Quit the Percentage Game: Make Focus Your Focus


“Anne, I want you to spend 40% of your time on Project Narwhal, 40% on Project Jackelope, and the remaining 20% of your time on everything else,” said Bob, the new IT manager. This type of directive isn’t confined to Bob and his personal style of management. The percentage game is played in millions of teams, in countless companies across the globe.

On the surface, everyone understands the rules of this percentage game. It seems so easy: Just do a few hours on this, then a few hours on that and cap it off with the rest. But, there are some major problems with this approach. Usually, we don’t see them — so we sprint ahead, leaving a trail of unrealized opportunity behind.

Is Focus a Luxury?

The first, and simplest, problem is our simplification of the “everything else.” My subjective observations in large companies (where tracking time is a common activity) taught me that 15% of your time — at minimum — is spent on overhead activities such as emails, general meetings and collaboration, and administrivia such as time tracking or status reporting.

For poor Anne from our example, that leaves 5% for existing and recurring maintenance responsibilities, disruptive unplanned work and anything else that comes up. You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that this equation doesn’t add up.

The larger problem, by a wide margin, is how much revenue — and employee sanity — we forfeit due to the way we manage work. Sadly, most companies don’t know about, or aren’t doing, the things that could stem the tide of these critical losses.

Even brand new managers aren’t naive enough to think that splitting a person’s time into percentages is ideal. But often, they feel that it’s their only choice. They’ve climbed the corporate ladder in environments that taught them that work is inherently chaotic, and that focus is a luxury most organizations can’t afford. So, many managers don’t stop to consider the possibility of letting people focus on a single category of work, be it a single application or project or merely focusing on maintenance or unplanned work of a team.

The underlying fear is that, if we don’t start all of our commitments, we might not finish them on time. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to understand that starting everything is the very thing that gets in the way of finishing anything.

The Myth of Multitasking

Many people take pride in their ability to multitask. This is excellent for some activities, like listening to a podcast while folding laundry. In this situation, your brain only needs to actively concentrate on one activity.

In knowledge work, multitasking is a fallacy. We rapidly switch between brain-intensive activities which hinders our ability to productively focus on anything. How many times have you checked e-mail during a meeting and then realized you didn’t hear what was said? Whatever the reason for the context switch, the cost of the time lost transitioning between tasks is usually far greater than we realize — not to mention the reduced quality of our efforts due to distraction.

Multitasking Math

Let’s do a quick calculation to visualize the time cost with a scenario of five interruptions a day, with a loss of 10 minutes of work time per interruption (five minutes to ramp down and and five to ramp back up):

5 interruptions x 10 minutes = 50 minutes of lost work time [per person/per day]

You might be thinking, that’s under an hour, that’s just the cost of doing business. While you’re right that some interruptions may be worth the cost, let’s look how this cost adds up across a team of eight:

50 minutes x 5 days per week = just over ½ of a work day lost [per person/per week]

8 people x ½ day per week = 4 working days lost [per team/per week]

Just think: What could you do with another person on your team for four days a week?

When this realization kicks in, teams start to consider policies and procedures they can put in place to limit interruptions or, at least, group them together to reduce the ramp up/ramp down time. We’re not just talking fly-by’s (which were discussed in Brandon Hedge’s excellent post, Do You Have Five Minutes?). We’re also talking about emergencies, mid-stream priority changes and scattered meetings.

The Lesser-Known Cost of Context Switching

The truth is that things like “meeting mornings” or scheduled office hours are processes we put in place to deal with the excessive work-in-process (WIP) levels of the larger organization. These systems would not be necessary if organizations made an intentional effort to increase their focus on a limited set of priorities, with an understanding of how that achieves greater speed and flow.

A huge contributor to the underlying problem is that most organizations plan how much can go into their portfolio by looking at capacity and effort estimates. Unfortunately, the world of knowledge work is not that simple.

On paper, you might estimate that a project will take three months for four specific people to complete. As you continue to estimate more projects and add them to the Gantt chart, you end up playing an intricate game of Tetris to align the right people for the estimated duration of the work.

The massive elephant in the room is that we aren’t just stamping out the same widget over and over. There will be obstacles that can’t be discovered until we begin the work. Because estimates can’t account for these unknown obstacles, they are regularly wrong.

In addition, we fail to account for the times that we consult with, or seek help from, others to finish our tasks. So, not only do projects take more time than estimated, we also involve more people. The problem is that our Gantt chart tends to be like a house of cards. When you throw one wrench into the works, it creates a complicated web of conflicting priorities, deadlines, and constant interruptions: In a word, chaos.

Some organizational complexity is unavoidable, but it can be well-regulated by embracing focus as a pillar of success. You know you’re on the right track if you have:

  • A clear, but limited set of key priorities at any given time
  • An environment that fosters focus (on stated priorities)
  • Tools to visualize and collaborate on work.

These things allow teams and individuals to manage the complexity of the organization to keep it within accepted levels.

The Most Realistic Estimates Aren’t Estimates: Managing WIP and Accounting for Dark Matter

As a manager of development teams in the past, I observed that my team, on a PMO capacity planning chart, might show that it could accommodate up to four projects for our eight person team. But experience showed that, despite the numbers, the chances of project failure increased significantly when we worked, collectively, on more than two projects at a time.

Choosing to manage the reality of our work rather than stubbornly stick to the numbers, we limited our project availability to two at a time and saw our success rates skyrocket.

When I thought about the discrepancy between the capacity plan and reality, I had an epiphany: The effort involved in completing a project is more than the sum of the lines on a project plan. There’s an unforeseen dark matter that is hard to quantify, and difficult to predict, in an estimate. It’s comprised of tasks you didn’t know you’d need to do and people that you didn’t know you’d need — not just to do the unknown tasks, but to provide perspective, feedback and assistance.

Overcommitting teams doesn’t allow for handling of this dark matter and creates a system that causes the chain reaction of interruptions most companies deal with today. That simple equation, calculated across multiple teams, can equal huge amounts of unrealized value. For small companies, it can be a death knell. For larger companies, it may explain why things get harder and harder to finish as a company gets bigger. We get in our own way.

Quit the Percentage Game

The situation may seem dire, but it can be turned around by getting your team to focus on getting focused. If you’re lucky enough to control what your team works on then set, adhere to and refine team WIP limits. Teach the importance of focusing on moving work to “Done,” rather than starting new work. Agree upon what conditions make it appropriate to divert from that focus. Finally, learn about alternatives to task-based estimation, like predictive modeling. These policies and behaviors will force difficult, but necessary, discussions on prioritization.

If you can’t control how much work comes down the pipe, use the calculation above to measure the cost of excessive WIP. Then, present the surprising numbers to your leadership team. Fortunately, most executives can be swayed by evidence on the impact unmanaged WIP has on the bottom line. Once people agree that there’s a problem, steps can be taken to combat it.

The Kanban Method, especially at the portfolio level, teaches us the practice of systems thinking — it forces us to start paying attention to how work flows through the entire organization. It teaches concepts that help transform a stressed, chaotic assembly of teams into an aligned, effective value delivery system. Try the activities in our Kanban Roadmap with your team to get started on a path toward becoming a healthy, focused organization.

Julia Wester

Julia Wester is an Improvement Coach at LeanKit. She’s passionate about teaching managers, and teams as a whole, how to tame the chaos by using Lean and Kanban. An alum of both Turner Broadcasting and F5 Networks, she has 15 years’ experience working with and managing development teams. Connect with Julia on Twitter @everydaykanban or on her blog, Everyday Kanban.

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