Fog Creek

Help Work to Flow – Interview with Sam Laing and Karen Greaves


We’ve interviewed Sam Laing and Karen Greaves, Agile coaches and trainers at Growing Agile, in Cape Town, South Africa. Together they wrote ‘Help Work to Flow’, a book with more than 30 tips, techniques and games to improve your productivity. We cover how software developers can improve their productivity and manage interruptions, why feedback and visible progress are important to staying motivated and how teams can hold better meetings.

They write about Agile development techniques on their blog.

Content and Timings

  • Introduction (0:00)
  • Achieving Flow (2:06)
  • Importance of Immediate Feedback (3:07)
  • Visible Progress (4:27)
  • Managing Interruptions (5:42)
  • Recommended Resources (8:50)

Transcript

Introduction

Derrick:
Today we have Sam Laing and Karen Greaves who are Agile coaches and trainers at Growing Agile based in South Africa. They speak at conferences and write about Agile development. They’ve written 8 books between them, including their latest book, Help Work to Flow, part of the Growing Agile series. Sam and Karen, thank you so much for taking your time to join us today all the way from South Africa. Why don’t you say a bit about yourselves?

Karen:
We both have worked in software our whole careers and we discovered Agile somewhere along the line about 8 years ago and figured out it was a much better way to work. Then in 2012, so just over 3 years ago, we decided that’s what we wanted to do, was help more people do this and figure out how to build better software. So we formed our own company, Growing Agile, it’s just the 2 of us and we pair work with everything we do, so you’ll always find us together.

Really what we do is just help people do this stuff better and use a lot of common sense. What’s been quite exciting in the last few years is now being business owners of our own small business. We’re getting to try lots of Agile techniques and things for ourselves and it’s lots of fun and a constant journey for us.

Derrick:
I wanted to touch on the book, Help Work to Flow, what made you want to write that?

Sam:
What actually happened is we joined the meetup called the Cape Marketing meetup and it’s for small business owners to learn about marketing techniques and how to market their small businesses. In doing that we realized that a lot of them are very, very busy and think they need to hire people to help them with their admin. We ran a mini master class with them on Kanban on how to use that as a small business owner. They absolutely loved it. They’re still sending us pictures of their boards and how it’s helping them with their workflow. We are like, well actually we have a lot of these tips that could help other people so let’s just put them together into a book.

Achieving Flow

Derrick:
I want to touch on flow for a bit, it’s often elusive to developers. How can developers help themselves achieve flow?

Sam:
The first thing that pops in is pairing. To help with flow, having a pair, this is my pair, helps a lot. When someone’s sitting next to you, it’s very difficult to get distracted with your emails and with your phone calls and with something else because this person right here is keeping you on track and keeping you focused.

Another one would be to avoid yak shaving. I’m an ex-developer, I know exactly how this happens. You’re writing a function for something and you need to figure out some method and you go down Google and then you go into some other chat room. Next thing you’re on stack overflow and you’re answering questions that other people have asked that has nothing to do with what you were doing. Again, to have a pair to call you on that yak shaving is first prize but otherwise to recognize when you personally are yak shaving, bonus points.

Importance of Immediate Feedback

Derrick:
Enabling immediate feedback is said to be key to achieving flow. How can this be applied within the context of software development?

Karen:
What we see lots of software teams do, is they all understand that code reviews are good and if they’re not doing pair programming then they should do code reviews. You even get teams where testers get their test cases reviewed but often what we see is teams leave that kind of to the last minute. We’ve done everything now let’s just quickly do the review.

One of the things we teach teams is instead of thinking of it as a review which is a big formal thing you do at the end, we use something that’s just called show me. I think we got it from Janet Gregory who wrote the book on Agile Testing. Literally as soon as you’re done with a small task, something that took you an hour maybe 2, you grab some else on your team or working with you and you show them for 5 minutes.

Like “Hey, could you just come and see what I did?” They quickly look at it, you get immediate feedback. Does it meet what their expectation was? Are there any obvious issues. The great thing about reviews where you get to explain what you did, sometimes you find the issues yourself. Definitely using that show me idea, versus making reviews a big thing. We’ve seen that have a radical changes in feedback for teams.

