explores, and enhances the previous suggestion – building trust among all the team members, moving the entire team closer to a successful solution. “But…” stalls the conversation. Cold. Even worse than dismissing the initial suggestion, team members are now second-guessing their solutions to the problems for fear it will be destroyed by the next “but..” This provides a disincentive to solving to the current problem. Turning the team and project into the stagnant, stereotypical office meeting blah. On a related note, questions frequently have a similar effect on teams – see Stop Asking Questions.

In working with different teams, I’ve heard “but..” used in 3 major ways. Though each usage may not contradict the preceding statement, it does stall the conversation and turns a peer-to-peer collaborative opportunity into a unequal power play.

    The 5 Breeds of ‘But’:

  1. “I have information you, the ignorant peon, didn’t consider.”
  2. “A different team tried that under different circumstances, so it won’t ever work.”
  3. “I don’t want to do and don’t actually want to be involved in this project.”
  4. “I have something off-topic to say, and don’t know how else to make my opinion heard.”
  5. and my own personal favorite:

  6. “I completely agree with you and want to take credit for your suggestion.”

    Here are 3 tips for transforming a serial “but” into a ‘yes, and’:

  1. Firmly focus on starting a solution.
    The final solution is rarely needed immediately. An initial starting point and direction will go far in gaining forward momentum. This means any solution is viable, and the objection raised in the ‘but’ can be addressed when it arises.
  2. Question specifically how the ‘but’ affects the situation at hand.
    This is a simple and effective way to specifically identify which one of the 5 breeds of ‘but’ you’re dealing with.
  3. Force the ‘but’ into a solution
    For often entertaining results, have the offender, repeat the statement back substituting ‘yes, and’ for the offending ‘but’.
  4. Completely ignore the ‘but’.
    There’s a fair chance, the objection is a defensive reaction to a fleeting situation. This is especially true for a #1′but’.

Get Your Email Read with Specific, Compelling Subject Lines

One of my biggest pet peeves is vague email subject lines. This is for two reasons;

  1. Sometimes I only have time to read the subject lines – anything urgent needs to jump out.
  2. If I need to file and revisit the email, a clear specific subject line is easiest to re-find.

My experience analyzing open rates and click-through behavior tells me if you want your opt-in marketing email to be read – the subject lines need to be specific, descriptive, and compelling. I’m sure Curt at ExactTarget would agree. The same goes for messages to your colleagues, friends, and family.

Clear, compelling subject lines not only set more accurate expectations for your recipient, they also have a better chance of surviving the numerous SPAM and virus filters between you and your recipient.

We’re all familiar with the vague subject lines of virus carrying emails:

  • “the information you requested”
  • “your resume”
  • “Here is it”
  • “hi, it’s me”
  • “something for you”

Compare these against the subject lines currently in my inbox:

  • “Please Call Me”
  • “your comments appreciated”
  • “Tuesday”
  • “update”
  • “See attached”

Without checking the ‘From’ line, I’m hard pressed to separate the personal, legitimate messages from the hazardous, virus-laden mail.

At the most basic level, subject lines are more like headlines than book titles. Like all compelling headlines – and proper sentences – they need a subject, verb, and predicate. An easy way to guarantee this is by pushing the message details into the subject line. Think of the short text messaging service – SMS – the mobile phone providers are promoting. The brief, one-line messages these services support are like an email without the body.

By making better use of your email’s subject line, you’ll spend less time writing your email and it will be better received.

Stop Doing Dumb Stuff

When I need a quick kick in the pants, I reach for Tom Peters’ Brand You 50.

Each one of his 50 tips are tow trucks pulling me out of what ever rut I find myself in.

This is why I’m so excited about his new manifesto from Seth Godin’s ChangeThis project.

This I Believe! – Tom’s 60 TIBs

Yes, that’s 60 perspective changing points to reposition your work, and more importantly, your life.

  • 22. Screw-ups are the mark of excellence; I’ve seen many teams so afraid of making a mistake that the project falls victim of Analysis Paralysis. It’s not pretty. Often, the paralysis could have been avoided by the creation of a few prototypes and being comfortable with learning from failure.
  • 40. Stop doing dumb stuff; Systems become ingrained, systems that were created to solve one problem are repurposed to solve a different problem. They start to get in the way. They start being counter-productive.
  • 43. Take charge of your destiny. Or as Seth Godin says – The Time (to take action) is NOW. Things are constantly in flux, and ironically, that change you’re waiting for to make the big move won’t. That first step is up to you.

