This is a zen yoga bunny.

The Mythical 50-Hour Threshold

By now, most managers know that working people 50 or more hours per week has detrimental health impacts on employees and harmful effects on work quality. Many studies have linked long hours with disease and death; many studies have linked long hours with a decline in thinking ability, quality, and productivity.

This magical 50-hour mark is problematic. These studies are having unintended consequences in the world of work. What I’m noticing is a perception of organizations that managers can and even should work their employees as close to the “red zone” as possible. There is a perceived spectrum where employers, and even employees, think they can safely work very close to the red and not have any negative impact. To compound matters, managers fall prey to the “I did it, so can you” logical fallacy. Observing this phenomenon has made me question whether those of us in leadership are thinking about this all wrong.

Differently-Resourced People

Studies on work hours, work stress, and the negative consequences vary in terms of the hours they focused on in the study. These studies did not universally conclude that 50 hours a week is the switch that should not be flipped and that it’s okay to work 49. What I think the studies have shown is (wait for it, my favorite saying) It Depends.

People are born with or develop different resources than others. Those resources range widely and can include an innate ability to be resilient with low stress or having a strong supportive community of friends or family. It isn’t fair or realistic to expect everyone to be born with or develop the same resources. I believe it is the manager’s job to recognize and support those who are differently resourced when they have skills and abilities to make the overall group more innovative and effective. Translation: Focus on creating a work situation around the employee, not around the time clock – and you will ultimately get more from that employee in fewer hours.

Rewarding the Wrong Thing

It’s illogical to recognize employees as “hard workers” for working lots of hours. Consider: If one employee accomplishes a task in 30 hours, and another accomplishes the same task in 40 hours, which one is more deserving of reward? Should the employee who only put in 30 hours for the week be viewed as not a hard worker? Ultimately, when we recognize and reward people for working long hours, what we’re saying is that we value time logged instead of outcome achieved. We may even inadvertently reward the poor decision-making (on their part or otherwise) that led to the long hours or poor time management skills over good time management skills. We’re also sending a message that we value perceived short-term gains over the aforementioned big-ticket consequences of overworked employees.

The problem I see is that organizations want to optimize for ease of administration instead of the actual outcome, and it’s frankly easy to think that there’s a magic number we should all stay below. In reality, some people should only work 20 hours a week to maintain health and quality, and they may come pretty darn close to producing the same value as someone else who needs to work 30 or 40 hours to achieve the same outcome. Madness, you say? Check out some of the research that found workers who were able to control when, where, and how they worked achieved comparable outcomes in 2/3 of the time as those in office during set hours working 40 hours per week. Also, Netflix. (I ❤ you, Netflix!)

Life Stuff Time

Not all hours are worth the same, depending on when and how you spend them. I could write a whole article about this, but to keep it brief, let’s say out of 24 hours a day, I need 8 to sleep, 1 to be clean and dressed/undressed, 2 to prepare and consume nourishment, 1 to travel to and fro, and 1 for the unexpected things. That’s 13 hours, leaving me with 11 hours. Keep in mind that I haven’t let my brain do anything else yet in this model but the bare essentials. If I work 8 hours a day, that leaves me with just 3 hours a day for life stuff, like reading to my child or exercising or watching a movie. (“Life Stuff” is the stuff that keeps you sane, healthy, and productive – and if you think you should do all of that on the weekend, I could create another model that includes all of the bare essentials that get reserved for weekends, and it would make this look even worse). If I work even one hour more per day, I’ve cut my life stuff time down by 1/3 that day. Wow. If I work even 43 hours per week, I cut my life stuff time down to zero on the day I did that.

You may be thinking this is not so terrible if I spread it out over five days, so let’s take a look at that:

Three life stuff hours per day x 5 days a week = 15 hours. If I work 45 hours a week instead of 40, I just lost 1/3 of my life that week. Again, that is 1/3 of the time I would have spent on something that will keep me sane, healthy, and productive. By working 45 hours a week, I’ve roughly given up 1/3 of my life.

