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This Focused Performance Weblog started life as a "business management blog" containing links and commentary related primarily to organizational effectiveness with a "Theory of Constraints" perspective, but is in the process of evolving towards primary content on interactive and mobile marketing. Think of it as about Focusing marketing messages for enhanced Performance. If you are on an archive page, current postings are found here.

Tuesday, April 22, 2003

Personal Productivity -- An Excuse? -- In Programmer Productivity, Laurent calls to question an oft-thrown around "postulate" that suggests that some programmers are 20 (or 10, or whatever) times more productive than others. His unease is related to issues of how "productivity" is measured, whether there is a path that a "1" might take to become a "20," and the difficulties of defining a group by the extremes of its range (which is no better than defining it only by it's mean, median, or mode). A couple things come to mind.

First, I'm reminded that, in providing implementation training for CCPM, we discuss, as one of the sources of variation and uncertainty, the range of resource skill level that might be encountered in a project. After all, if you plan to use Sue Superstar, and Anna Average shows up six months later when the task is ready for work (or if the superstar wins the lottery or gets hired away by the competition), you need to be able to deal with the difference in keeping project promises (one use for range estimates and their derivative buffers in CCPM).

Second, as an example of the existence of entropy, there are often pressures on the perceived superstar that come from everyone clamoring for his/her time on a variety of projects. If this results in split attention or multitasking or muddy priorities, superstardom can quickly become a fleeting status. (hmmm...That could partially explain what might be seen as the low incidence of high productivity levels in a group.)

Finally, one of the pointers in Laurent's piece aimed at a discussion list thread on the topic, in which Dale Emery points out that...
"The 10x in Peopleware is about people across the industry. DeMarco and Lister say, "Two people from the same organization tend to perform alike." (Peopleware 2nd ed, p 48). I don't think they measured the productivity range of people within organizations."
This may be a key to the conumdrum. After all, the system has more to do with performance than the individual.

One of Deming's points was that it is managerial laziness to blame people or their individual variation for performance problems, and that instead, attention should be focused on the system in which they work. Along the same lines, Goldratt is often heard to say "Tell me how you'll measure me, and I'll tell you how I'll behave." And what is performance but the results of behavior in relationship to a goal.

It's my suspicion that while there might be some minor contribution of technical capability to the question of differences in productivity, the vast majority of that difference is in how the people are used -- what sort of paradigms, policies, and practices drive their performance. It's clear from the results encountered in CCPM implementations as well as from what I read of effective agile/extreme/scrum implementations that a couple simple changes in work rules and expected/enforced work practices can have significant impact on project performance without wholesale changes, additions or upgrades in staff. If there's a claimed 10:1 or 20:1 ratio in personal performance, and if there's a significant noise factor coming from things outside personal control, I would question the validity of the postulate myself.

If people are inappropriately assigned from a technical standpoint (to keep them busy, or to tie them to a project), if plans and promises are based on either averages or extremes, if superstars are overworked while at the same time less experienced people are not given a chance to get experience -- all situations related to policy (formal or informal), practice, or project mis-management -- there should be little wonder that there are some people able to play the game better than others. I would bet that those identified as "10s" or "20s" are not all that better technically, but are better at fighting (or at least working in, through, or around) the dysfunctional systems within which they find themselves working.

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