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TBM 237: Incompetence!
I was reflecting on this research I did earlier in my career. As an experiment, two teams tracked where their time went for two weeks. If you've ever had to report on time allocation, you know how made-up time tracking tends to be ("20% KTLO, 40% Project 1, 40% Project 2").
These teams did it differently, really taking into account the nuances.
Each square represents 1/40th of the total time.
I keep coming back to this over the years with new ideas. Here's the latest.
On first blush—especially for people with no product-building experience or narrow product-building experience—this looks like absolute madness. It just doesn't make sense.
I just can't believe this. I can't believe you could have these same teams in the same company without a MAJOR screw-up in hiring. That's just terrible management. How could you have one team doing 4x more value-added work and 8x on Project A, and have two more hours for lunch?
There's no other explanation than someone (or multiple people) being very bad at their job, or extremely lazy. It defies rationality. Or the data being wrong (it isn't).
Compare this with anyone who has spent a while in the industry across different companies. When you've experienced both first-hand, you may be able to point out some mistakes and poor decisions, but it's not so simple.
You don't become Team 1 all at once. It can take years, dozens of rotating team members, and hundreds of perfectly pragmatic decisions that end up having unintended effects down the road. Once you're there, the inertia is against you. You don't wave a magic wand one day and fix CI/CD, work down the debt, get rid of the meetings, and change a culture optimized for saying yes.
And the road to being Team 1 is often being Team 2! Who knows, maybe they are laying the groundwork for a miserable team in the future. It takes a lot of work to stay productive. Things slip.
So we have something that looks crazy on the surface, that can only be chalked up to incompetence or bad data—unless you've been there.
It gets more interesting. What if you've been on Team 1 that transitioned to Team 2 (assuming Team 2 is effective)? The first response from those who haven't done it is, "Oh, you must have fired people, right? Like you fired the people who made it that way?" And the answer is frequently:
Not really. A manager left because it burned them out, and we did get a new manager. They got a shot at advocating for us. But it was a steady shift as we got some air-cover and clarified our strategy. It was the right timing, as well, because more broadly, as a company, there was a shift as we realized this was unsustainable.
It can be very hard to imagine a team being able to spend 8x more time on a "high priority" effort” unless you've seen both sides of the situation.
Good and Bad are rarely as simple as it seems to outsiders and people with narrow experience
The first instinct many people have is to blame the current team members. Again, it's not that simple. There are potentially a lot of factors at play.
People who have only worked in Team 2-like environments often have little intuitive sense of 1) how and why Team 1s exist and 2) how to help a team shift to a better situation. The reverse is true. People who have worked in Team 1-like environments often imagine this is normal and can't be changed.
And… don't trust anyone's estimate of where they spend their time unless you make it safe for them to tell you where they've spent their time.