The remaining 57 are great and just as thought-provoking.

Thanks Tom.

Want Better Collaboration – Stop Asking Questions

The first step to a collaborative environment is to banish questions. Yes, banish the question mark from all conversation.

Questions reinforce heirarchial relationships rather than build the peer-to-peer relationships necessary for innovative, effective collaboration.

Step #1. Everyone is smart and everyone’s knowledge is of equal value.

A question forces someone else to make something for you.

Step #2. You can create things others find valuable.

Only Pigs Can Talk

I’m reviewing an excellent presentation [pdf] on the agile software development landscape when two bullet points on Scrum’s daily meetings stopped me:

  • Chickens and Pigs are invited.
  • Only Pigs can talk.

It took Googling to decipher the metaphor.

Though it goes against my earlier stifling team work post, identifying who’s involved and who’s committed is an excellent way to focus energies and keep the project on task.

Take a look at your projects – are you involved or committed? Where can you be more committed and less involved?

Further in the presentation:

“The error [is] typically 100 times more expensive to correct in the maintenance phase than in the requirements phase.”- Software Engineering Economics.

Reminds me of a story in the automotive design world. Traditionally, automotive designs were modeled in clay. Clay hardens as time passes. So, the longer a decision was put off, the harder – literally – a change is. Just because software doesn’t have a physical manifestation, doesn’t mean it’s not as time-sensitive as clay.

Two final bits of insight from the Extreme Programming camp:

  • If the future is uncertain, don’t code for it today.

  • Do the simplest thing that can possibly work

In other words: Do as Little as Possible.

Usability Not Usable? – Part 2

“People are usually not receptive to a newcomer waltzing in and telling them they’ve been doing their jobs wrong.”

Usability departments exist in a number of our client organizations. Unfortunately, their organizational structural frequently instills an adversarial relationship between the project teams and usability group. The usability group is considered an outside agency – ony evaluating ‘ready for prime time’ work.

This relationship places the usability professional in the lose-lose position of telling the project team their baby is ugly.

Here are 3 tips for making this process more valuable for everyone:

  1. Invite everyone in all the project meetings from the start. This includes developers, usability professionals, project sponsors, clients, and even a customer or two. (and make the meetings working meetings)
  2. Evaluate early and often. The earlier in the project customer insight is captured, the more valuable is it to the project (and the customer). The project is less malleable as time progresses, more decisions (good & bad) have been made, more constraints exist. Everyone learns from early evaluation.
  3. Create, don’t just destroy. Usability evalutions are most valuable and insightful when participants are offered alternatives to compare. Perhaps alternatives don’t exist for the initial evaluation session, but they surely exist for each additional. To make the most of the evaluations the learnings from each session to the next participant in the form of a rough prototype.

The quote beginning this post is from from Ester Derby’s article Change that Fits. Her story describes a recently-fired software development quality engineer. Usability professionals should heed warning.

Daily Productivity Tips

We’re working with a number of clients to make their days more effective. One of the smallest, yet most profound changes is making each meeting a working meeting. Though powerful and effective, this technique does go against more than 96 years of conventional wisdom

This technique works especially well for document review meetings – have an attendee, you?, make the changes discussed as they’re decided upon. At the end of the meeting, the document is updated – no longer hanging over anyone’s head.

Another tip – before scheduling an in-person meeting, ask yourself what the quickest, easiest way to accomplish the purpose of the meeting. Can the 1o-member project kick-off meeting be handled through email? Probably. Can a decision be reached by a couple of phone calls? Probably.

Over at Worthwhile Magazine, Anita Sharpe highlights a couple other tips for getting time back on your side.

The 30 Second Rule

If it takes you or your collegues longer than 30 seconds to find a piece of information, then your workplace organization needs drastic improvement.

I recently attended Minnesota Technology’s overview on Lean for the Office. The 30 second rule is a great yardstick to measure your day against.

Extend the principal a bit..if no one but yourself can find the information needed to conduct business, the office is being held hostage, and you can’t take a vacation. Two points that wear down the morale of the workplace.

Do As Little As Possible

How little can I do to successfully reach this goal?

Continually asking youreself that questions is the best ways to minimize rework, reach goals quickly, guarantee sustainable solutions, and design for wear.

