An experiment in focused-working

The problem

Too many things that need to be done right now. Too many emails. Too many meetings. Too many distractions. Not enough time to do the bigger pieces of work. Not enough focus on the important outcomes.

As a team we want to deliver more value and do so more continuously, But, as I’ve learned about Modern Agile principles, you can’t do one without all the others. In order to be able to deliver value continuously we need to be able to experiment rapidly, but in order to experiment we have to be willing to make people awesome, and provide psychological safety. People need to feel like they aren’t going to get in trouble by deviating from normal working practices, they need to feel like they’ll be able to achieve more and show the results of their efforts. So we needed an experiment,

The hypothesis

We can be innovative about how we work. We can find ways to focus better on doing things that make the most difference and achieve the best outcomes. We can figure out how to make the team more autonomous. We can focus on achieving outcomes rather than ticking off a to do list.

The experiment

For fours days in a row, the team decided what work they wanted to focus on. We tried to avoid talking about to-do lists and focus on the outcomes we could achieve for our customers.

We agreed that we could work when, where and how we wanted to. No need to work 9 to 5 if we didn’t want to. We won’t measure our work by hours spent but instead by outcomes achieved. We wanted our measures to be qualitative rather than quantitative. We agreed to go wherever we wanted in order to be able to focus. No need to be in the office if we didn’t want to.

We switched on our out-of-office emails and tried to avoid distractions to focus on deep work. And then we got on with it.

The retro

After our four day focused-working experiment we shared our thoughts on how it went for us.

What worked well

“I wrote a list of things I wanted to work on this week beforehand. This really helped keep me on track. I tried to work on only things on the list or things relating to the list.”

“Working from home/office split – working in different locations helps you stay in touch with what is going on but also gives you time to focus on what you are doing. There were a lot of email exchanges , which in an ordinary week would probably have been strung out for a week or so but as it was my number 1 priority I had time to work on it, respond quickly and get it pushed through quicker.”

“Focusing on a product worked well. Already we can see the traffic/sales are up from work we are doing so we can see that this week as had an impact.”

“Prioritised what needed to be focused on by creating to-do lists.”

“Setting a task that was completely self-driven – i.e. I wasn’t waiting for anything from anybody else.”

“9-5 still works for me as the children are around ALL of the other hours in the day. 7 days a week. 365 days a year. Repeat. Forever.”

“As a team, we are starting to think differently about ways of working, how to focus and be effective.”

“No one has yet told me that we can’t work this way.”

“Being in an office felt like I had to respond to emails because I felt more visible, but on the days I worked at home I definitely completed bigger tasks.”

“I wonder if perhaps a different way to do focused work is to alternate people on the team doing it so that someone takes care of customer service enquiries, etc., whilst the others focus and then swap the next week.”

What didn’t work

“I didn’t really veer away from my 9-5 hours. Perhaps that is what works for me, but I couldn’t get out of that mind set.”

“I didn’t get everything completed on my list.”

“A lot of what I do still relies on emails back and forth from externals or internals – how smoothly or quickly this goes impacts the speed and focus of the task. Two tasks I had down didn’t get done due to lack of or slow response from others.”

“I worked mostly usual office hours. If that’s what works for us then that’s fine. I think the point of it isn’t to say don’t work usual hours, but that the more we think of measuring our work by the outcomes we achieve rather than the hours we work, the better. It’s about measuring quality rather than quantity.”

“I think I’d like to try working outside of office as then I wouldn’t get so distracted by emails. Even if it was working the standard seven hours a day, starting at 4pm to handle emails for the day and then working on something bigger till 11pm.”

“Can’t say that the work I did had any impact, so perhaps I chose the wrong things to focus on.”

Biggest distractions

“For me these were customer service enquiries and things from other teams that needed to be actioned. Both took me away from what I was working on at various points throughout the week and both I couldn’t really leave for the following week.

“Due to the nature of the job, responses to emails can still distract me as I am used to having to deal with emails very quickly. I find it really, really hard to ignore them, especially if I know I can answer them or help.”

“Many emails felt like they had to answered right away. I’m not sure how to ever get away from this, other than perhaps more notice to people the week before rather than just OOO emails (Although I still maintain that nothing bad happens when we’re on leave for a week).”

Other questions to think about…

How did it feel? Was it uncomfortable in any way or did it feel better than usual working?

Would you do it again? Should it become a usual way of working?

What else or different would you do to work in a more focused way? Should we run different experiments to find other ways to work in a more focused way?

What we learned

We can most definitely achieve bigger and better things by working in this way.

Saying that we were going to work in a different, more focused way helped us to do so. Being out of the office and having OOO emails on helped, but making the conscious effort to be focused had the biggest effect.

Being more disciplined with ourselves to choose work that was self-contained and could be completed within the given focus period helped to achieve things.

Getting away from the usual working mindsets of 9 to 5 and answering emails is hard. It’s really drummed into us that this is how we should work.

The future

In the near future we need to decide whether to make this way of working (four focus days every two weeks) a part of our usual working practice.

If we do move away from the 9 to 5 I hope the team gets better at listening to their minds and bodies about when and how to work, rather than looking at the clock, but we’ll need to make sure the team don’t overwork.

Even if we continue to work office hours, four days of focused-working every two weeks will help us achieve better outcomes and make the team more autonomous.

In the longer-term future, this is about moving away from ‘command and control’ management to ‘decentralised, distributed, and diverse’ leadership.

What does the team of the future look like?

They’ll be diverse by default, and without even thinking about it as they’ll all be from different places, different backgrounds, different skills, different ages, etc., just like their customers

They’ll be motivated by achieving outcomes and making a difference rather than being incentivised to look busy and fill hours.

They’ll be self-organising and self-managing, choosing distributed and decentralised leadership over command and control management.

They’ll optimise for consumption rather optimising for production, and they’ll do the hard work to make things easy for their customers over making things convenient for themselves.

They’ll forego fixed process that everyone follows without any opportunity to change for shared knowledge among intelligent people who make good decisions in a safe-to-fail environment where everyone learns, adapts and improves.

I want to work with that team.