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July 13, 2006

This aricle just crossed my desk from a Cutter Consortium colleague, Dwayne Phillips. It is a thoughtful piece with a fresh look at work life in the Information Age, addressing the subject of “personal productivity” on a large IT project. It brought to mind a recent Fortune magazine article entitled “How I Work,” which was about personal work habits of various bigwigs of business. I promise to dust that one out for this blog later on. Meanwhile, when it comes to the idea of coping strategies, I think this piece might give many of us pause to consider what might work for ourselves as we deal with high pressure deadlines in our day-to-day life. (For more Cutter content on “Access to the Experts”, see www.cutter.com.)

by Dwayne Phillips

I am working on a large project with a group of people on the opposite coast. I visit them once or twice a month for face-to-face discussions. On a recent visit, I learned a lot about improving productivity from some unexpected places.

The first lesson came from a female colleague named Susan. Several months ago, Susan told me that she was expecting her second child. I was happy to hear this for two reasons. First was my personal joy; this is a blessed event to be celebrated. Second was a professional reason. I believed that good things for the project would come of this. This belief came from a story related to me several years earlier by a project manager in a similar circumstance.

Susan was to take maternity leave to have her child. After the birth, she would take several months off work and then return to work half time.

My earlier colleague had told me of the many benefits of having a good employee who worked half the time and stayed at home the other half. The benefit comes because while at home, the employee is still thinking about work. The thoughts of work are not in the forefront, but somewhere in the back of the mind. He found that when the employee was physically at work, they had much better ideas and perspectives on situations at work than the people who worked full time. I was looking forward to having Susan work half time on the project and stay at home the other half.

Susan went on maternity leave, gave birth to a fine, healthy son, and stayed home for several months. She had returned to work half time just before my recent visit.

I was amazed the first time I saw Susan after her maternity leave. She looked bright and refreshed, more alive and awake than at any time in the previous two years. The time away from work had refreshed and recreated her. What was most noticeable was her attitude. While the rest of us had been sweating the details of the project every minute of every day, she had been away. Giving birth and being with a baby (and a three-year-old son) is not relaxing by any means. Being away from a project, however, can be refreshing.

Susan was working half time but providing more insight and wisdom to the project than most of us who were working full time. I was delighted to see this.

The second productivity lesson on the trip came to me from a young man named Matt. Matt likes to surf — real waves in the ocean, not Internet surfing. Several months ago, Matt decided that he was working enough hours on the project every week (50 to 60 hours). Matt started spending one weekday morning each week surfing. He came into the office three or four hours late. No one minded, as Matt was still working more than 40 hours a week.

Matt became more productive than before. He was working fewer hours, surfing each week, and producing more.

The first day of my visit to Susan’s and Matt’s company was difficult. I was disappointed in the status of the project and, though buoyed by Susan’s and Matt’s productivity improvements, I was dejected. I felt badly and stayed in my hotel room all evening contemplating the events of the day.

The next morning, I didn’t eat breakfast or do any of the other things I usually do on a trip. Instead, I walked down the street away from the hotel, bought a fancy chocolate coffee drink, and walked the streets in the early-morning quiet while sipping my drink. I walked, sipped, and thought for an hour.

That day was the most productive and pleasant one of the trip. I was able to listen better, think more clearly, and contribute more to our discussions.

This trip was teaching me much about productivity improvements. Apologies to the CMMI crowd and fans of agile development. We were employing forms of both, but neither of them were helping us on the project. Instead, working half time, surfing one half-day a week, and taking long morning walks were improving productivity and making life on the project much better.

I knew all this before this visit. I knew that relaxing, enjoying recreation, and taking a break from the usual help people work productively. Somehow I had forgotten all of this. It is strange what I forget when I am really busy working hard. I had to see someone return to work half time after maternity leave, meet a surfer, and take a long walk to remember what really improves productivity. I encourage you to find what helps you be more productive. I also encourage you to let your colleagues learn what works for them.

— Dwayne Phillips