Personal productivity systems like Getting Things Done or the Pomodoro technique are quite popular among agilists, and I’m not surprised. There are many parallels with agile practices, most of these techniques use practices resembling iterations, backlogs and frequent retrospectives to become more productive. I’ve been experimenting with a couple of these but once I started using these at work I found that these don’t automatically work in a team setting.
Personal productivity isn’t team productivity.
In an ideal world a team consisting of very productive individuals is automatically a productive team. Unfortunately the real world is far from ideal. Because teams are very interdependent optimizing the work of a single team-member will not automatically optimize the whole. In many cases local optimization like this might even be cause the team to become less productive. Lets look at what’s causing this and how we can avoid it.
One of the ways to become more productive as an individual is to reduce interruptions. Making someone doing complex work switch between tasks a lot by interrupting them will make them far less productive, not only because the interruptions take time, the act of switching between complex tasks takes a lot of time too. A large part of personal productivity systems is avoiding interruptions. Unfortunately avoiding interruptions in teams often means avoiding communication. Communication is critical in a team.
Another way to get a big productivity boost is working with to-do lists. By listing and prioritizing tasks you can streamline your work. But in a team setting personal to-do lists can be problematic. People working from their own to-do lists instead of the team backlog can make coordinating work hard, it creates invisible work in progress and when people start planning their work too far in advance to-do lists can introduce rigidity into the team.
Aligning personal- and team-productivity
So should you only use GTD at home to organize your gardening duties? Of course not! There are a couple of things you can do to align your personal productivity with the productivity of the whole team.
The temptation to keep your head down and just steam through your own tasks is often big. For example the pomodoro technique gets is name from the kitchen timer used to time 25 minute periods where you need to do focused work without any interruptions. Pair programming can help to still get these periods of uninterrupted work without losing touch with your co-workers. You shouldn’t count questions from coworkers as interruptions. They’re part of your work. A way to deal with these is to add them as priority items to your lists.
Keep your todo lists short and up to date.
To-do lists are great for streamlining work. If you make your lists too long you’re planning too far ahead. A list that contains more than a day of work probably contains work items that should be on the team backlog. Claiming too much work for yourself will prevent your team-members from working on high priority items.
Stay transparent, give coworkers access to your lists.
Try to keep your lists in a public place. Write them down and put them on a corner of your desk. Communicate the items on your list during the stand-up. It’s important for the team to know what item is on who’s list when priorities change. Work items may even become obsolete.
When done right personal productivity systems can become an asset in a team. I’ve been experimenting with these for some time. I noticed that reporting on work done and work planned during the stand up became easier because I was tracking my work better. Tracking time (or pomodoro) spent on a single work item also made it easier to spot potential problems earlier.