Rules of Productivity

How do we get more work done? It is a question that every manager and every passionate worker faces. Yet, for the most part, teams operate on gut instinct and habit. The results are less than optimal. [source]

What is productivity?

  • + Work accomplished
  • - Work required to fix defects
  • - Work required to fix bad design decisions

Productivity can be negative when there is more harm than good.



Experiment 1: Overtime

Working more than  40 hours a week leads to decreased productivity.

  • < 40 hours/week – working not “enough”.
  • > 60 hours/week – small productivity boost.

The boost only lasts for 3 to 4 weeks and then turns negative. Though can be used for a short-time productivity increase.

So, work 40 hours a week with time for rest and family. Never work 2 months of 60 hrs/week. Overall productivity will be lower, despite the initial boost.

Experiment 2: Work harder in bursts.

  • Take advantage of the burst during overtime.
  • Crunch for a week and work only 40 hrs on another week.
  • Any more efficient work patterns?

Anything over 40 hrs/week results in a recovery period, no matter how you split it up. 40 hrs/week can be 10 hrs/day for 4 days and one day off. This pattern of work can increase productivity by 10-70%.image


  • Raise productivity immediately with short spurts < 3 weeks.
  • Overtime temporarily to meet deadlines.
  • Plan for the reduction in productivity immediately afterwards.
  • Consider 4-day work week as a flexitime option.


Experiment 3:  Performance for knowledge workers declines after 35 hrs, not 40.

  • Creativity and problem solving decreases faster with fatigue than manual labour.
  • Grinding  out problems by working longer  on average result in inferior solutions.
  • Lack of sleep is particularly damaging.


  • Overtime kills creativity.
  • If you are stuck on a problem, go home or take a break.
  • Get 8 hrs of sleep to improve your problem solving abilities.


Experiment 4: Teams on overtime feel like they are doing more, but actually accomplish less.

  • Team with overtime feels like they are doing much more than the team without overtime.
  • Team without overtime produces the better product and accomplishes more.


Humans ignore the systematic costs and physiological biases:

  • Failure to measure (cost of defects, bad design decisions, missed opportunities).
  • Linear extrapolation (initial productivity boost is seen as same in the future).
  • Habit (a bad one!).
  • Self reported excellence (behaviour rewarded independent of the results).


  • The feeling of increased long-term productivity is FALSE.
  • Use customer metrics to determine the productivity.


Experiment 5: Productivity is maximised in small teams of 4-8 people.

  • Productivity of a small group is 30-50% higher than groups over 10 people.
  • Too high cost of communication for groups with > 10 people.
  • Smaller teams don’t have enough breadth to solve a wide array of problems.


  • Split your teams into cross-functional teams.
  • Link small teams using '”scrum-of-scrums”.
  • Create processes for:
    • growing new teams;
    • splitting large teams;
    • transitioning to new projects;


Experiment 6: Seat people on the same team together in a closed team room.

  • 100% increase in productivity.
  • Faster communication and problem-solving.
  • Fewer external interruptions to the team increase overall productivity.


  • Seat the team in their own room. With walls.
  • Give at least 5 sqr/meters per person.
  • Create side rooms for private conversations, phone calls, meetings.
  • Minimise non-team distractions.


Experiment 6: Cross-functional teams outperform siloed teams

  • Produced more effective solutions in the same time.
  • Much more likely to generate breakthrough solutions.
  • Short-term loss of negotiation of norms.

This is why:

  • Fewer external dependencies mean fewer lengthy blockages.
  • Team has the breadth to see the forest, not just the trees.
  • Different perspectives mean lower chance of groupthink.


  • Create the team where every skill needed to solve the problem at hand is in the same room.
  • Limit the charter: “Do everything = big team”.
  • Fulltime: focused team member efforts. Multitasking = 15% drop in productivity.


Experiment 8: Scheduling at 80% of team capacity produces better products.

  • Scheduling at 100% doesn’t give space to creativity.
  • No lost time: passionate workers keep thinking.
  • The 20% goes into new idea generation and process improvements.
  • Producing 20 great features is usually far more profitable than 100 competent features.


  • Allows employees to explore many options cheaply.
  • Gives time to prototype breakthrough solutions that sound crazy on paper.
  • Allows people to pursue passions.


  • Schedule 20% below possible velocity.
  • Hold periodic reviews of side projects and award interesting ideas.
  • Publicise and reward side projects that make their way into production.
  • Keep a public list of important things if anyone runs out of work (happens rarely).


Other productivity Techniques

Experimentation culture:

  • Fail faster to find success sooner.
  • Short iterations.
  • User metrics such as A/B testing.
  • State gate portfolio management.

Safety nets:

  • Test-Driven-Development.
  • Daily/weekly access to real customers.

Empower the team

  • Constraints-based requirements, not mandates from above.
  • Training.

See the original PDF.