Avoiding Friction with Work Plans

Avoiding Friction with Work Plans

As project managers and a project team focusing on delivery avoiding friction is almost a daily event, whether that be with stakeholders maintaining scope or vendors. But another aspect to consider is being torn between priorities and having to switch tasks at a whim to achieve daily targets. There’s a difference between elapsed hours on the job and effective available hours. If people don’t incorporate friction factors into their planning, they’ll forever underestimate how long it will take to get work done.

People do not multitask—they task switch. When multitasking computers switch from one job to another, there’s a period of unproductive time during the switch. The same is true of people, only it’s far worse. It takes a little while to gather all the materials needed to work on a different activity, access the right files, and reload your brain with the pertinent information. Changing your mental context to focus on the new problem and remember where you were the last time you worked on it. That’s the slow part.

Some people are better at task switching than others; however excessive task switching destroys productivity. When deeply immersed in work, focused on the activity and free from distractions, a mental state called flow is entered. Creative knowledge work like software development requires flow to be productive. It is understood what is being worked on, the information needed is in your working memory, and you know where you’re headed. You can tell you’ve been in a state of flow when you lose track of time as you’re making great progress and having fun. Then your phone pings with a text message, an e-mail notification pops up, your computer reminds you that a meeting starts in five minutes, or someone stops by to talk. The flow is then lost.

Interruptions are flow killers. It takes several minutes to get your brain back into that highly productive state and pick up where you were before the interruption. A realistic measure of your effective work capacity is based not on how many hours you’re at work or even how many hours you’re on task, but how many uninterrupted hours you’re on task.

To achieve the high productivity and satisfaction that come from an extended state of flow, you need to actively manage your work time. There are several recommendations for reducing context switching and its accompanying productivity destruction.

  • Time block your schedule to create clearer focuses boundaries. Planning how you will spend your day, with dedicated blocks of time allocated to specific activities, carves out opportunities for extended deep concentration.
  • Employ routines to remove attention residue as you migrate from one task to the next. A small transition ritual or distraction—a cup of coffee, an amusing video—can help you make a mental break into a new work mode.
  • Take regular breaks to recharge. The intense concentration of a state of flow is great—up to a point. You must come up for air occasionally. To minimize eyestrain, periodically focus your eyes on something in the distance for a few seconds instead of the screen. Short mental breaks are refreshing before you dive back into that productive flow state.

At-work hours seep away through many channels. You attend meetings and video chats, respond to e-mails, look things up on the web, participate in retrospectives, and review the next task. Time gets lost to unexpected bug fixes, kicking around ideas with your co-workers, administrative activities, and the usual healthy socializing. Even if you work forty hours a week, you don’t spend anywhere near that many on your project.

Besides the daily frittering away of time on myriad activities, project teams lose time to other sources of friction. For instance, most corporate IT organizations are responsible for both new development and enhancing and repairing current production systems. Since you can’t predict when something will break or a change request will come along, these sporadic, interruption maintenance demands usurp team members’ time with unplanned work.

The team composition can further impose friction if project participants speak different native languages and work in diverse cultures. Unclear and volatile requirement priorities can chew up hours as people spend time researching, debating, and adjusting priorities. The team might have to temporarily shelve some incomplete work if a new, higher-priority task inserts itself into the schedule. Unplanned rework is yet another time diversion.

Distance between project participants can retard information exchanges and decision-making. However, the long-distance reviews took longer than expected, as did follow-up to verify the corrections made. Sluggish iteration to resolve requirements questions and ambiguity about who the right contact people were for each issue were further impediments. These—and other—factors put the project behind schedule after just the first week and eventually contributed to its failure.

It is best to estimate how long individual tasks will take if no distractions or interruptions occur, that is just focus on productive time. Next, convert that ideal effort estimate into calendar time based on effective work-hour percentage. Also consider whether any of the other aforementioned sources of friction could affect estimates. Then try to arrange the work to focus on a single task at a time until it’s complete or hit a blocking point.

If people always create estimates without accounting for the many ways that time splitting and project conditions can slow down the work, they’re destined to overrun their estimates every time. Let us know your thoughts on the subject; we would like to hear from you. All the very best on your project management journey.

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