Time is Money

Doing First Things First 

Boosting Productivity

One of the most compelling benefits of Agile is that it boosts productivity.

Productivity measures the value of what you produce compared to the costs that went into producing it. With Agile, you can get more done for less.

In software development, the main cost is the salaries of the people. The surest way to let your budget spiral out of control is to manage time ineffectively. Time, here, really is money. Controlling you budget, then, means controlling the way time is spent.

Agile manages time very strictly. All work is gives strict time limits, and the focus is then on using that time as effectively as possible.

“Work Smarter, Not Harder”

Agile folks could come up with their own theories about how to manage time effectively, but Agile is about being practical – about getting results – not about coming up with unproven theories.

Effective time management is, of course, nothing new. The principles and practices are well established. It is not surprising, then, that Agile is grounded in classic time management techniques, and applies them specifically to high productivity software development.

Time management experts have worked out that most people are only about thirty percent as productive as they could be, and that effective time management can boost that to sixty or seventy percent of capacity.

By applying time management rigorously, then, Agile can make software development teams twice as productive. This productivity boost is the edge that your competition relies on to leap ahead of you. In the words of an overused management slogan, it is how they “work smarter, not harder”.

To catch up with and overtake your competition you need to at least match their level of productivity.

Fighting Natural Instincts

People often say that Agile is just about being practical and following common sense. The same has been said about time management. It turns out that explaining time management, and hence explaining Agile, is pretty simply. Following the advice, on the other hand, is pretty hard. It requires tremendous self discipline, and that means fighting against what comes naturally.

Human nature might make us good at some things, but it doesn’t make us good at time management. It continually tugs at us, dragging our attention back and forth to events happening around us, pulling us away from following good time-management (and hence Agile) practices.

If we just do what comes naturally, then, we tend to end up thrashing around all day long, letting events manage us rather than the other way around, and we wonder at the end of the day where all the time went.

Self Discipline

We can blame outside interruptions, or an overburdened workload, or a host of other excuses for stealing our time. When it comes down to it, though, we are responsible for allowing our own time to be stolen from us.

Agile puts a stop to this.

Agile addresses these issues head on, by taking proven time management practices and making them an integral part of the Agile process. With the Agile process, then, good time management comes for free.

Your own part of the bargain is that you need to find the steely resolve to commit to and stick with the Agile process. If you cannot maintain that discipline, then human nature will take a grip of you, and drag you back to old habits. Again you will wonder at the end of the day where all the time went.

Agile helps here too. It is easier to maintain self discipline if everybody else is supporting you in doing it. As you will see in later chapters, Agile includes a role for somebody to oversee the project and the team, and make sure that everybody - including those outside the team - sticks to the rules. This person is there to help you fight human nature, stop your time from being stolen, and keep you focused on high productivity throughout the day.

Goals

Software development projects require lots of work. If you don’t plan your work and stick to the plan, then other people’s demands on your time will control your work for you.

Planning your work means you need to set goals for your project. The problem with planning, though, is that you can both under-do it and over-do it. If you under-do it you won’t have targets to aim for. If you over-do it, you spent all your time planning, and none of it working.

The closer the time-frame, the more concrete your plan needs to be. The farther away it is, the looser it can be, since circumstances are likely to change anyway. Plans for today, then, need to be far more specific and detailed than plans for next month.

Start planning with high-level long range goals for the next year. You should not plan out every quarter, month, week, and day for the whole year. Instead, focus only on breaking out shorter range goals for the current quarter, then down to the current month, the current week, and finally into specific tasks for today.

This gives us the first rule of productivity:

  1. Write down the things you need to get done this year, this quarter, this month, this week, and today. These become your goals.

We will come back to goals: how to decide on them, and what they should look like, in chapter XXX.

Priorities

Some of the goals you have written down will be more important than others. Two things determine importance: How valuable the goal is to the business, and how urgent it is that it be achieved. This brings us to the next productivity rule, which helps us work out our priorities:

  1. Rank your goals in terms of their relative importance. These then become you priorities for the year, this quarter, this month, this week, and today.

Deciding on which goals are the most important is the focus of chapter XXX.

Plans

Priorities help you decided where you should be investing most of your effort, and in what order. This way, if you do run out of time, only the least important things remain not done.

Knowing the highest priorities for the year helps you determine the plan for the current quarter, the current month, the current week, all the way down to the most important things to do today. This helps you create a very concrete daily task plan.

