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Property 5. Focus

Focus is first knowing what to work on, and then having time and peace of mind to work on it. Knowing what to work on comes from communication about goal direction and priorities, typically from the executive sponsor. Time and peace of mind come from an environment where people are not taken away from their task to work on other, incompatible things.

Do all the people know what their top two priority items to work on are? Are they guaranteed at least two days in a row and two uninterrupted hours each day to work on them?

Even with the best of intentions, developers will work on things that only randomly bring business value if they are not told what will provide business value. It is the job of the executive sponsor, starting from the project chartering activity and running continuously throughout the project, to make it clear to everyone where the organization's priorities lie.

The vice president of a fifty-person company sat down one night, prioritized the seventy pending company initiatives, and announced the results to her managers the following day. She went around to each developer individually and made sure they each knew the top two items for them.

One lead designer I met kept the project's mission statement and priorities posted on the wall and referred to them regularly.

Just knowing what is important isn't enough. Developers regularly report that meetings, requests to give demos, and demands to fix run-time bugs keep them from completing their work. It quite typically takes a person about twenty minutes and considerable mental energy to regain her train of thought after one of these interruptions. When the interruptions happen three or four times a day, it is not uncommon for the person to simply idle between interruptions, feeling that it is not worth the energy to get deeply into a train of thought when the next distraction will just show up in the middle of it.

People asked to work on two or three projects at the same time regularly report that they are unable to make progress on any one project. It seems to take an hour and a half for a person to regain the train of thought after working on a different project.

Among the experienced project managers that I interview, the consensus is that about one and one-half projects is the most that a person can be on and stay effective. By the time a third project is added, the developer becomes ineffective on all three. Contrast this with the inexperienced managers who, underestimating the cost of switching between projects, assign developers to work on three to five projects at the same time. I encountered one developer assigned to seventeen projects simultaneously! You can imagine that he barely had time to report at the various meetings his ongoing lack of progress on all fronts.

The repair is simple, though uncomfortable. The sponsor makes it clear which projects and work items are top priority for each person, and arranges for the top two items to be distinctly higher in priority than all the rest.

The team should then adopt conventions that provide focus time for the team members. One such convention is that once a person starts working on a project, that person is guaranteed at least two full days before having to switch to a second project. This allows for some project switching, while guaranteeing the person enough time to make actual progress instead of using all the time just to get back up to speed on each project before leaving it again.

The next convention to adopt may be to localize distracting interruptions. My experience is that it is generally impractical to bottle up interruptions to something so neat and tidy as "mornings only" or "between 1 and 3 in the afternoon." It is in the nature of interruptions to come sporadically and with high priority. What the team can do is to create a two-hour time window during which interruptions are blocked. There are very few interruptions that can't wait for two hours. Some teams use from 10:00 to noon as a time when meetings, phone calls, and demos are not allowed.

With two hours of guaranteed focus time each day, and two days in a row on the same project, a developer who otherwise is being driven to distraction may get four full hours of work done in a week. One developer who adopted these reported after a few weeks that he had gotten more done in those few weeks than in the several months before that.

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