How to deliver 10X productivity (Part I) for Knowledge workers?

Essay (1 of 3) on the future of work in a post COVID-19 World.

Even before Covid 19 changed our working lives, for a long time the way the majority of companies work has been buckling under numerous pressures. For example, how many times have you felt your heart sink on opening your inbox and seeing all your productive time vanish until after lunch? So with remote working the new normal for the foreseeable future, now more than ever, the way we work desperately needs to evolve to keep us on track and in doing so, boost our productivity. Businesses need new tools and processes that support asynchronous working. But how will these work, and what will they achieve?

How about 10x productivity? Sounds like a dream, right? Sounds like unattainable marketing speak you’ve heard 100 times before. Stand up meetings! Do emails in bulk, not as they come in! Never eat lunch at your desk! But actually, 10x productivity is very attainable, if you look at it from a holistic organisation-wide perspective. Which is easy, once you understand what it is you need to achieve.

An organisation that is highly productive is greater than the sum of its parts. Such businesses have a clear understanding of their purpose, their mission. They have an inspiring vision of the future, and a strong constructive culture that empowers and motivates employees to do great work. Finally, highly productive companies have an understanding of the core competencies that make up the foundation for a high performance work environment. They focus on productivity because its though productivity business can increase profitability, lower operating costs, reduce waste and environmental impact, improve competitiveness and increase engagement, to name just a few reasons. In the new world of work where growth for growth’s sake needs to be questioned, productivity might be the obvious replacement that organisations should be fixating over.  

Another critical element to becoming a high performance organisation is a clear understanding of waste. If you haven’t already read it, I would strongly recommend getting a hold of a copy of The Toyota Way by Jeffrey Liker which sets out Toyota’s strategy in the 1980s. Toyota demonstrated the power of total quality management, just in time, and work in progress (WIP) limits, all based around constraints theory with roots in ideas proposed by American engineer, statistician, and management consultant, W. E. Deming. By interrogating every component of their organisation and aligning them, they were able to visualise what they needed to achieve in order to increase productivity. This strategy ultimately delivered a transformation in the automotive industry. 

So 10x productivity need not be a pipe dream; it’s something that with game changing strategic thinking can be made real. At least that is my hypothesis, but let me share my observations on why I have made this educated guess.

Jason Nash

Let’s look at the building blocks of the most critical aspect of today’s workplace: knowledge work.

To start, we need to understand what knowledge work is and how can we measure productivity of knowledge workers? The definition of knowledge work from Wikipedia is ‘Knowledge work can be differentiated from other forms of work by its emphasis on “non-routine” problem solving that requires a combination of convergent and divergent thinking’. Knowledge workers are therefore the people whose jobs involve handling or using information, often using a computer. And they are at the very heart of how one might deliver on 10x productivity ambitions, especially as this kind of role is undergoing significant change as technology and global pandemics continue to redefine how and where we work. 

We can measure performance as the amount of work (or output) that an employee completes during a period of time (their input). In organisations that produce physical work a simple example might be the amount of bricks a bricklayer lays in the course of a working day. However knowledge work in the service business sector can be harder to measure, although a simple example here might be the number of lines of code a software engineer produces, or the number of words a copywriter has produced.

All knowledge work falls into four different blocks: reactionary, planning, procedural, and problem-solving. Let’s go through them and highlight some pitfalls.

Reactionary Work: 

This makes up a large and growing proportion of our daily work. Reactionary work is replying to an email, or instant message. It’s often minimal value-adding and, in many cases, not particularly well-governed. For example, requests for information or tasks often go unanswered. Why? Because they disappear into inboxes with over 121 other requests on average every day (source: Radicati). Products like Slack have effectively become the equivalent of the virtual water cooler conversation, but have not necessarily increased the productivity they promised, in part because they have increased the amount of reactionary work.  The average organisation can lose up to 20% or 1 day a working week of its productive capacity (source: HBR). Now, you may think of this as naturally occurring organisational drag, but I hypothesise that much of this is down to time spent on reactionary work, and it will have increased due to new internal communication channels and distractions such as Slack and MS Teams. 

Planning work:

The next block of work is planning, relating to both near or long term plans. A lot of this work, especially long term planning, can be a form of waste. A now somewhat dated 2014 article (source: Bain) said as much as 97% of strategic planning is a waste of time in multinational companies. Yes, 97%! It’s easy for businesses to get caught in a planning loop where last year’s plan has not yet been fully executed before the new plan needs to be worked on. I know first hand how dysfunctional this can be, especially when the ideal environment for 10x productivity highlighted at the start of this 3 part essay is missing. And it’s not just the wasted hours and energy that needs to be taken into account, but the wasted employee goodwill when they see their hard work superseded before implementation.

