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5-Steps to Turbo Charging Your Team's Productivity

General Blogs December 16, 2013 By Ronald Sarayudej

I promise to blog about behavioral analytics soon. Promise. But I have a valueable tangent that I think will be helpful to many (including myself).

Let's get productive
What I want to share about goes beyond job description or industry. You may be a developer, a customer rep, a QA specialist, a manager, or CEO. You may be in software, or aerospace, or fashion, or farming. No matter who you are, one universal thing we all care about is reaching our goals. Making progress. Just getting stuff done, and hopefully getting it done without great confusion, pain, or hair loss. I mean, who doesn't want to be more productive?

I'm sure you've all said this before: "I've been so busy running around all day, helping people and working on so many things... But I feel like I didn't get anything done!" This happens to all of us. Lots of things can steal our productivity, like context switching, or unclear requirements, or when coworkers keep showing you the latest photos of cats playing piano (guilty). So some things definitely decrease our productivity and we need to minimize those.

But we can also do things that maximize productivity. Now, I don't claim to be an authority in this subject, but my team has found some practices that really work for us and have helped us to work faster, be more focused, and even feel happier at the end of each work week (and no, I'm not referring to the happy hour that the LA office has every Friday afternoon). I believe the following 5 disciplines have been our "secret sauce" to increasing our productivity, and I believe they can help you and your team too.

 

1) Make a shared task list that your team can learn to love and own.
Now, I know this sounds super basic, but don't log off and leave just yet. Most people have a list, or board, or backlog, or whatever you want to call it. But there are some guidelines that will make your list a useful tool, and not something that the team gets confused by:

  • All tasks on the list should be crystal clear. Or think of it this way: if no one else on the team understands it, then it shouldn't be on the list. No one wants to touch a task that's half-baked or confusing, and it wastes everyone's time. So your list shouldn't be filled with cloudy ideas, big dreams, or vague placeholders. A well defined set of tasks allows people to collaborate and take action.
  • Tasks should have a finite ending point. Create a clear finish line for each task. For example, it might be considered done after it's been passed to the next department. Or when it matches the mockup. Or after it's been demo'ed to stakeholders. Or after it passes QA. Or even all of the above! This gives the team something to aim for, and ensures that there are no loose ends. No one wants to work on the never ending story! 

 

2) Meet with purpose, and meet often.
I've been to so many meetings that leave people thinking, "What was the point of that?" Even worse when it was a long meeting because that's a lot of wasted time. No more. My team has meetings that are more than just useful, but we instictively meet because it helps us get things done fast.

  • Use your team's task list as the center of discussion. Remember our beautiful list from the first point above? You will talk about that list. You will learn to love that list. Go down the list and discuss the progress of each task. How is this task going? What's left? Who needs help with it? Sometimes it's a simple status report, sometimes it turns into an all out debate, but the point is that everyone in the team now has visibility and a piece of ownership in what's going on.
  • Meet daily. Here at Liferay, there is meeting phobia like nowhere else. We hate to lose time and context switch, especially if a meeting seemingly does not contribute to anything. Well, for one, if you meet often, the meetings are shorter. In monthly or weekly meetings, you can meander and miss details, there's just too much information to catch up on. If you meet daily, the meetings are concise and quick. But also, if you meet daily, you catch issues more quickly. People don't go off course. You can celebrate each task the day it was finished. The instant feedback keeps the team feeling alive and healthy.

 

3) Prioritize your tasks.
This one sounds the simplest, but depending on how tangled your departments are, this may be a huge challenge. But the goal is to get your team's task list into priority order. And the simpler it is, the better. I've experienced ticket priorities, and business values, and google docs, and all sorts of meetings that, when all combined, convolute any sense of priority whatsoever. This is how my team does it: we order the tasks from top to bottom. Whatever is on top has to be done first. Whatever is on bottom has to wait for the stuff on top. Every two weeks, we refresh the list. For you it might be every week, or every month. But a clearly prioritized list will keep everyone laser focused on the most important goals, and you will see the results immediately.

 

4) Gather ideas from retrospective meetings.
I think retrospective meetings or debriefings are neglected way too often. We work and work and work, finish things, then press on to more work. And the argument is, "We don't have time to do a retro. That's valuable time we can spend getting more stuff done!" But... that's like owning a car and saying, "I don't take my car to the shop for checkups because I don't have time!"... until something goes wrong and you're forced to figure out what happened afterwards. Good retrospective meetings will help prevent problems, and actually boost your team's effectiveness. Here are some guidelines for running productive retros:

  • Keep it fresh. Don't always do the same thing, like say, "list the negatives and list the positives". It gets old really fast. Do something different each time, and get ideas from sites like Retr-o-mat. Even change up the location - one time we did retro at a coffee house, which felt more relaxed for conversation.
  • Take it slow. I've been in retros that were only 30 minutes or less and it stifles conversation and brainstorming. Sometimes it takes people time to warm up and for the ideas and comments to start flowing. We usually budget 1.5 hours, and we can always finish early. It depends on the size of your team, and how often you retro.
  • Don't leave without action items. This is where the magic happens. Have everyone suggest ways to improve. Vote on the favorites and make those your action items. Then post these somewhere visible and do it! Inevitably, if my team can't see the action items somewhere, we'll forget! And then ironically we'll find ourselves suggesting the same ideas at the next retro. Learn from our mistakes!

Having these meetings may feel like a timesink, but ultimately it will push everyone to work more smoothly and more efficiently.

 

5) Set a rest day for self-enrichment.
Because our team became so focused on high priority tasks, we found that seemingly "less important" items would fall off the map. Things like:
 

  • Blogging to the community or to the internal company
  • Writing wikis or "code recipes" of cool stuff we did recently
  • Teaching other teammates (or even other departments) useful knowledge and tips
  • Investing in side projects that involve your job skills - doesn't have to be work related!
  • Learning from books, sites, blogs, courses, videos that will spark fresh ideas

Aren't these all the things that we all neglect, but always say, "I wish I could find the time to do these things." Well, if you can, just declare a day for it. We call ours a "Sprint Sabbath", and have it every other week. If the retrospective meeting I mentioned about earlier is to grow your team, think of this rest day as a way to grow the individuals. Sure, sometimes our rest day sometimes gets pushed around by high priority deadlines or emergencies, but we still look forward to it because it helps the team refresh and restart before more projects come down the pipeline.
 

One step at a time
Again, these are components that have worked well for us so far, independent of any methodology (though it may look suspiciously "agile"). But at the root, agile or not, I think these will all apply well to most any team and context. If you are already doing many of these things, then that's awesome! But if you aren't doing these things and would like to give them a try, then I'd recommend applying gradually, one step at a time starting from #1 down to #5. Feel free to comment with any questions or thoughts.

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