Focus and Agile

by Derek Winter


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There is a lot being written at the moment about the value of Focus in the business world not least due to a new book called "Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence" by Daniel Goleman. Much of the agile approach to software development is about how to achieve focus and ensure predictable results. It is true that our brains, although amazingly powerful, have a greater capacity to focus on small amounts of information, in short timeframes than lots of things over a long time.

The essence of Agile is that there is a backlog of things to be done, a means by which of prioritising what should be done next and then a short timeframe to complete those tasks before repeating the cycle. This is encapsulated in one of the principles of the Agile Manifesto which reads ... “Deliver working software frequently, from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, with a preference to the shorter timescale.”

What it is really about is breaking work down into chunks that can be completed in a short time-frame - 1 to 2 weeks ideally, perhaps up to a month - and working in iterations of those timeframes. This means that priorities can be reset regularly, work can be completed within conceivable timeframes and feedback can be obtained regularly and soon enough to react to and re-chart our course. Within that cycle, daily reviews of progress and blockages also occurs.

Setting deadlines that are longer, say 3 or 6 months means subconsciously if feels like the deadline is so far away we don’t need to focus and makes volume of work thats likely to be contained in that time period harder to keep abreast of. Adjusting course after a few weeks is a lot easier that after 6 months and will reduce the amount of wasted time and effort.

The value of this approach to any sort of work is that it places the focus on completing things, regular feedback and a reduction of wasted time. The result will be delivering completed work regularly (surprisingly!), more predictably and with higher quality.

Anyone that works well with a “to do” list inherently already gets these concepts and works in this manner personally, even if it’s not formalised. This approach can be scaled up to a team or department however to achieve the same benefits but the added outcomes of increasing the sense of ‘team’, improved engagement of people and commitment to whatever the task might be. Regularly reviewing priorities and progress will lead to better decision making about where and how to assign people’s time and effort as well as ensure that roadblocks and issue’s are recognised early and dealt with efficiently.

So, setting short timeframes for delivering completed work will improve the effectiveness of individuals and teams and subsequently improve productivity.