I run my own business, but I've just completed a short stint working on-site at another company.
And after a few months working for another company, I realized that, at my own company, I had fallen into routines and work habits not all of which could be considered productive.
Procrastination, which some argue can be beneficial, can also be a problem when we really need to get things done. So, it was refreshing to see how other people organize their work, and an opportunity to reflect upon, and improve, my own work approach.
In short, I really needed a way of getting more valuable stuff done each day.
How Often Do We Produce Business Value?
Do you sometimes find that you’ve been working all day, but end with a sneaking suspicion you didn’t create a lot of actual value? Are you sometimes busy for the sake of being busy?
That was true in my case.
But now I organize my work to ensure I deliver something of real value - every day.
I discovered a method of working that has been around for a while, called Agile. Agile is a software development process incorporating a number of elegant concepts that can help skyrocket personal productivity. It is used by companies such as Amazon, Microsoft, Yahoo and Salesforce.
Agile is a huge topic, and there are many flavors of Agile, but I’ve picked out the one key feature that can be very effective for individuals and small companies working in areas beyond software development.
But first, let’s talk about how a bunch of amateurs built a supercar in under three months.
Wikispeed are a group of part-time volunteers. They built a 0-60mph-in-under-five-seconds supercar, that can do 100mpg, and they did so in under three months. What is more astonishing is that the people building the car often weren’t in the same room, city or even country.
But with very little money, no factories, and little formal car-building experience they built something astonishing in a very short space of time. Currently, they’re building a full production car suitable for the mass market, and if you want to help build it, well, you can!
That's quite some feat in terms of both organisation and personal productivity.
Some people would be forgiven for assuming that the process must have been meticulously planned in advance, laying out precise complex technical and procedural detail, but that wasn’t the case. The project was broken down into very simple concepts even a child could understand
The work was broken down into stories
What Is A Story?
In Agile, a “story” is short, simple description of a feature told from the perspective of the person who will use the capability being created. It also defines the business value.
Here's a template for a story:
As a (type of user), I want (some goal) so that (some reason).
An example might be:
As a marketer, I want a report that shows the number of links coming to my site from Twitter so that I can measure if my Twitter experiment resulted in over 1000 links
We then create a list of tasks needed to accomplish the story.
- Investigate software solutions for Twitter link measurement
- Implement software solution
- Run report
We then create success criteria to measure if the story has been completed i.e. what output of business value is created?
I can see a report that shows how many links are coming into my site from Twitter
Ensure You’re Focused On Delivering Value
On a Monday, I write a set of stories about what I’m going to do that week. I estimate how long each story will take, and then I arrange them in a hierarchy. The order of the hierarchy is determined by which stories produce the most business value.
Next, I count up the hours involved, and if the hours involved exceed the number of hours I have available, the story gets put on the backburner for consideration next week.
I define tasks for each story, and then systematically work through them. It’s like a to-do list, but richer and more valuable because each story forces me to think in terms of delivering something of measurable, business value relative to each other unit of work I need to do. Needless to say, engaging with Facebook doesn't appear often in my stories.
Big projects, such as entire search marketing campaigns, can be broken down into multiple stories, spread over multiple weeks, chunked into tasks, and then timeboxed as a means of project management. In plain, simple language, everyone can see what needs to be done.
If you have trouble determining the business value of a chunk of work you’re doing, chances are it isn’t producing much value, so you should ditch it and find something that does. In this way, you fill your day with the things that matter most.
Satisfaction In a Job Well Done
There are, of course, many ways to manage projects, and many different ways to use Agile. Most companies adopt different flavours of Agile, or use only bits and pieces as it suits.
Personally, I have little use in my own business for the numerous meetings and the often tedious ritualistic activity Agile can involve. I’m also wary of over-hyped--latest-greatest-thing-since-sliced-bread work systems, but I do find stories a great way of deciding what work is most valuable to do at any given time.
I use this chart tool, called LeanKit, to align the story tasks into pre-set columns of “defined” (meaning I've written the story and estimated how long it will take), “in-progress” (meaning "I'm working on it") and “done” (yay!). You can also use sticky notes on a board if you prefer a more tactile approach
I work on one story at a time (the most important first), see it through to "done" status before I start the next one. If I underestimated how long the stories would take, then at least I can be assured I've done the most important work first. If time runs out, the low priority stories simply drop off the end for reconsideration next week.Click the image for slideshow:
The chart, called a Kanban, is a nice visual representation of how work is progressing, and if other people need to see what I'm working on, and where I'm up to, they can do so at a glance.
As a bonus, it feels very satisfying to move each task across into the done “column”.
Do you use any systems to help ensure you get valuable work done? Please tell us about them in the comments!
PS: I’ve barely touched on Agile, and its many, many variants - a lot of it is more applicable to production processes rather than marketing - but if you want to read more, see the links below.