Productive Agility

Created on May 29, 2020.

I recognize my bias here, and the ideas and emotions around productivity and agility are fascinating. Of the topics I’ve played with over the years, these two stand out as the most conflated and internally inconsistent by those talking about them.

When many people use the term “productivity” they are often referring to getting more work done faster. Others refer to productivity in terms of making things more efficiate (generating less waste). And a smaller group talk about their concerns of quality dropping in the name of productivity. Around 2010 I saw more people talking about productivity in terms of “the grind,” “hustle porn,” and other epithets (positive and negative) equating high productivity with working long hours on a never-ending loop in the hopes of one day “being able to relax.”

At which point I want to turn into Inigo Montoya:

You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.

I want to get a principle out of the way before I forget: Avoid doing temporarily that which you cannot do indefinitely.

It’s a story I hear a lot in business: “We figured if we could just hustle and work really hard for a year or two eventually we would be able to ‘do it right.’” How long ago was that? “Seven years ago.”

The way I’ve started looking at productivity is as four control dials. The dials change the magnitude of efficiency, effectiveness, scope, and speed—and they’re interconnected. So, all the aforementioned statements about productivity are true, but they lose breadth and nuance when boiled down to “just speed” or “just how much you get done” in a given period of time.

Efficiency is the waste production component. Effectiveness is the quality piece (of both the output and the journey). Scope is the quantity question (of both work completed and work left incomplete). Speed is distance over time.

Consider a car. The more speed we give the car (increased speed), the more waste gets generated (decreased efficiency). Is it productive? Well, it depends on the purpose or goal—the why. If the goal is to travel one mile (or kilometer) in the shortest time possible, definitely more productive than not going fast. If, however, the goal is conserve as much fuel as possible, probably not so much.

The point is to achieve what a mentor of my coined as: The Tao of Productivity, after I described productivity as striking the balance of efficiency, effectiveness, scope, and speed based on your current context. Sometimes going fast is the most productive choice, sometimes not so much. Sometimes being a real stickler for quality is the most productive choice. And so on.

Agility is simple: Agility is your ability to move those dials when the world changes.

Imagine an Olympic runner. Really fast (high speed). Can’t be done for extended periods of time (low efficiency). They are sprinting down the road and the goal is to run the faster 500 meter dash. Now throw a dodgeball at them.

The more they are able to adjust—whatever needs adjusting—so the ball doesn’t hit them, the more agile they are. However, if there are so many balls flying that you are no longer able to make forward progress at all, they are no longer being productive—at least not toward meeting the goal of the fastest 500 meter dash. (Maybe the goals needs to change to just dodging the balls.)

Agility without productivity is helpful, but not very practical. Productivity without agility is helpful, but not for the long haul given the world and your position in it changes fairly regularly.

So, by combining the two into a new term—productive agility—I’m referring to a practice that combines the benefits of both to either avoid working long hours all together or having those hours feel less like work and more like play.