Here’s the big question: Can we as leaders possibly ignore all of this just because we are caught up in the status quo, or we think we don’t experience any ill effects from giving up our life stuff time?

Hopefully, you are a manager who gives a darn about your people, and as a result, you read articles and books about management. (Bluntly: If you aren’t, you should be. The world of work is changing all the time. I firmly believe that managers must be forward-thinking to keep their organizations competitive and better understand and leverage both the current and the next generation of talent). I’ve provided a couple of links to the books with studies about the relationship between hours worked, employee health (mental and physical), and organizational prosperity. Suffice to say, 50 hours is not a magical number, and good managers won’t assume a magic number that fits all. Good managers also won’t accept that someone who works 42, 45, or 50 hours a week is more productive, effective, or a harder worker than someone who works 35. The best approach is to design work around the person and develop ways of measuring the quality of work produced versus the quantity of time logged – and compensate based on achieving outcomes, not output.

Additional reading:
Breaking the Mold – Redesigning Work for Productive and Satisfying Lives by Lotte Bailyn
The Truth About Burnout – How Organizations Cause Personal Stress and What To Do About It by Christina Maslach and Michael Leiter
Toward a Model of Work Redesign for Better Work and Better Life by Leslie A. Perlow and Erin L. Kelly

Guidance For Leaders: 5 Tips for Communicating in a Time of Crisis

Dear friends and colleagues,

As someone who was in the workforce during 9/11 and the 2008 financial crisis, I have witnessed many examples of poor leadership, and some outstanding examples of good. Over the last two weeks, I gathered these tips to share. They are written from my own experience and from listening to fellow leaders, and most recently, from having great discussions with my incomparable professors at Harvard’s Extension School in the Industrial-Organizational Psychology graduate program. I sincerely hope you find them helpful, and I wish you all much success as you serve as role models and agents of calm compassion in a world of unknowns.

  1. Give crystal clear guidance, even in the face of changing conditions. Good leaders navigate ambiguity so that those they are leading don’t have to. Lower the cognitive load for your people. This is especially important in the world of virtual work, because people no longer have each other readily accessible to “figure it out” together. The self-organization process is much more difficult when people are working individually from their homes, so leaders are advised to not depend upon it happening the way it did when teams were collocated.
  2. Be clear about what specifically may change. Even if you think everything may change, state that clearly. Limit surprise for your people.
  3. Be honest about what you do not know, and share what you are doing to gain needed clarity. Build confidence in your leadership.
  4. Listen to others without reaction. Anyone can react to a crisis. Leaders proact. It is important to still be compassionate, but know the difference between being compassionate and coming across as though you are unstable or do not have any answers.
  5. Tell people when they can expect an update from you, and follow through. Even if you have nothing new to share, stick to a frequent communication plan – depending on the crisis, this may be hourly, twice a day (morning and night), or daily. Updates should never be less frequent than daily during a crisis; it allows too much time in between updates for speculation, rising panic, and rumors to spread. It is much easier to keep repeating yourself rather than have to dispel rumors!

Are You A Thief-Coach? Agile Coaching By Invitation & Not-Safe-To-Fail Situations

Don’t do this to your teams.

Remember when you were a kid, and were in the middle of doing something you were excited about, and an adult came along to tell you what you should do next?

Remember how deflating and frustrating that felt?

Coaches, this is what happens to teams and people when you offer help they haven’t asked for: You are stealing from them. You are a thief-coach.
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Self-Organization Walks Into A Bar…

self-organizing nanobristles.
Self-organizing nanobristles.

My micro-blogging has gone from being in the back seat of priorities to being out past the trailer, riding on a skateboard hanging on to a rope tied to the axle. That being said, the topic of self-organization keeps launching itself onto my windshield like a southern cicada in August, so it’s time to take to ye old keyboard. 

