February 22, 2021


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Summary

The hardest decision to make and keep, that determines your ability to deliver at pace, is completely in your control.

What drives us forward, drives us to seek more, to achieve more, is also the same drive that causes a reduction in delivery-rate, causes overwhelm, and causes burnout.

Unfortunately, our wanting to deliver and wanting to support others, causes us to say Yes. This happens even when we’re already at or beyond capacity and we ought to say No. We are often under the impression that we can take on “just one more thing”, and struggle to appreciate the overall workload that already exists.

This holds true on the individual level, the team level, as well as the organisational level. The more we take on, the longer everything takes.

We can see the effects of this also in everyday situations, such as traffic. Things run smoothly until we reach about 50% utilisation. From then on up the flow of traffic decreases geometrically.

The deceivingly simple solution is to simply reduce the inflow. If it was simple it was common practice already.

This episode strives to ease your way of managing to your capacity and thus deliver faster.


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- "Hello, and welcome to "Team Genius" Live Episode Number 10. 

This video is all about the topic of speeding up absolutely everything. Have you ever found yourself wishing that things would just go faster, be that in your organization, in your team or even in your personal endeavors and your individual endeavors? 

Well, I'm gonna share with you some underlying reasons and some key strategies for speeding up everything. And that's what we're gonna focus on today. I am very glad that you chose to watch this video. 

My name is Georg Fasching. I am a business and executive team development coach. And over the last 20 years, I have not only been obsessing about teamwork, but also about how teams can get quicker and quicker and quicker. And there are several things underlying the pace at which things are happening. And it's not only related to the type of work that we're doing. It's not only related to how we're structuring the work and whether we're working in traditional ways of working or in agile ways of working, even if we're working in agile ways of working and breaking things down and so on and so forth, there are still a lot of aspects that we need to consider that actually make it harder for us to do the work that we're doing. And that is coming down to a few specific reasons. I'm going to share with you some underlying aspects that help us understand better what those are.


But more importantly, I'm going to give you some specific strategies for your organization, for your teams and for yourselves that you can employ in order to speed everything up that is being worked on. 

Now, two key things that are underlying why things are taking the amount of time that they are taking have to do with the way that we are actually organizing ourselves around the work and how much work we are taking on. How we are organized around work is still, to this day, in 2020, the time of recording this that more often than not, people choose to work on more things than one at the same time. 

And therefore, we are looking to switch and I'm not talking about switching in between tasks from a minute to minute basis, but we get interrupted and/or as a team, we're working on more than one thing at the same time. And again, this is not related necessarily to one specific task or action that has to be undertaken but let's look at a product development team and you are taking in, say 10 items into your planning iteration into your spread and you're starting all of them at the same time. That means that the team is switching back and forth between all of them at the same time. 

So that is a great example of where task switching happens. But also when you are using a personal example, think about driving and you're driving your car and you're listening to music. Even that is dividing your cognitive attention. Some of the work that you're doing whilst driving the car seems automated, but actually what you're doing is you're reducing the cognitive capacity because cognitively, you can only focus on one thing at a time. And we have now over a dozen studies, the University of Michigan actually happens to have a group of scientists that are dedicated to the cognitive aspects here and has a great selection of these studies available, I'm going to link to them in the description below, that helps to prove scientifically all of these aspects that we ought to consider in the world of work as well. 


So in the driving example, even just driving and listening to music is already diverting your attention. 

What's diverting your attention more and splitting your attention is if you were listening to a podcast or you're having a conversation with someone and what is even more distracting is also having a conversation with somebody who you're talking to over a hands-free system in your car, because then you'll need to strain your focus a lot more in order to understand that person unless you have a super high end one but even then your cognitive attention is split between driving the car, which is deserving your utmost attention because it has safety repercussions and whatever else it is that you're doing. 

So there's a great book also that uses this example and shares a lot more about it which is called "The Invisible Gorilla" which has a lot of things that we can look into further when it comes to the costs of splitting cognitive attention. So whether that is driving a car or in the world of work, we are trying to do several things at the same time that all require our cognitive attention. Our cognitive focus is singular. You can also find out more about this by running a simple experiment. When you are taking a phone call on your mobile phone, some people tend to sit, others somehow are compelled to get up and pace around but they don't actually pay much attention to their surroundings as they're pacing around. 

So pacing around at home, which is very common for us nowadays, right now at the time of recording or in a private office, not a big deal, but if you are somewhere where there are other people, it's quite likely that you end up bumping or other people bump into you because your cognitive attention is on your phone call, not so much on your surroundings. So the fact that our cognitive focus is singular then also translates to issues in the world of work. Whenever we are switching our cognitive focus from one task to another, our mind needs to stop processing the task at hand and start processing the next task at hand.


And part of these studies was also to try and find out well, under which circumstances is that easier or more difficult.

