Productivity

Posted: April 27th, 2013 under Opinion.

There are just so many things I want to accomplish, and not enough time to give them all attention. While I focus on enhancing my personal life, every organization I have ever worked for has butted up against the productivity problem too. Maximizing work accomplished is not a new problem. I’m not sure if we think the rules have changed with current technology, or software developers just never learned from other disciplines.

There is a finite limit to your daily productivity. Sometimes we trick ourselves, we start by working late to meet a deadline, or even to just get that ‘one more thing’ done. Indeed, we do get more done that one day. Then we start working late all the time, without realizing that over time the rate at which we are working has diminished. I have always felt that it was odd, and an almost robotic expectation, that everyone can be perfectly productive even 9-5, Monday through Friday.

Stop working overtime. There was a fantastic presentation hosted at lostgarden.com, even directed at the games industry, all about productivity. Working extra hours increases yield for about 3 weeks, then dips below the normal productivity of a 40-hour work week. Ford ran experiments for 12 years, which resulted in the 40-hour work week because it was optimal. Danc’s presentation continues with his studies that any overtime work requires some period of lesser productive recovery, which is almost always more costly than the boost that created it. How can other industries, particularly manual labor, apply to thinking jobs like game development? There have been a number of studies that show creativity and problem solving fatigue even faster or result in inferior solutions. Eight hours of sleep is critical.

The source of many of these issues is the difference between perception and reality. We believe that we get the same effect of the initial burst, and we lose sight that quality of work is degrading and we are slowing down our pace the more overtime we work. The last thing anyone wants to do once a project and overtime has gotten out of hand is return to normal work hours. Social pressure feeds into this mentality as well, everyone wants to earn that raise, or at the very least not look weak and lose their job.

Every project has a certain equation that it is trying to satisfy. There is a fixed deadline, a limited amount of people and/or money, and an amount of work required. If the equation is out of balance, why is it acceptable to try and squeeze more hours out of your workforce? Sometimes you need to seriously question your assumptions. I personally feel awful when I underestimate a goal, but that is my fault and my responsibility. In every other case when crunch is being considered, pushing out the deadline, increasing the workforce, or reducing scope should be on the table. In fact, if we have shown anything in this discussion, the velocity of any individual is the constant in the equation.

Constraints matter, particularly the amount of work hours you log in a day. Motiongrapher had an excellent article, which incorporated lessons learned by Microsoft Principle Project Manager J.D. Meier.

In my experience, a 40 hour work week is a benchmark of the most effective teams. They have work-life balance. They have buffer to respond to opportunity and to deal with crunches. They have processes in place, they invest in their learning and growth, and they move up the stack instead of always solving the basics. Instead of perpetual fire-fighting, they are more deliberate about planning and strategy and they anticipate their customers and the market (through empathy and staying connected to customers.) They learn and respond and can turn on a dime. They have a dashboard, they know the score, and they can change their approach.

There’s another reason that cuts right to the chase. If budget cuts will break you, then the first way to build a firm foundation and execution machine is to master the 40 hour work week. It’s a forcing function that fixes a lot of underlying execution issues that you just cannot see if your organization throws time at problems. If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it. When you bound it by time, you can start testing more effective ways to produce results. To make this actionable, make it an initiative.

Once you embrace the mentality that you can grind endless extra hours towards a goal, you lose all sense of priority and focus. You end up abusing work hours to make up for things like bad planning. Without the constraint of time, you lose any hope of efficiency, and efficiency is what matters.

I too have read the four hour work week, and while it is an interesting study about forming a company based on needing minimal involvement, the main take away for me was ruthless efficiency. I believe that efficiency is found from eliminating redundancy, distractions, and having priorities.

Most people are no longer finding the office as the most conducive place to work because there are just too many interruptions, according to Jason Fried in his Ted Talk. Thinkers in particular, need long stretches of uninterrupted time.

I tend to deactivate outlook (which is already aggressively filtered) pop up notifications, Skype alerts, and most of the time I wear headphones even if I am not listening to anything.

As an employee, I typically feel like eliminating redundancy and priorities are out of my control. As an engineer sometimes it is difficult to see sources of redundancy without knowing the full scope of work. It is never a good feeling if everything is a priority or if you don’t have priorities.

In particular I feel like game development suffers from production getting in the way of communication between departments. I have heard stories throughout my career about art, design, or audio working with something broken, working around flaws, or grinding on repetitive or error prone tasks that could be eliminated with minor amounts of programming. I’m not advocating for studio wide scrum meetings, but unless everyone develops a degree of consciousness about efficiency, it is difficult to eliminate redundancy. While I am in favor of the iterative game development, and it is the nature of anything creative to throw some work out, it is not the same as having to constantly rework features, or adding more features because the originals didn’t quite work.

Any time not spent directly on project goals is lost time, assuming you are ridged on your work week hours. At first it sound silly to even make such an obvious statement, but all the time seeking out approvals, planning, scoping, tasking, writing technical designs, updating wikis, prototyping, making special builds for conventions, and meetings add up quickly. I’m not saying that they are not important or without utility. Certain measures should be in place to ensure there isn’t lost or duplicated work, and improve efficiency. However, in practice I have always seen these kinds of production practices slowing things down. I would argue that it is most efficient to limit production to the bare essentials. It is why the TPS reports gag in the movie Office Space works, everyone has fallen victim to internal bureaucracy at some point. Production policies should be self-iterative and reflect their own cost-benefit analysis on development practices. Don’t continue to do something if it isn’t working.

Productivity gets almost as much attention as diet and weight loss scams. No amount of energy drinks will make up for lack of sleep or add more hours into a day. It is much more about being able to maintain focus, and some prep work to ensure you are preforming the most valuable work possible. Of course, it is hard to be productive if you do not enjoy the work you are doing. If anyone else has tips or similar experiences I hope you share.

Thanks for reading, and remember, we are all in this together.

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