Let’s clear some of the proverbial air around self-organization by understanding the origin of the concept. It did not suddenly find itself inside of agile principle #11 one morning after a bender.

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Build The Right Team – Build The Team Right

Improving Accountability and Predictability of Delivery in Agile Teams

In Henrik Kniberg’s Agile Product Owner in a Nutshell video, he draws the Venn diagram that illustrates what agile teams are challenged with every day: Building the right thing, building the thing right, and building it fast. Ideally we want to stay in the zen-like balance of having all three in equal parts. The trouble is, building software is a team sport and teams are made up of humans, not robots (no offense to robots). We have to focus on the people to understand the team and its performance if we want to stay within the nucleus of the agile Venn.

With that as our goal, let’s take our concept of building “the thing” and replaced it with “the team.” Read More »

An Emotional Intelligence Retrospective for the New Year

perplexed bird
This bird is perplexed. Or just fabulous.

Something about the new year always makes me think of retrospectives. After all, what better time to have a personal retrospective than when everyone is thinking about a resolution – aka an improvement – for the new year? Yeah, okay, so most of the time I was sitting on my couch watching old IT Crowd episodes and eating cheese, but this holiday season I was also thinking about deeply profound things like “how do I know that I helped people this year?” and coming up with things that I wanted to try out in the year ahead.

It occurred to me that my biggest challenges and biggest accomplishments for the year were rooted in emotional intelligence. And that made me remember one of my favorite days from 2015: A retrospective I created and dubbed the EI retro. My fellow agile coaches were kind enough to let me try it out on them, and it went a little something like this:Read More »

The Accomplishment Partnership Retrospective

Raccoons. Organized. With Light Sabers.
Raccoons. Organized. With lightsabers.

Recently I was going through old emails to review some key events that occurred on one of my projects from a few years ago (if you’ve never done this, try it – it was like finding a treasure chest of real-life lessons that were amazing to recall!). I came across a special retrospective exercise that I had designed just for my team at the time, which I dubbed the Accomplishment Partnership Retro. It’s great to have a team that trusts you enough to help them through this, because the exercise can be challenging for teams who are uncomfortable with being vulnerable with each other – but the gains are tremendous. Here’s the gist:

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#NoEstimates #YesThroughput #AgileAlienAbduction

Agile Sacred Cow.
Agile Sacred Cow.

When I recently posted a tweet that said I’ve become a believer in #noestimates, I received more than a few confused and surprised responses privately from friends and colleagues. Rest assured, my fellow PMPs, that I have not recently suffered from a project management lobotomy. I was not abducted by agile aliens (though not gonna lie, I wouldn’t mind if David Duchovny showed up at my door). I do still understand that this is business and we cannot just build in a vacuum. People with the money need answers to their questions. Read More »

Geeking Out On Prioritization

The Backlog.
The Backlog.

The product backlog – or the wretched hive of scum and villainy, as one of my old teams had officially named it – often gets a bad rap. It can be a dumping ground of random stakeholder wants (like that guy with tassels on his shoes who thought a “Print Now” button was an awesome idea) and it can become a discouraging list of overwhelming proportions that a team totally avoids. It is where both good and not-so-good feature requests often languish in a limbo of “not-now” versus those lucky features that get moved into the “now” – the few, the proud, the top prioritized – and it is the vile Rancor that the team also gleefully acknowledges is not theirs to domesticate.Read More »

Holy Holacracy, Batman…

When my organization decided to do away with titles and hierarchy, and organize our teams around passions and products – a holacratic approach – the reactions were mixed. Most of the Project Managers outspokenly predicted imminent demise (one even wept openly), Dev Leads were quietly skeptical (as long as our kegs were still there, they really didn’t care), and just about everyone else took a let’s-try-and-see approach. We were already implementing an agile approach to our projects, so implementing an agile approach to our organizational structure was not totally freakish.Read More »