Agile is the Common Sense We’ve Forgotten. Part 1: Minimising multi-tasking and limiting work-in-progress

15 February

I get many people asking me the question: “what is agile?”

Over time, I have distilled all of my thoughts and considerations into a single simple answer:

“Agile is common sense that we have forgotten or are too busy to entertain.”

In fact, the work that I, and many other agile coaches, do are about bringing reality and simplicity back into workplaces. We tend to overpromise, overcomplicate, overthink and over-strategise work, resulting in unnecessary meetings, non-productive processes and policies, interpersonal tension, unrealistic expectations and other ills of modern corporate and organisational life.

A friend once shared about how a global media agency employee spent 80 man-hours “perfecting” an internal review report. Common sense dictates that this is a waste of valuable time. Yet, we continue to overly focus on internal processes, policies and objectives that have limited or zero impact on positive outcomes for customers. Time could have been better spent slacking productively. We’ll get back to slacking later.

Peter Drucker said: “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” So here’s my common sense hypothesis and an alternative reality: if an entire organisation exclusively focuses on benefits for the customer in every decision that it makes, all work become meaningful and purposeful.

If every employee is aligned on customer-centricity and continually raises questions such as “How will this additional process benefit the customer? Is there a positive impact such as an increase in product quality or faster delivery time for the customer?” or “Will this marketing effort really help the customer be more savvy and informed? Or are we only doing this to meet our lead generation KPI this quarter?“, I am very sure it will result in a motivated and inspired organisation, united in its pursuit of excellence for the customer and able to rise above petty bickering and unproductive politicking.

Here are customer-centric Agile ways of working and thinking that can help bring back common sense into your work or management decisions. In this ‘Agile is Common Sense’ series kickoff, we’ll start with a couple of practical and operational agile common sense.


We can’t multi-task or context-switch so minimise it

For some strange reason, modern Digital Age humans believe we have the ability to juggle and complete multiple tasks and projects. Science has proven that multitasking, or more accurately, context switching, doesn’t work. Brain science research shows that we have evolved as mono-taskers. Hunter OR gatherer.

Even in the pre-industrial and Industrial Ages, most work was executed with a high degree of specialisation. Everyone focused on single crafts (farming, watch-making, for example) or single tasks (production line work). This resulted in artisans and high-quality products and services that commanded higher price premiums.

The converse then must be true too. The more we spread ourselves thin and split our focus and efforts across multiple tasks and projects, the less likely we’re going to produce quality work. It’s simple common sense trade-off. The higher the quantity of work, the harder to maintain high premium quality. Think Hermes Birkin vs mass market ASOS designed handbags.

That strange reason I mentioned earlier is actually not that strange.

Without realising, we have developed a deep but very misplaced faith in technology. We have evolved to believe that digital technologies, such as email, online chat, digital marketing and other software automation systems, can free up more of our limited time and help us to be more “productive” and “efficient”. (Today, with all the digital interruptions and mobile pings, we know they can be a hindrance to good work.)

So with all these technologies purchased and in place (“Digital transformation will save your organisation!“), we are conditioned (or pressured) to agree to take on more tasks, more projects and more responsibilities. This “Yes” attitude is achieved by ignoring a long-held simple common sense: human’s inability to multitask or context switch.

Are we allowed to say “No” to more work? Most likely not. Modern organisations have invested and spent so much money on digital work platforms to reduce future costs (like hiring more people) that the default expectation from management and shareholders is none other than to continuously increase productivity in order to make more revenue and enjoy large profit margins through reduced cost. This is exactly why AI chatbots and automated supermarket checkout lanes are hot stuff among management types.

Is there a way out of this cyclical mess? Fortunately, the answer is yes although it takes brave agile leadership and a deep desire to change.


Limit work-in-progress at all times

In practice, agile ways of working, such as Scrum and agile Kanban, are designed to minimise multitasking and context switching by recognising that production resource is limited in the short term and work-in-progress (WIPs) must be reduced as much as possible.

Why limit WIPs? When too many tasks or projects are being worked on all at the same time, it slows down the entire flow of work. In fact, for every new task or work introduced into the system, productivity is lost by as much as 40%!

Let’s use a simple example of a poorly-managed (or profit-hungry) fish & chips restaurant during busy dinner hours. The most probable reason why your meal is served an hour late is because the chefs and cooks are overwhelmed by the sheer number of orders from dine-in customers while, at the same time, fulfilling incoming online orders from UberEats and GrabFood. The kitchen staff has no choice but to produce the volume of orders as required and to fulfil every single order completely (it can’t send out fish without the chips!)

Common sense and personal experience also say that quality is likely to be sacrificed in the process to rush each order out.

While the example I provided above is of a restaurant, I am very sure you may have experienced the same situation in your office-based workplace. When you’re about to leave for the holidays and you have plenty of assignments to clear, there’s a likelihood that your high standards of delivery will temporarily morph into: “This is good enough. For now. We can revise later.” (You never do because other “more urgent” work have joined the queue.)

Workflow impacts how fast you can deliver a product or service to the customer. In financial terms, the more half-completed work or projects there are, the slower you’ll make money. Yet we persist on overloading the system while complaining why we haven’t made money fast enough. Worse, the same management that buys all these technologies thinks the employees they have are lazy and unproductive!

Isn’t this typical of organisations today? In my experience as a corporate marketer, we were always running so many concurrent projects, back to back. Demand generation, social media, thought leadership, PR, everything under the sun. We always felt overwhelmed yet never quite feeling satisfied when we completed a project. With so many projects to deliver, it was inevitable that deadlines were missed, outcomes were merely satisfactory rather than outstanding. Over the long run, it affected morale, self-belief and motivation. And this is a true picture in many workplaces today.

On another note, while the restaurant will eventually earn its money and profit in the short term, it would have lost plenty of irate customers to bad service, no matter how good the food is. People talk so future customers are affected too. This is a good example of profit maximisation or, more honestly, corporate greed. Management making decisions to fully exploit and monetise available technology with little regard for the end customer’s satisfaction. AI chatbots, anyone?


Checkpoint: Minimise context switching and limit work-in-progress

It takes courage to change the way you work. Start by bringing back focus on a small number of tasks and projects so that work-in-progress can be reduced. In the long run, you can expect to produce and deliver more quality work fast (some call it ‘Agile’) and make more people happy including management, shareholders and the people who do the actual work.

More practical agile common sense in Part II. Stay tuned.


Guest post by Isman Tanuri, Elisan Partners.