/ Why

Time Spent Making vs. Time Spent on Process

I've spent a lot of time observing teams. At first glance almost every team I see is working hard, and trying to do the right thing the best they can. Sure they may not be super effective or efficient, but it's not for lack of trying, and often not their fault.

One of the key things I look for is how a team works, and more specifically how they allocate their time. If you really think about it there are really only two things teams do:

  1. Productive work, making, building, etc.
  2. Communicating, estimating, justifying, and explaining the work, and status of that work.

These two types of things are really pretty different, and it is probably valuable to think of them as different modes. If you are explaining what you are doing and why to a manager, you probably aren't making something. In many large company teams, especially ones where software isn't the core competency when I observe an "inefficient" team, I find that they are spending big blocks of time, sometimes more than 50% on mode 2 tasks.

Certainly no one would be surprised that a team spending 50% of their time on non-making tasks would not be as effective as they could be, but what I've actually observed is that the cost to productivity for supporting any significant amount of mode 2 work.

This dissonance in process and switching between the two modes is often where teams, divisions, and even companies breakdown. Initial instinct might suggest that spending say 20% of your time on mode 2 tasks would have a 20% cost to productivity. In reality, it ends up being much larger than that.

First there is the cost associated with context switching. Stopping productive work for a meeting obviously doesn't just take the thirty minutes of the meeting, but more likely the thirty minutes on either side of the meeting as well.

Next there is the cognitive cost people pay when they are asked to spend time converting the work you have done into something consumable by a non-team member. People work most effectively when they understand what they are doing, believe it's the right thing, and are trusted to execute. If you can't allow teams to have these things, they are forced to pay for that gap in mode 2 behaviors.

Confidence and certainty in what you are doing has an out-sized impact on a lot of people. How should you expect an individual engineer or designer to respond when asked to stop what they are doing and make a list of their latest accomplishments? Or a task list for the future? The underlying message from management is that we don't understand what's happening. This is reasonable when there are big strategic changes, or new leadership, but for many teams this becomes their every day.

This sort of mode 2 focus creeps up on you over time. One more report, a slight shift in the ratio of staff, another ritual to satisfy an external requirement.

There is a quick check you can run on a team to figure out where they fall between mode 1 and mode 2 tasks.

Take a typical week and follow a couple of people on the team or have them self record using a time tracker. Keep track of what people actually spend time on during a day, over the course of the week. People will sometimes feel self conscious about this but you can also do it just observationally. Add up the time at the end of the week. Categorize it into one of 3 categories:

  • Working on the project, which can include team communication to solve "how" questions.
  • Process driven by the team need, e.g. standup
  • Process driven by an external need, e.g. status report

The first order check is on the overall ratio. There is always some process overhead and tax on almost any group endeavor, so you aren't looking for some magical land where the talking and process part is zero.

Next look at the split between process the team drives and needs and process for an external to the team need. I've seen cases where the team process was reasonable, maybe 10% of time, but to take that process and plug it into a the larger company process was another 10% of the time.

Finally, and this is the reason that even low time percentages have that out-sized impact. Count for the monitored people, how many times during the week do they get to two hours of solid mode 1 work not interrupted by any process tasks. There are basically two times during the day when you could get to a full two hour block, before lunch and after. How many of these process needs claim just a short window in those key productive times? If the numbers are low on uninterrupted work you will see people self selecting to not start challenging and importing jobs, and you are almost certain to see lots of business but limited meaningful output.

For leaders, if you discover that this split is going the wrong way in your teams, the onus is on you to change behaviors, in most cases these mode 2 behaviors are systemic, and driven by management asking for things. You can't just stop asking, you have to explicitly stop the pre-existing ask, and change the expectation. This will require you to figure out ways to satisfy the need for that original ask through a proactive engagement on your part, learning to understand the artifacts driven by the process the team is using rather than forcing productive work to stop to support these other tasks.

When you first start this you will feel suddenly blinded. Like things are out of control. Pay attention however to the way the team is working, key decisions, and the flow of work through to delivery and really understand it. You are simply removing the creation of an abstraction layer, all the information you need is there. If you can create an environment where each individual gets one or two more uninterrupted productive blocks a week you will likely see massive increases in value delivered, enough to more than offset any uncertainty about team efficiency.