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Thinking about digital, time, priorities and what people do all day

by Mark P. McDonald  |  October 10, 2019  |  1 Comment

We are all busy, some of us are truly busy others feel or like to think of themselves as busy.  I got to thinking about that after working people who are new to Agile methods and digital thinking.  These were managers and leaders in legacy companies.  The conversation flowed around new ways of working, particularly in an agile or digital way, as they wanted to get some ideas regarding the secret sauce.

The logic of legacy thinking

They understood the idea of being predominately focused on and doing the most important things.  Their challenges were about how you put those things into practice.  As we talked, a few things became clear.  First, they viewed agile and digital as things that were in addition to their current roles and ways of working, not replacements for them.  Second, they were concerned about what happened to the work they were doing now?  Did it get done by someone else?  Did it get automated?  Did it get done on the weekends?  They even talked about hiring people to do their current work so they could go join agile programs.

These questions and the discussions illustrated a deeply held belief present in many legacy companies – namely that work consists of the things we must do, and the list of must dos always grows.   That got me thinking about the following question:

If there is not enough time to do everything, then what are the things that are getting done?

In many legacy companies, the things that get done are the things that can be done.  This is work that has a defined process, specific tasks and actions, often related to inputting information into forms, etc.  Its work that others can see, in reports, as triggers to their work as things that are done because they need to support, finance, management, compliance etc.  The things that show up in a status report your you get an email about when it is late.

Using this way of thinking, most of the work people actually do is administrative and functional in nature.  The busy work, hence everyone is so busy.  Busy, busy, busy.

The affirmation of agile and digital thinking

Teams applying agile and thinking digitally are busy too.  It is a different kind of busy.  In my observations, they are purposefully busy, energized, dare I say engaged?

Where legacy logic looks as the work to be done, agile/digital thinking says I should always do the most important things first.  That constant focus on doing the most important things, which is often harder work, work with less structure, work that is uncertain is the basis for this energy.

Think about it this way, borrowing inventory management terms:

  • Legacy thinking treats work with a mindset of Legacy In First Out (LIFO). Do the stuff you have done in the past first.
  • Agile and digital thinking is First In First Out (FIFO). The first stuff is the most important stuff, the rest comes later.

Agile and digital thinking techniques are about figuring out what is the most important, the first stuff and then organizing and doing that work.  The first stuff is not always exciting.  It can be drudgery, but the important thing is the reason why that work is important – that is the motivator.

Once the most important thing is done, then it’s time to move onto the next most important thing.  Work becomes a series of importance, challenges, accomplishments, learnings that repeats itself with a constant focus on the most important things.

Huh? But what about my work load?

That idea confounded the legacy group.  They saw the world as a work load.  If people were  working on the most important things, then much of the load would not get done.  That is the point exactly.  If they are not the most important things, then perhaps they do not need to be done or at least done right now.

Just a thought about why people are so busy and the value of what they do all day.

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Category: agile  digitalization  management  

Mark McDonald, Ph.D., is a Vice President and Fellow Emeritus in Gartner for General Managers Program.




Thoughts on Thinking about digital, time, priorities and what people do all day


  1. jolia says:

    Thanks, I used it



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