Procedural Work: 

Procedural work can be as simple as planning out your day, ensuring you are working on the right things at the right time, or as complicated as building detailed operating procedures to ensure consistency across a team or department. It is as varied as the work demands. But as any manager knows, localised procedural work can only be effective up to a point. If clear communication strategies are not implemented business-wide, productivity decreases as time is lost due to reasons such as competing egos, misfiled documentation, and duplication of work. And procedural work can be high value, especially if it’s focused on new processes that help a business define new distinctive competencies. 

Problem Solving Work:

And the final block, problem solving work. Problem solving work, which includes training, adds the most value to our work experience by engaging and motivating us. It’s when we find new and creative pathways, which impacts on an organisation’s overall output and innovation. And yet despite how important this work is, it is often the work we spend the least amount of time doing. Why? Because it requires us to focus and ideally enter a state of flow. But how can we do that if we keep being interrupted by the above? This is why you need to focus your attention, and not just your time to truly increase personal and business productivity (source: Forbes).

So those are the types of knowledge work you and your employees wrestle with on a daily basis. In my next post I going to cover the six intersecting blocks that are fundamental to actually getting the work done and driving 10x productivity. Organisations who have found how to align these have successfully gone on to improve productivity at every level.

Product managment can feel like trying to eating an Elephant!

Elephant carpaccio has nothing to do with cruelty to elephants, it’s the process where software people practice and learn how to break user stories into thin vertical slices. It came from Elephant carpaccio Alistair Cockburn. I want to use the concept to challenge your thinking. Should we as product managers be working with elephants? One of the many roles of product management can be described as creating elephant carpaccio; however, you’re still trying to eat an elephant, and I would argue most of us can’t realistically hope to eat an elephant… however big your business appetite. A better approach to eating elephants is to shrink it down to something more bite-sized, let’s think burger. You need to move away from managing demand, in this case the elephant, to managing supply. But to get there, you need to manage your stakeholders and reach an agreement.

At its core, the job of product management is one of balancing the needs of all the many business stakeholders’: customers, prospects, the market, sales, support, executives… the list goes on and on. Yet if we think customer first, a lot of these sometimes-conflicting needs can be addressed quite simply. What do customers want? They want good quality solutions that address their pains or jobs to be done, it’s that easy. However, it’s easy to forget this in the never-ending product release cycle that product managers live within.

What’s your target? Get, Keep or Grow?

First, if you buy into the concept that keeping and retaining customers is more valuable than getting new ones, this starts to define a set of variables you can use to determine how you prioritise. Of course, you need all of your business stakeholders to buy into this. This includes making sure your sales teams are not outselling and promising things that you’re unlikely to deliver in the short term or medium term.

It’s should be obvious, but too often this simple rule is not followed. You must sell what you have today, not what is coming tomorrow (its common sense right?) but as I have discussed in other articles, common sense is not so prevalent especially in business were strategy and goals are not well aligned. I hear a question, I thought selling technology was about selling a vision? Yes, it is. You can sell the vision and its important to do that. However, the requirements need / have to be managed by someone and that someone should be the product manager. Having the right product narrative comes in to play here – what’s the big problem you’re trying to fix (the villain)? What the vision for solving the problem (the hero) then you get to them and at this point, you sell what you have, not the future.

With this foundation, you can start to create a set of variables, a matrix and some metrics to help you prioritise all of the requirements, but you can’t hope to do this unless you have got control of the new requests coming in. So often I see businesses drowning in a sea of requirements – features requested by customers through sales without a clear understanding of the problem or the job to be done. We all understand the pressure of selling a solution however feature bloat is a real issue and has hidden costs across the business, more code to manage, more support calls, more sales complexity, more marketing… the bigger the elephant is, the harder the problem you’re trying to solve.

Line up your stakeholders

When we think about stakeholders in business, we don’t think about the kind we see in the classic vampire films but maybe we should. Departmental egos, unrealistic expectations and conflicting strategic priorities can soon make the product manager feel like they just can’t win. The best way to address this is to take stakeholders to one side and walk through the variables and the prioritisation matrix you have defined. Getting everyone at different levels within the organisation onside is critical. In smaller start-ups, this is less of an issue as everyone is focused on the single product vision, but in more significant business, this can be complex and time-consuming. To help you manage them, you need to be equipped with the facts, and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders in order to get agreement on what matters. If you work in a business where everything matters, then it might be time to start looking for a new organisation. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. If a business is trying to do everything then they are trying to do nothing and if your strategy is not clear, or is trying to fight on too many fronts, then you can’t win. I will cover strategy in a future article but what fascinates me is that there are only a few key strategies (market expansion, diversification, market penetration, product expansion) yet business go wrong in trying to pursue too many of them at the same time and not funding them at a level that can lead to real success.

