Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Talk More, Write Less

In some recent conversations, I've been helping a client to optimize their software development processes for a large, mult-site delivery. As we discussed how these resources who were used to working on small teams were going to be impacted by now working as a big team, a point of contention was the method for collaborating.

When working with big teams, I try to structure the collaborations to be proactive rather than reactive. Namely, I set expectations that all team members should proactively seek out the information needed to do their jobs instead of establishing large-format, formal information publishing channels. Until now, I've never had the empirical evidence besides years of experience to substantiate this position.

The gang at MIT in Human Dynamics was obviously struggling to promote this position and conducted a study to prove it. The study is actually really insightful in lots of aspects of workplace productivity, but especially in the need for high-touch collaborations.

The study used cool devices they call sociometric badges that are equipped with infrared sensors, accelerometers, and microphones. These devices trace proximity, tone, gestures, and so forth. They paint a much more complete picture of face-to-face interactions.

The results of the study supported a couple of conclusions that speak directly to how experience has shown we should organize our teams and the communication processes.

For the study, they put these special sociometric badges on a team of 23 employees who work for an IT company in Chicago designing server systems. Over the course of a month they tracked everyone through about 900 jobs. The jobs ranged from little activities of 5 minutes to larger efforts requiring multiple days, all told they tracked about 1900 hours of work. They monitored time spent on the job, each activity, every interaction and a host of other variables. The interpreted result is that the most connected employee was 60% more productive than the least connected employee.
[aside] The badges are powerhouses of information gathering and include accelerometers to gauge movement and speed, microphones which can discern tone and cadence, radios to capture proximity to other badges and location information, and much more. Can you say Internet of Things?

Read more here.
But just being connected is only the start. The point in time that disruptions happens is also important. If disruptions came while trying to accomplish a task, productivity dropped. Lack of disruption between tasks also resulted in decreased productivity.

Boiled down it revealed that an increase in the standard deviation of network cohesion by 1 resulted in a ten percent increase in productivity. The more they collaborated, the more productive they were.

This is not a license to gossip at work, but it is good evidence that going to lunch with colleagues, management by walking around, frequent breaks, socialization amongst peers, and self-service learning and systems are the keys to maximizing productivity.

These highly productive behaviors are all proactive behaviors. They are successful because they set expectations for individuals that they need to participate in the group and seek out connections and information. These behaviors reward collaboration and penalize isolation. If your organization is constantly seeking for the right way to spoon-feed information to individuals instead of asserting individual responsibility for learning and connectedness, you aren't working in a high-performance organization.

If you want to recognize the potential for productivity, looking for these behaviors (or their antithesis) is a good place to start.

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