Productivity Systems are simply containers with rules

Productivity Systems are simply containers with rules

Productivity systems are all the rage. Use Bullet Journaling, or Personal Kanban, or Jira, or Trello, or good old fashioned Project Management. In work, outside of work, everywhere – people are promoting productivity systems. But here’s an idea I think is worth playing with.

What if we looked at the myriad of productivity systems, methodologies and ways of working as nothing more than the basic thing they are; a container of work with rules on how that work is processed?

By breaking it down to the basics we can ask critical questions about the system and disband the idea that one size fits all.

I think that’s worth exploring in more details.

Here’s a YouTube video, or read on for more.

What is a container?

A container is literally as it sounds, it’s a container that contains all of the work.

  • When we see a Kanban board in the office, it is a container with the current work on it, maybe showing the states and flow process that the work goes through.
  • When we see a Gantt chart at work, it is a container with the current work in it.
  • When we see great calendar management, it is a calendar with someone’s work scheduled on it
  • When we see a simple To Do or Task list, it is a container with work on it.
  • When we see a Getting Things Done system, it is a container with work in it.
  • When we see a Bullet Journal, it is a notebook (container) with work in it.

It’s important to note that the actual work itself is not in the container – it’s the labels, identification, model, description of the work.

What are Rules?

These are the rules that we apply to the container that explain how the work moves and is processed. It’s how we get things done and deliver value to the customer or ourselves. It’s the rules that help us get things done. It’s a core element of all productivity systems.

Many of the rules may not be visible, but effective people and managers (at work) ensure the rules are obvious, probably by writing them down, certainly from modelling the rules through their behaviours.

When we see a Kanban board in the office, there are rules on how work is processed.

  • Maybe there are some limits on each column about how much work can be in that state at any given time (Limited WIP).
  • There are likely swim lanes and columns that show the order that the work goes through.
  • It’s likely to show who is working on what, estimates of time and sub tasks.
  • It’s likely the team gather around it and discuss it every day.

When we see a Gantt chart at work, there are rules on how work is processed.

  • It’s likely a critical path has been defined and will be actioned first.
  • There are dates and owners of the work and the expectation is that completion is tracked and communicated.
  • It will show dependencies and handovers.
  • It will show who does what after the current tasks are completed.

When we see great calendar management, there are rules on how work is processed.

  • Effective people add their work, leisure and learning to their calendar which inherently shows when they are going to perform their tasks, meetings, etc.
  • An obvious rule is that it’s not possible to be in two places at once, or doing two pieces of work.
  • If something comes up unexpectedly then something else will move.
  • Effective people likely schedule two or three slots during their day to check email. The rule being that email is off limits until those times.
  • Effective people will schedule family commitments and put their work around it.
  • Some people may have colour coding to see quickly what sort of work/activity they are doing.
  • And no doubt they have their own personal rules about how they design their calendar – maybe by theming certain days or batching similar work together.

When we see a simple To Do or Task list, there are rules on how work is processed.

  • Some people work through the list from top to bottom.
  • Some people work on what is important first.
  • Some people work on what is interesting to them.
  • Some people use digital tools to house their list, or index cards.
  • People define their own specific rules for how to action work on their task list – rules that make sense to them and their work.

When we see a Getting Things Done system, there are rules on how work is processed.

  • There are plenty of rules on how to use the Getting Things Done system.

When we see a Bullet Journal, it’s a notebook (container) with work in it.

  • There are rules on how work moves, how we add work to the calendar, how we plan out our days.
  • Some of these rules are from the creator, some from people hacking the Bullet Journal to make it work for them.

As you can see we often need these rules to get things done. By having rules we are able to understand how work is processed and ensure we follow the rules for maximum productivity.

The goal of the system and questions to ask

The goal of all productivity systems is to get things delivered, to add value to our own lives, or our customers.

In a nutshell the sub goals are essentially to:

  • Understand the work and the value it adds
  • Prioritise the work that adds the most value
  • Understand when the work is done so we can move on to the next piece

All productivity systems are trying to achieve the same thing. As such we can then look at the purpose of the system and ask some important questions.

Is all of the work in the container?

An obvious starting point is to ask if all of the work is in the system. If not, why not?

There is little point in having productivity systems if they only contains some of the work. Yet, in organisations far and wide there are plenty of people doing “work” that is not visible. The same thing may be happening in our own lives – with tasks and activities dotted all over the place.

How can we assess the value and priority of that work, if we can’t see it? How do we know it’s done, if we can’t see it?

The value of productivity systems is in the fact that all work is visible and we can see the status of it. We can compare work and understand the priority. We can stop doing something and pick something else up.

Making work visible is a key aspect of releasing agility in your organisation – so effective teams and managers make all work visible. The same principle is relevant in our own lives too.

Do the containers integrate and work with other containers?

It’s not uncommon in many organisations to have 10+ productivity systems. Each team, when left to their own devices, will choose the tool that they’ve used before, or is most suited to their work.

There is nothing wrong with this, until you have work that moves across these functional boundaries (hint – all work does) and people have to start collaborating and co-ordinating with each other, or leaders need to see reports on the status of work. Then we start to see that the different productivity systems (containers with rules) often don’t play nicely with each other.

This could be a technology problem, but even underneath the technology the teams could be using completely different philosophical productivity systems.

It’s therefore not uncommon to see companies rolling out yet another Container with Rules that sits across the top of other productivity systems, in the futile attempt to gain some visibility, make priority calls and know when work is done.

Or maybe they start extending existing tools with lots of expensive plug-ins, or half-hearted extensions that don’t quite work properly.

