Agile teams and Microsoft Outlook – churn, baby, churn!

Many agile organizations use Microsoft Outlook as their email client of choice.  I have to admit that I do as well (full disclosure – I actually use Microsoft Office 2007 Ultimate Edition which contains pretty much all the MS Office programs).  So what’s the problem?The problem is churn caused by task switching.  When I work with companies I see everyone working in their natural ways.  After training in agile they are often excited and working hard to complete everything the team committed to during iteration planning.  Yet, while I watch something amazing happens.  Things stop for a while, then everyone is working hard again.  Then things will stop for a few people and return to normal a few minutes later.  Or just one person will stop and a bit later get back to work.  It seems like there is an agile “on/off” switch associated with each person.  To say it is strange is an understatement!

Recently I found out the culprit – Microsoft Outlook!  It turns out that everyone turns on all of the various forms of alerts that say new email has arrived.  There is a sound that plays, the cursor changes, a little envelope icon shows up, a small window comes on the screen and fades out, etc.  Of course this isn’t limited just to Outlook, other email programs do this as well, but Outlook is the most common offender due to the ubiquitiousness of Windows and Office.  Anyway, as a result of all of this, when a group email arrives, it distracts a big chunk of the team while they each process that email.  Individual emails distract individuals.  It seems that no one can ignore email and there is an instinctual need to do something about it within a few nanoseconds of its arrival in the inbox.

Think of how many emails per day are causing this churn.  I get far less email than I used to, but it is still significant.  The time lost to process the email is just one piece of the problem.  The other is the amount of time it takes to get back to the same mindset we were in before the interruption.  Most literature says 5-15 minutes to return to our former state.  Multiply that by the number of times we process email in a day and it is astounding that we ever get any work done!

If you want to gain more time in your day, process email in chunks.  Turn off all of the alerts in your email client.  Instead set up an appointment for yourself in your calendar to take care of email.  Do it a couple of times per day instead of for each individual email.  I can hear you now saying “But some of the email is important and needs to be answered immediately.”  Let’s say that I agree with that statement, what will happen if there is no return email in a short period of time?  The person that sent the email will call or IM or come over and ask the same question.  Problem solved – those that need immediate attention get it, but without distracting your day as you look at ALL items to find the few needing a quick response.

This is time management 101.  You should control your day and your workflow.  It should not be dictated to you as events unfold.  The “tyranny of the urgent” is extremely dangerous.  It results in incredible time lost to task switching churn.  Even if it is only 5 minutes per email, multiply that by 20 times we look at email and we’ve lost 100 minutes from our day.  I’d rather spend those 5 minutes only 2-3 times per day.  Even if it takes me 15 minutes to get back to where I was instead of 5 because I’ve been away longer, at 3 times per day I’m only losing 45 minutes rather than 100!

Finally, here is a staggering statistic:  a team of 10 people each saving 45 minutes per day has added an entire person to their team (7.5 hours per day) without spending any money on new employees!

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