So one has to do with the difficulty of the task and how familiar you are with the task. So if you are quite familiar with the task, then it is easier for you to switch between two different tasks. But if the task is less familiar and also more difficult, then it takes a lot longer to switch between the tasks. So an example for those of you who don't work as part of a team, but you are perhaps a manager, senior manager, executive manager, regardless of the level that you are at, if your calendar is packed with 15 or half-hour meetings, then I know, based on my own experience as an executive coach, that you usually wish for more time, you usually wish for more achievement and more productivity.

The issue that comes with a calendar that is packed as that is that your mind takes about 15 to 30, sometimes 45 minutes to actually switch between tasks. So if you have 15 to 30-minute calls, then your mind actually needs a proportion of a call in order to switch from the other call while preparing for the next call. So if you're on the go without breaks in between those calls, then it's actually quite tricky to make good decisions because your mind is still processing the switching between the calls. 

So what concerns us about this issue is that as teams, another issue that we have there, pardon me, is that some teams work on more than one product at the time. So then it is never quite clear when you work on which products and the switching between them is even more demanding because not only do you switch between different features, you switch between different products and you have a higher cognitive load in order to switch between those things back and forth. So those are all real issues all related to the cognitive costs of task-switching. Another issue that we need to look at when we are aiming to speed everything up is how many things we are loading onto a system for being worked on. And this is where, from a scientific standpoint, queuing theory comes into play. 

Again, the sort of the traffic or driving equivalency here would be, if you think about traffic in a city or traffic on a motorway, the more traffic you have, the slower things go. But it's not a linear, it's a geometric curve that comes into play here because it is so much worse once you go more and more towards the ultimate capacity of the traffic system. So that's why when you have traffic in a city area, at one point you are moving from a movement to gridlock if you have a certain load on that traffic system. And same when you are on the motorway, once you get to 70, 80%, then actually it is very prone to stand stills and no one is moving anymore, right? So you actually technically still have some capacity but because of how we're then behaving in that situation, we are reacting to what's happening several kilometers, further up the road and there is a huge issue going on there. And the same applies to organizations. 


The more things an organization tries to work on, the slower everything gets. 

So those are the two key things that are the underlying issues for everything slowing down a lot: the number of things we are trying to accomplish overall and the number of things we're trying to switch between at the same time. So those two are compounding issues that are working together and are making it very difficult for us to have a speedy execution and delivery of value. So what are the two goals that we then need to address in order to speed everything up? So the first one, quite clear, less switching. And the second one is also quite clear, fewer things, right? So why is it difficult for us to accomplish these? Usually because we want to get things done more quickly. But because we want to get things done more quickly it is somehow in our human condition to embed us that we start more things. And that is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. Instead of starting more things, we should focus more on finishing more things. So that comes now where we look at the strategies that I recommend for you to consider. 

There are different strategies, depending on whether it's for you and a team or for as a part of an organization or for you as an individual. Let's start with the teams first. So, first thing is a number of products or projects that you're working on at any one time. If you're working on more than one or two, you're gonna have to review how you do things because you're not really making anywhere near as much progress on the second, third and then especially fourth, fifth, and sometimes sixth that you might be working on together in the team. Okay, so you need to have a clear conversation with the stakeholders and realign the expectations because if you continue working on all of them: three, four, five, six, at the same time, everything will take longer and everyone will be unhappy. 


So that type of attitude ultimately gets you there a lot slower and makes for strained customer relationships. 

So if you are in an organization where you do your own product development, the ideal is one product per team. So that a team does not work on more than one product at a time. If you are in a digital agency, creative agency, sometimes that may not be economically viable. So you kind of think about having a team that might be working on two client engagements at the same time, in which case I would recommend to think about chunking your weeks into dedicated days, or if that is not feasible, then half days, but mind you when you go from one half day to the other half day, there will be a switching cost where the team gets themselves into the frame of mind for the other client engagement again. 

So either dedicated days for a client or dedicated half days for a client and map out the week and work out how to do that. But generally speaking one product per team. If the product requires more than one team to work on it, then, you have more than one team working on it but each team is only working on one product. So that's a key thing here. Within the work on that one product, ensure that you don't start too many items when you work on them and ensure that you have a real focus on finishing items before starting items. So again, reducing switching by working on fewer things at the same time. 


Great. Now let's take a look at you personally.

So personally, depending on what type of work you do, this may feel more or less tricky. Ironically, people like me and that are coaches, whether that be an agile coach, business coach or executive coach, it is very common that while we preach to our customers or the teams that we're working with to work on fewer things. It is very common that our kind is tempted to work on more things at the same time and suffer from that. And I have been doing the same thing up until this year, when based on the global events I was forced to actually slow down and because of the slowing down, I just reviewed everything. And I made a very conscious choice to reset and restart. And while I'm offering multiple things I am pursuing key goals only on a sequential basis. So for example, I'm currently in the process of finishing accreditation of an agile team coaching course with IT-Agile. 


And I am ensuring that I focus on that before pursuing the next thing in that.