This approach creates a functional prototype quickly, keeps stress levels down, and keeps product teams lean.

Johanna Rothman has an excellent post highlighting other benefits of this approach from the product development perspective:

  • Understanding the requirements is a scarce resource, and we should focus our energies towards delivering something that shows we understand the specific requirement and the value it has to our customer.
  • Schedule is critical and we don’t have time to do it again, or build technical debt
  • Project cost is important, and we need to manage it

and another on how this approach specifically addresses rework

See how little you can do, and deliver that much as quickly as possible. The technique I use most often is to break the pieces into groups of requirements/features and then perform iterations within whatever lifecycle the people are used to.

Thanks to NerdHerding for Beginners.

A Best-ter Buy. Part 2

Updating the stores to appeal to a specific customer segment is great, Best Buy goes the extra mile in this renovation and makes sales more visible to staff.

Employees begin their day by reviewing the previous day’s figures, which are written on a dry-erase board and compared to the previous month. At a Westminster store meeting open to the media, Chris Smith, an operating supervisor, pointed out that the store had $550 in overtime costs the previous day, and asked employees to suggest ways to reduce it.

SF Gate has a great follow up on my earlier Best Buy persona post

Over the next few years, each of Best Buy’s 608 stores will focus on one or two of the five segments, with 110 stores scheduled to make the switch by February.

There are two interesting points here:

  1. Starting each day reviewing sales figures with the staff
  2. Looking for improvement from the people with day-to-day knowledge

Like a page out of James Womack’s Lean Thinking. These two points reinforce Womack’s patterns of “visual controls leading to continuous improvement” and “asking for improvements from the people on the front-line leads to a continued commitment”.

Best of Luck to Best Buy.

Outsourcing to Nebraska

Sending those jobs to India would cut the costs even more, to maybe $10 an hour in wages and overhead. But JetBlue thinks the better service from home agents offsets that price advantage, notwithstanding the occasional barking dog in the background.

His [David Neeleman, the discount carrier's chief] motivation was mainly to make agents happy, the theory being that happy workers sound better on the phone than morose ones.

Some of the clients we’ve worked with have call centers in North Dakota handling their customer inquiries and concerns. The exerpts above are from The Slipper Solution at outlines discount air maverick JetBlue’s call-center strategy – call-center employees work from home.

First, cost-cutting eventually cuts service quality and brand reputation. Two things JetBlue should be averse to compromising. Secondly, happy employees make for happy customers. The relationship front-line employees have with customers is reflective of the employer-employee relationship. That’s why Working Pathway’s focuses on improving the employee experience.

The Zone vs the Clock

This weekend, we worked on the home renovation – continuously – tiling until we ran out of tile, tweaking the bathroom sink until it stopped leaking. There were no phones, no radios, no email, no meetings pulling us away. We were able to focus on the task at hand until it was complete….really focus. I’m reminded of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on the subject of work – where he finds that it takes 2 _uninterupted_ hours to get into any given task.

Two hours of not glancing at the clock or checking email or answering the phone.

Compare your daily routine against these 2 hour blocks – does your schedule support you getting into your work? Or is it more about managing distractions?

Measure Once – Cut 5 or 6 Times

As I mentioned in an earlier post, we spent the weekend redoing our bathroom & entryway. The biggest a-ha I can offer you:

Iterate For a Snug Fit.

For each piece of sub-flooring, each tile, and the new mopboard – we would:

  1. Make the measurement
  2. Cut off a hair little less than we measured
  3. Massage the piece in place
  4. Mark where it didn’t fit, and take off a little more
  5. Repeat as necessary

This gave us a much closer fit everywhere – and taught us more about the house than measuring and cutting exactly. Which wouldn’t have worked perfectly anyway because, as my father-in-law says, “The blade has width.”

For more on iterative prototyping check out Michael Schrage’s book Serious Play.

Veen’s Presentation Tips

I highly recommend Jeffrey Veen’s Seven Steps to Better Presentations

My personal favorites:

  • #3 Don’t Apologize.
    Apologizing for your own performance so directly and swiftly weakens.
  • #4 Start Strong and #5 End Strong.
    I was in a sales presentation recently where the main presenter apologized 5 times in as many minutes. From the audience’s perspective – it’s painful, frustrating, and transforms what could be an engaging conversation into an unfortunate waste of time.