The next rule of time management, then, is:

  1. Work on the highest priority goals first. These form your scheduled plan.

Plans, down to the daily task plan, should be posted prominently for all to see, to keep everybody's attention continually focused on them; to stop people from drifting away into tempting but unplanned activities.

Deadlines             

[TODO: Plans have schedules goals, start dates, and deadlines – and entry and exit criteria]

Living Plans

If you only plan once, in a big upfront effort, you will quickly find that your plans become stale. Several important political and military leaders allegedly said (in one way or another) that planning is essential, but that plans become useless as soon as you start to apply them. The reality is that circumstances change and so plans need to change too.

To stop plans dying an early death, they need to be kept relevant. To remain relevant, plans (that is, goals and priorities) need to be adapted, as we learn more, as we make progress, and as external events beyond our control evolve around us.

One of the guiding principles of Agile is that if a thing is worth doing (e.g. planning) then it is worth doing often. Our next productivity rule, then, is:

  1. Periodically, re-plan goals and reorder priorities to be relevant to changing circumstances.

“Periodically” is a slippery word. If we re-plan too often, then we never have time to fix on targets  long enough to reach them. If we don’t re-plan often enough, we risk our plans being outdated and irrelevant.

Opinions differ on the right frequency for re-planning. When you have a lot of Agile experience you can fine-tune the frequency to be optimal for your own organization and projects.

From my own projects, I have found that a good general rule is: Re-plan today’s goals and priorities the day before, weekly goals and priorities once per day, monthly goals and priorities once per week, quarterly goals and priorities once per month, and yearly goals and priorities once per quarter.

Post the new plans for the year, quarter, month, week, and today prominently – replacing the stale plans that are no long relevant.

Time Tracking

Your daily plan makes clear where to spend your time and energy today. However, keeping your attention focused on top priorities requires a lot of self discipline. Time management helps by reducing the distractive influence of more tempting activities with the next rule:

  1. Keep a written list of actual time spent on actual things done. This way you can compare what you actually did with what was planned for today.

Keep this list to yourself. If managers demand to see it, they are guilty of micro-managing. Nobody works well with the boss breathing down their neck. Explain to them that you need enough daily breathing space to get your work done.

The time tracking list is for you alone; to track how you use your time during your own work-day. Add to the list throughout the day, every time you change activities, or take a break, or chat with friends for even just for a few minutes.

Don’t write this list at the end of the workday; you will forget things, and it’s too tempting to make the list look nice and tidy. And don’t round up or down to the nearest quarter hour – you will end up missing all the five and ten minute breaks that distract your attention all day long. You need good old honest truth in reporting to see where your time really goes.

Your time tracking list has three important benefits. Firstly, simply writing down a tempting distraction can jolt you back to focusing on your planned activities. Secondly, you get an immediate feeling of accomplishment as you see, in black and white, time well spent and planned high-priority activities completed.

The third benefit is that at the end of each day, you can compare what you expected to do, with an honest account of what you actually managed to do. This shows brutally where time really went, and motivates you to stay focused the next day.

Handling Interruptions

Handling personal distractions through time tracking is one thing. Handling interruptions from others (such as phone calls, and people popping into your office) is not so easy.

When you are working steadily on following your daily plan, unexpected interruptions can throw you off course – and for a disproportionate amount of time; research has found that after a ten minute interruption, it takes about thirty minute to get back into the activity you were distracted from on. Interruptions, then, are the enemy of productivity.

Again, human nature is to blame. We want to please people, and don’t want to offend, so we give in to their demands easily. But giving in continually to interruptions leads to feeling pressured, getting stressed, panicking, and thrashing around ineffectively, while missing out on achieving the high priority work we are already committed to doing.

Keeping things on track, and reducing stress and panic, requires effective handling of interruptions, so that other people’s priorities don’t overtake your own. Unfortunately, fighting the human nature to please is tough. The next rule tells us how to do that:

  1. Prioritise the interruption with your current work, so that you can handle it immediately, fold it into the prioritised list of things to do, or drop it completely.

Talk to the caller or visitor frankly about the top priority activities you are already focusing on from your daily plan, and see if what they want really cannot wait. Find out if it is more important and more urgent than your current highest priorities, and if so, declare it an Emergency and then focus all effort on it immediately. If not, schedule it in with other lower priority items for later focused attention. Often, you will find that when its time comes around, the reason for the interruption is no longer relevant after all, or has been resolved in the meantime, and can be dropped from your schedule, helping you keep on track with your real priorities

Book

This is part of a book I am writing. More will be unfolding here and on my blog. Ongoing feedback would be much appreciated.