Productivity and Agility

by Derek Winter


In a recent engagement I've had the pleasure of revisiting The Agile Manifesto  - a creed for want of a better word, for an approach to software development that in the last decade has become if not the de-facto approach to good software development practices, then at least the cool, 'street-cred' label. 

However, it is in light of a conversation about productivity that I was recently a part of and specifically coping with large volumes of email that re-ignited my interest in the value of the Agile principles outside of software development. More of that in a moment.

At it's core, the manifesto is representation of the values of the people that penned it and reveal an interest in promoting organisational models based on people & collaboration, and building the types of organisational communities in which they would want to work.

In "summing up" after their two day workshop one participant suggested that it was about delivering good products to customers by operating in an environment that does more than talk about "people as our most important asset" but actually "acts" as if people were the most important, and lose the word "asset".

These words will not sound new and revolutionary now, but were certainly ahead of their time in 2001.

So, how does this relate to productivity and taming the email beast? The conversation centred around the use of auto-responders to reply to emails that you receive (in this case, all the emails the person received) indicating that depending on the reason for the email there were other sources of information on their website for answers, or other people to contact and not to expect a direct reply in a hurry.

Now, while I'm all for embracing technology to help us be effective day to day, something grated with me in this approach - it reminded me of automated telephony systems  "press 1 for service, 2 for accounts ..."  impersonal, dis-engaging and down right frustrating if it takes several numbers to get to a real person (if at all!).

How does the Agile Manifesto relate? One of the 12 principles is...

"The most efficient and effective method of conveying information to and within a team is face-to-face conversation."

I think this is one of the keys to email communication. Not in the receiving and 'triage' of email, but in the sending. The agile principle is to only write something down that's "stable" or finalised, unlikely to fluctuate. So, particularly in an office environment, going to see someone or at least picking up the phone is far more productive than writing an email in the first instance.

I realise that it's always much easier to shoot off an email than it is to pick up the phone; All I can say is that face to face will always pay dividends, both for you and the likely recipient of the email you're not going to write!

This led me to wonder which other principles of the manifesto provide insight into how to be productive and effective. The answer is that many do!, and too many to cover in this post, but I will continue on this theme to highlight the 2-3 that jumped out at me as most useful: "Deliver Frequently", "Motivated Individuals" and "Simplicity". 

I'd recommend that you read a little about the background the people  and the process  to producing the Manifesto, because the collaboration and co-operation between 17 sometimes competitors and certainly independent thinkers is impressive in and of itself.