And yes, while I send off some work for feedback, while I wait, I start work on the next thing. But if, as soon as I get anything else that needs to be worked on for that, I drop that and focus on this because this is the thing that I need to finish first, just as an example. So work to your capacity, manage to your capacity, use a chunking approach to your week as much as you possibly can. And this is really possible for almost everybody. So where you look at your week and you look at your key activities and you try to chunk them so that you work on similar activities in a time chunk. 

So for example, in my week, I have dedicated half days for working with customers or mentees or with executive leaders I'm coaching. And I have dedicated half days where I'm doing collaboration with partners. I have dedicated half days where I'm doing content creation or course creation and so on and so forth. So this way, I know exactly when I start a half day that this is my focus for my cognitive frame. And there are no interruptions and no changes because I can do these things exactly as I've set them out. And so far, I'm very satisfied with them. There are occasional changes but ultimately, this is a great strategy. And everyone who starts with time chunking and gets in the habit of doing so and manages to avoid the temptation of giving into others' demands or priorities and respectfully channels them into the appropriate chunks in their calendar has given me very good feedback that this has been working very well for them also. 


Now let's look at the organization. This is of course, where it is a bit more tricky because you have, unless you are a key decision-maker, you have more influence than you have control over it. 

If you are a key decision maker and you're watching this video, thank you so much for tuning in. I can only encourage you to actively implement some of these strategies that I'm suggesting here. If you are not in a decision-making capacity, but you're watching this video then I would encourage you to use your network, your level of influence in order to consider some of the upcoming strategies for benefiting from the pursuit of less switching and fewer things to be worked on because the ultimate result is that everything will be speeding up, right? Everything that is left being worked on will be sped up. 

So the ideal way would actually be to pause and take a look at everything in the portfolio that is currently being worked on and consider what the value of each of those items are and what the customer expectations are of all the things that are currently being worked on and reschedule the work accordingly. prioritize the things that are high value and have an earlier time frame for delivery and work out what the capacity is of the organization and then map those high value earlier expectancy in terms of delivery onto the teams that you have available. And ideally, you want to do that together with representatives from the teams so that you are not making decisions onto others but making the decisions together with representatives of the teams because they have the freshest information available. 

So if you are a participant in those teams, then fantastic, you already have that information. Okay, so pause, review the portfolio based on value and customer expectancy and make a conscious choice tying back to some of the things that we mention about teams. So one product is being worked on by one team. And for all these other initiatives that therefore have to be paused, ensure that you have a respectful conversation with the customers about the impact of doing that. And the benefit is that while they might have to wait a little bit for their things to be started, ultimately they will actually get things earlier than they would have if you had kept their activities fresh alongside all of the others that you have been working on. 


When it comes to SMEs or startups, there's a slightly different strategy for you here, in addition, which is your time and attention is a lot more limited to large organizations, of course. 

So when it comes to your ability to deliver, again, same as before with the portfolio and the teams that you are working on, but some of the suggestions that I'm offering for you are more upstream, wherein, you want to qualify your pipeline better. And qualify, qualify, qualify, ensuring that you don't chase after every opportunity that you might currently be after, but ensure that you qualify better based on your value system, your roadmap and your vision and your capacity. And nurture your pipeline accordingly and work more closely with those leads and prospects where there's a stronger resonance, rather than trying to make everybody happy and ultimately divert your attention. 

So those are the key strategies that I have prepared for you today. There is more to be said about how to make this appealing to decision-makers. So if you are not a decision-maker yourself, but you are either a coach or you're working in a team, you might wonder about how to have this type of conversation with a decision-maker in order to get their buy-in for making these types of alignments around the organization. And perhaps that is a topic for another video coming up. So if you are interested in that, feel free to leave a comment below. 

And with that, I would like to make a quick announcement also. If you've made it to this point in the video, I would like to, and we actually have some active viewers so thank you so much for tuning in. So if you've made it to this point in the video, you rock. Thank you very much. And it suggests that just like me you are also a lifelong learner. So I would like to share with you that in December, 2020 or January, 2021 I am about to launch a monthly learning club. So if that is something that sounds like it could be interesting to you, there will be a link in the description below very shortly. So feel free to check that out. And with that, I would like to thank you very much for tuning in. If you found something useful in this video, please remember to hit the like button. It helps me a lot to spread this message. 

If you think colleagues of yours might be interested or find some of this valuable, also please do share this video along and then, of course, consider subscribing. So with that, I would like to close off for today. Thank you so much for joining. 

Thank you so much for watching. My name is Georg. This is "Team Genius Live". I wish you all the best until next time. And I wish you all the best for the practice with your team and goodbye."


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About the author 

Georg Fasching

A leadership team development specialist, International Coach Federation - Professional Certified Coach, with global product management experience since 2000, employing Agile & Lean since 2010, Georg Fasching guides leadership teams to delighting their clients, fulfil their people, and improve their prosperity.

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