Ratios and ranges can be your friend

Ratios are good things to use to help you get a handle on the health of your products and your product management process, in the same way, ranges are a good thing to use when you’re estimating. Building software is not like building a car where you design the components and assemble them; the goal to make each car the same as it rolls off the production line. Anyone that has built software knows there are many ways of solving development problems. Should I use an Array, Dictionary, Set or roll my own collection type? Because of this, a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams. You need to be equipped with the facts and you need to work across the business with all your internal and external stakeholders to get agreement on what matters. So, many CEO’s and even CTO’s or CIO’s don’t understand concepts like constraints theory or the real value of time i.e. opportunity cost. So, product managers end up at the sharp end of all of the conflicting priorities.

a lot of general management thinking, much of which originated with General Motors in the 1950’s, does not help you manage digital products or development teams

If your ratio of new defects to existing is increasing, then you have a quality problem and your most likely overloading the system with too many stories per sprint. The same holds for new support incidents to existing ones. Its’ ‘working as designed’ comments, demonstrate a breakdown in the requirements management process and / or a lack of design input. Adding new customers, if existing ones are leaving in droves, is counterproductive and especially if the new customer brings with them new requirements. This can make the problems even worse. This can be a real problem when moving to new countries with new market requirements. Using the bowling alley approach highlighted in ‘Crossing the chasm’ can be useful when making these kinds of decisions and doing them at the right time.

Herding Elephants

It’s just common sense, but if sales have been tasked with selling, then you can understand how these conflicts emerge. It’s also where looking at ratios of departments within a business can be useful, what’s the ratio of Development staff to the ratio of sales? The traditional business needed large sales teams but in modern platform business, these ratios are changing. With improved customer experience comes self-service, onboarding, social support and a range of cost-effective ways of serving customer needs. Much of which can be supported by product and product managers, but you need to make space for them in the backlog. Also, the company needs to have a focus on improved customer experience at a fundamental level, not just lip service, or it just one more thing to be prioritised with everything else i.e. a bigger elephant.

How to prioritise will have to wait for another time, the different mathematical approaches to prioritising have real value: MoSCoW, Class of service, Weighted look-ahead approach, Incremental funding model, Cost-benefit analysis, HiPPO decisions, Equity, Weighted shortest job first or CD3. Don’t get me wrong these all have a place, and I have used many different types in my past. However, the maths you use to prioritise does not get around the human aspects of managing expectations. It can’t magically make your development teams 50% more productive or increase your development budget by 100%. So, they will help you make smarter prioritisation calls, but they can’t fix management bad practice and unrealistic expectations. For those, you need to win over the hearts and minds of your colleges, and for that, you need to be able to explain why you have prioritised in the way you have and told them: what they will get, what they won’t, when they would get it and why. Get your people to start thinking burgers, not elephants.

Buzzwords, building trust and giving back

Building a website for yourself is not hard in today’s world and so as I embark on my new adventure I thought I would pull all my blog articles together into one place. Here is an article from earlier in the year.

Buzzwords

Earlier today I was emailed, with a request to take a look at an online article which was dishing out career advice for people in the travel tech industry. It featured the usual list of buzzwords (some of which I have changed to protect the innocent). We all know them, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Bots, Mobile, Quantum Computing. If your content creation, PR or thought leadership teams are not churning them out like water from a hosepipe how will you get recognise, how will your share of voice go up? How can you and your brand stand out from the crowd? I think we all need to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask the questions Why? Why am I putting this article out? Why am I at work today? and why does any of it mater? In short, how do we build trust with our customers, our employees, our stakeholders? I would argue it’s not through churning out more of the same or strongly agreeing with everyone just because it’s easy. In a world of alternative facts and increasingly polar views, it’s more important than ever that we all stand up for what we believe matters and what is important. But also recognise that the good stuff happens in the grey space between extream points of view. Not sure you agree… Take a concept like traditional architecture its looking dated based on cloud computing which is increasingly making business consider if they need architecture, in the conventional sense. Or take Big data overused as a catchphrase, business needs data science, and most importantly a need a reason to do either.

I would argue the better skills for travel tech professionals are to have is an in-depth knowledge of product management, business model’s and value proposition design so they can partner more efficiently across the business, particularly with marketing and sales.

Renaissance

These are the skill combinations that make tech professionals unstoppable. Just like the 14th – 17th-century renaissance, where people with diverse skils delivered genuinely new ideas and created a better society. It’s these skill combos and diversity that enable lateral thinking and new ideas to be created. Yes, there is a place for deep knowledge in all business but it’s in the spaces that exist between business models and industries that new ideas are formed and new growth opportunities often make themselves apparent.

As a set of buzz words, the article I reviewed covered most of them from the last few years. However, today if your a travel tech expert I would not recommend extending your skills to take on mobile or big data better use of your time would be to continue into new areas like business models, value props, lean startup thinking, where you will become an unstoppable force for change. I would recommend recent books like Blue Ocean Shift,  Business Model Design, and The startup way  these will give the kinds of insights, which in my view let technologies expand their skills and career prospects beyond buzz words and across the travel and technology industry.