The Productivity Traffic Jam

One of my all-time favorite quotes comes from Steve Jobs: You want to know the secret to getting something done? Say no to 100 other things!

Recently I began work with a client who “couldn’t get anything across the finish line.” Those were the exact words I heard from the CEO and every member of the senior management team.

When I asked to see what they were working on, they pulled out a list of 50 initiatives! Some days my job is so easy: “You want to go 50 times faster? Pick one! 25 times faster? Pick two!”

Multitasking and context-switching are killing us. Say you have only three commitments: A, B, and C. If somebody (please!) could figure out that B is top priority, then A, and then C, we’d get all three of them done better, faster, cheaper.

The problem, of course, is that B is in fact top priority, to somebody. But A is top priority to somebody else. And C is top priority for yet a third person. This is really more of a governance problem than an Agile problem. But it is killing Agile productivity.

Most people can juggle one ball at a time. With concentrated effort, many people can juggle two balls at a time. But three balls at a time is one in 5,000 people. Only one in 20,000 can juggle four balls at a time. And only a couple people in the world can juggle five balls at once.

Several studies in the past couple of years have conclusively demonstrated that we’re not much better juggling work than juggling balls. About the only real difference between those who self-identify as master multi-taskers and those who say they can’t do multi-task at all is that one group thinks they can while the others know better. None of us can multi-task effectively, and the more we’re juggling at once the less of anything we’re getting done.

Another helpful metaphor is traffic congestion. Traffic begins to slow at 65% utilization and comes to dead stop at 100% utilization. The same is true of work in your office. And to get more work done you have two options: 1) you can spend a lot of money to widen the highway; or 2) you can simply throttle the on-ramp.

The message here is very simple: if you want to get more done, do less; prioritize, focus, and set Work-In-Progress (WIP) limits; stop starting and start finishing; optimize for throughput vs. utilization.

Why is this so hard? (To keep people like me employed, apparently.) It’s been right there in the 12 Principles of Agile all along: “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.”

That was the message to my client and, along with some process changes and coaching, I’m happy to report that they got it and are now breaking speed records every month as they race across the finish line!

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