Visible Progress

Derrick:
The book highlights the importance of clear goals and visible progress. What do you mean by visible progress and why is it important to flow?

Sam:
When you physically write down what’s top of mind, it kind of enters your brain so you don’t have to worry about those things anymore because you’ve written them down. If you’ve got, imagine a board in front of you with all these things that have been popping off of your mind, when you move those stickies across to done, you get this sense of achievement.

You automatically sending information out to those around you and to yourself on how much you’ve done versus how much you’ve still got to do. It helps you to get into the flow of getting stuff done. It also helps other people realize how busy you are and whether they should or shouldn’t add more to your workflow.

Karen:
It’s really interesting, earlier today our personal task board, which is a physical board that sits between us, was like overwhelmed with too much stuff. I was like, “I just feel like we’re not getting anything done.” Sam took all the stickies and she put them on another piece of paper and said, “Okay, here are the 8 we have to do today.” Just looking at a board with 8 things, I said, “Okay, I can do 8 things today.” Before I was like, “I can’t even start anything because there’s so much stuff here.” That really, really helped.

Managing Interruptions

Derrick:
Here at Fog Creek every developer has a private office, to help them sort of reduce interruptions. What other techniques can you recommend to help developers manage interruptions?

Karen:
Firstly, you’re quite lucky, most of the teams we encounter here are using open-plan offices and personal offices are quite rare but one of the teams we worked with had this great idea and it’s in the book and its called the point of contact for emergencies and it’s pronounced as POCE. What happens with that is they, in the team they agree who’s the person for this week who’s going to be the interrupt-able person and they even put a sign on their doors, going if you’ve got an urgent issue speak to Adrian, Adrian is going to be the POCE this week.

They rotate that within the team and so that persons going to have a lot of interruptions that week but everyone else is a lot less interrupt. The rule is, that person can then talk to team members if they can’t solve the problem but at least then team members are being interrupted by one person who’s part of their team and probably not as often as outside. That’s one idea that we can use.

Sam:
Another one is, if you do get interrupted, don’t immediately do that interruption. Add it to your task list, add it to the list of work that you think you’re going to do that day and prioritize it accordingly. Often if you get disrupted with, do this and do that and do that, you’ve pushed your whole day out of sync and they’re usually not as important as other things.

Derrick:
We’ve touched on ways that an individual developer can help themselves but how can dev management go about encouraging flow across whole teams or organizations?

Sam:
One of the biggest areas that we see waste are meetings. Often you have a lot of people involved in a meeting, it’s poorly facilitated or not facilitated at all. Also the actual goal of the meeting, sometimes is just to talk about what’s going to happen in the next meeting, which is atrocious and such a waste of time.

For management to encourage having facilitators, encourage people to get facilitation skills so that these meetings aren’t such a waste of time would already be a huge money and time saver. Also to look at having meeting free days so that people aren’t rushing from one meeting to the next or only have one hour of work between 3 meetings. Rather have one day that you are completely immersed in meetings and not going to do any work and then 2 days of no meetings, where you could focus.

Karen:
I mean, we came up with that because we found with us being coaches and trainers, we’re often meeting new clients, giving them proposals or whatever. We go around quite a lot and sometimes we do onsite work and then we’re in the office. We just felt like we were getting nothing done. We did it the other way around, we came up with out-of-office days, so on 2 days a week we’ll be out of the office and everything has to fit into one of those 2 days if we’re meeting someone else. Then the other 3 days we had in the office and we actually got a lot of things done. That’s where we identified that and it still works really, really well for us.

Recommended Resources

Derrick:
What are some resources that you can recommend for people wanting to learn more about some of these types of techniques?

Karen:
Really if you just Google productivity tips, you’ll find a whole bunch. The trick is that they’re not all going to work for you, so try a couple.

Sam:
Even the ones in our book, not everything is going to work for you and it’s definitely not all going to work at the same time.

Karen:
Our advice is find tips wherever you can, try them and then keep the ones that work.

Derrick:
Sam and Karen, thank you so much for joining us today.

Karen:
Thank you.

Sam:
Thanks very much.