What is Productivity?

February 21, 2012

In a great article, Management Myth #1: The Myth of 100% Utilization, Johanna Rothman asserts that, “Too many managers believe in the myth of 100% utilization--the belief that every single technical person must be fully utilized every single minute of every single day.”

She’s right. As Johanna points out in the article, utilizing people is a very different thing from utilizing computing resources. People are supposed to be thinking, which leads to better outcomes, new ideas, and a more successful organization. This begs the question: What is productivity?

How many organizations approach software development like a well-defined, linear manufacturing process, defining the requirements up front, doing the design next, ending with the build and test phases; where the work is not only phased in very discrete steps, it is worked on by functional specialists like an assembly-line?

This type of approach starts to skew thinking towards allocating people for the greatest possible “utilization” based on their functional specialty, some involved in multiple projects at a time. This naturally leads into measuring “productivity” based on the intermediate outputs of those individuals.

For a majority of software projects operating this way is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It is rare that everything is known up front, and even rarer for companies to make the time and investment required to achieve that understanding through a combination of requirements gathering, discussion, prototyping and learning from feedback based on those prototypes. These days, the world is moving too fast and most companies don’t have the resources or the patience to pull it off properly. But that doesn’t stop people from trying…

Agile development, in contrast, looks at the whole. The expectation is that people will work together interchangeably, identifying with the outcome that the team produces and not the intermediate, specialized, individual outputs. There is an expectation of, and time built into agile development’s approach for thinking, exploring, and innovation.

The agile approach – speaking from a productivity context – is best summed up by none other than Peter Drucker, who said, “Productivity means the balance between all factors of production that will give the greatest output for the smallest effort. This is quite a different thing from productivity per worker or per hour of work…”

Now take a guess as to when he said it. It goes back a few years. I found it in his book, The Practice of Management, originally published in 1954.