Soon you need an entire team working on nothing but integrating lots of systems together.

It rarely works and the big questions to ask is this: Do we really need so many different productivity systems – each one with their own Container and Rules?

Do the rules help us achieve the purpose?

Given that the purpose of productivity systems is to ship work and get things done, you may be surprised at how few people test their Containers and Rules against this premise.

  • Snake oil salespeople (especially in the agile world) sell plenty of off-the-shelf solutions that rarely solve many organisation’s problems.
  • Copycat managers buy tools because everyone else is using them – if we just install JIRA we will be agile and get things done
  • Clueless IT execs roll out corporate tools and mandates without studying the system and the work, often derailing productivity.
  • Individuals copy the latest version of personal productivity because someone who gets lots done has said it’s great.
  • And plenty of other reasons why companies and people end up with so many different productivity systems.

The best productivity systems are the ones that help us achieve our purpose – and that requires studying the problems, consulting those who do the work, putting together a requirements list, running a proof of concept and then making the hard decision to CHOOSE ONE – and ensure everyone uses it.

Or in our own lives, where the cost of experimenting is often lower, picking one and trying it.

And as you can see from this simple list deciding on productivity systems will take time and effort – and most teams don’t do it. (And then pay the consequences and tax later down the line when Containers and Rules don’t work with each other.)

Can we change the rules?

The best managers (and people) are those who aren’t afraid to change something that isn’t working.

If the rules that you’ve implemented don’t work – change them. Give them time to bed in, test them, study them, measure them and see if they are helping you achieve your purpose.

If they are – move quickly. If they aren’t – what needs to be done?

Choose one tool and put ALL work in it

Yep, you read that right – choose one tool and roll it out to everyone.

Wouldn’t it be cheaper, easier and more effective in the long run if everyone in your organisation just used the same productivity system and tooling? Wouldn’t it be easier to maintain?

It would be cheaper to get bulk licensing, easier to see ALL the work, quicker to deploy. You wouldn’t need entire teams supporting the myriad of Containers, you wouldn’t waste so much time breaking down work from one system to get it to meet the Rules of another system.

Life would be easier. You’d need fewer teams maintaining multiple projects and fewer people trying to make sense of all of the work. Trust me – I’ve seen companies hiring armies of Project Managers just to try and make sense of the work – it’s solving the wrong problems.

Sure, there would be resistance, but there would also be plenty who are onboard, or many who don’t care.

Sure, you’re unlikely to find a single tool that meets everyone’s needs, but with a proper proof of concept and good communication you might achieve a big tick for the majority.

Sure, there will be flaws with the tool, but there will also be some positives. No tool is perfect.

Just imagine, from an exec or management perspective being able to go to a single place and see how work is flowing to the customer. No more project status updates from 15 people using 15 different tools – all spending time trying to mash together their work to get an update (which, in my experience, is usually wrong!). And I have indeed seen people spending ALL week pulling together data for a weekly report meeting. All week. Every week. Every month. Every year. ALL week collecting data – madness.

No more teams supporting loads of different tools that are starting to get expensive.

It sounds amazing doesn’t it? It is, but it takes a brave manager or exec to make that decision.

Those that do make the decision see outstanding results – assuming they’ve done a solid proof of concept and communicated openly about it, and chosen wisely – and communicated actively during the program of work.

Follow the rules

Once we’ve got all of our work in to the Container and we have some Rules that make sense – then follow the rules.

Trust the rules. Move fast and follow process.

When we can see all of the work in a single container, we can make priority calls about the work, compare work against other work and understand the value it is adding.

Once we have rules that help us deliver value to our customers, then we should be able to move fast. We can trust the Productivity Systems – and let our minds and energy focus on doing the work.

This is where many teams get it wrong.

They don’t have a system and process that works – so they spend time piecing work together, reporting on partial work, having meetings, tracking the missing work, badgering people for updates – rather than spending their time ensuring their delivery process is tight – and then moving quickly.

If the rules don’t work then change them, but once they do work – the only sensible course of action is to follow the rules.

Be careful about new people joining and wanting to add their ideas to the Containers and Rules process. It can be easy to go in to an organisation and see that they operating differently to our own experience, and assume it’s flawed. Lots of consultants are pretty good at this.

Ensure people with strong opinions (lots of people) study the system to understand it before changing it. Ensure they bring evidence and new ideas for review. They likely have new insights that can make the system even better – but don’t go changing without evidence.

I had a scrum master once who didn’t want to follow our process because he said it wasn’t very “Scrum” like.
It didn’t follow the guidance from some certification scheme.
It didn’t.
He was right. And there was a reason for that. We’d optimised to make it WORK, not follow the scrum guide.

We chose to build our own Rules – we chose local effectiveness over following off-the-shelf guidance. He didn’t like that. So he wanted to change it. There was no evidence it wasn’t working, he just didn’t like it. Not enough of a reason to change it.

Only make changes when you have studied the problems you have. Other than that, move fast and follow process.

Put your energy into delighting your customers, not into shiny new tools and off the shelf ideas.

It’s easy to be distracted by promises of productivity systems, new tools and new ideas from people whose job it is to sell new tools and new ideas.

But the truly effective companies are the ones who focus on adding value to the customer – not on the latest fads and trends.

In the tech world especially, it is tempting to download new tools and try new ways of working – but the reality is that we’re in business to deliver value, not experiment with new tools and ideas and theories. Sure, if something is not working run that proof of concept, but identify your problems first.

Instead of being distracted by new things – focus your limited energy and attention on delivering exceptional service for your customers.

Once you’ve spent the time finding the Containers and Rules that work for you – follow process.