One of the principles behind the Agile Manifesto is, “Simplicity–the art of maximizing the amount of work not done–is essential.” That really speaks to my soul. I love not doing work.
I see three facets to this principle. First, it means that we only do the right and necessary things. When faced with the project or goal, we should spend a bit of time figuring out our first steps, and then get to work. Spending weeks or months trying to plot everything out isn’t a good use of our time, because a couple of weeks into the project we may realize that we need to go a different direction. We need to continually be learning, and then let what we have learned direct the work that we will do.
Second, it means doing the right amount of work. There is a point in any task when we will have only diminishing returns. Especially for complex work, we can effectively do the same thing forever, never quite perfecting or finishing. In many cases, this extra effort to try and achieve perfection is not essential. For my teams, I always coached them to shoot for 85%. We’d do the work pretty well, and get it pretty good, but we wouldn’t worry about perfecting most things. Instead, we would reach a point where the work was acceptable and then move on to the next task. And what we found was that, not only was our work acceptable, but it was praised, and people were even happier because we were getting a whole lot more done. If it takes 10 hours to hit 85%, and another 60 hours to hit 95%, then those 60 hours probably aren’t worth it.
Third, it means not doing work that doesn’t add value. There is no value in doing busy work, particularly busy work that we invent for ourselves. I don’t know how many times I’ve been confronted with a form or a process where, when I questioned it, I was told, “That’s just how it’s done.” And this made me want to tear my hair out, because this form, or this process, is something that we did to ourselves. Nobody required it of us but us, and therefore it’s a complete waste of time. Cutting out “work” that doesn’t serve the customer or benefit the organization is vital.
This isn’t about just doing the minimum, or doing shoddy work. It’s about focusing, which will help us have more time to do the right things, and to do them right. If we maximize the amount of work not done, then we are able to maximize the amount of time and energy we have to do the right work.