Performance and Knowledge-Intensive Work

Sometimes your reports don’t work in an optimal fashion during their work day. People don’t come and go at the same time and some arrive very late. Not everyone works exactly 8 hours every day. Sometimes people work together on a task best suited to one person.

Occasionally, managers try to raise productivity by optimizing how people work on an individual level. Hard rules, like “everyone in the office by 8 a.m.” or “no web browsing not directly related to work,” are what I call top-down productivity approaches and, in software development, I’ve never seen any returns other than increased turn-over of staff. Bottom-up approaches, getting staff to volunteer improvements, works better. Near-universally, people want to make positive impacts and will try, if given a chance. Structure opportunities for people to improve their performance. A simple question may suffice, “How could we deliver more features in the same amount of time?” If the initial answer is, “We can’t,” then keep asking questions and continue to challenge them. Most will rise to a challenge.

Management must be concerned with performance, but past the workflow-level (i.e. where are the bottlenecks constraining my resource capacity?), it’s a mistake to try to organize how individuals perform tasks delegated to them. If you were managing a team whose sole job is to clean floors and there is one proven way to do the job efficiently, then directing people on how to work makes sense and saves money. However with knowledge-intensive work (e.g. software development), there’s frequently countless ways to do any task. Though you may know a wonderful way, is that the way your report can best implement and maintain? Likely not, if they did not pick your preferred method. It’s a trust issue – your reports were hired to think and if you trust them do their jobs and avoid doing theirs for them, they will be happier and more productive.

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