When the Team Became TOO Productive

Categories : What We Do

When the Team Became TOO Productive

By Samuel Khew on 17 February 2020

I was running a Sprint Retrospective the other day with my team of 6 and the most interesting thing happened. One by one they voiced out in their own way that they were unhappy with their productivity. It came in all different forms.
“I feel a little guilty at how much I’ve done.”
“I know I can do better.”
“I’m not happy with my velocity.”
“I feel like I’m under-performing.”

Obviously, we had to get to the bottom of this! We start discussing the matter and with a little coaxing to get them out of their developer shells, it became apparent that there was often a lack of tasks to be done. Stories were not being populated fast enough by the client, such that some days our developers would be lonely and afraid, task-less and left to fend for themselves as they questioned the purpose of their very existence.

But what the root cause was, was not what peaked my interest. Rather, it was that this team of 6 had an incredibly rare and applaudable culture of productivity! The client had previously thanked us and were thus far very happy with our work. We were meeting project deadlines. Nonetheless, because of a shortage of tasks, the team was feeling down because they did not get as much done as they were capable of! Every single one of them. 100% hit rate.


I didn’t want to say too much, I tried my best to continue listening, to smile and be understanding, but my heart was beating fast and I was telling myself, “Don’t mess this up!” I had a team of 6 developers who were upset that they did not get to be fully utilised!

So why is it that when most developers would kick back and enjoy watching videos on Youtube, our team of 6 wanted more to do?

Answer: C-U-L-T-U-R-E

There’s no formula, or hard and fast rule that will guarantee this culture of ownership and productivity. But there are a few things that we do, which I believe contribute.

1. Self-Organising Teams

This is an Agile term that means the team gets to decide how best to accomplish their work. No one needs to instruct them on how to work, instead they are empowered to complete tasks the way that best suits them.

This means after the tasks for the Sprint are assigned, LEAVE THEM TO IT. If you micro-manage a development team, you’re on a two week timeline… before they resign.

We find that letting teams organise themselves does 3 things:

a) Reduces the Scrum Master’s Work
As you can imagine, I’m very happy about this. I can focus on removing impediments and managing relationships because the team is given charge of managing themselves.

b) Work Ownership
Since they are in charge of how they work, the final result is truly in their hands. This is a huge motivator that shifts the way they view the project from being “the client’s product” to being “our product”.

c) Improves Productivity
This really is just common sense. You would never tell a carpenter how to make the table or run their workshop. Let the professionals be professionals. Developers know and love one thing- building software. So when you let them do what they do best, it just so happens they end up doing it better than if you took charge.

Specify the task and timeline, answer any questions they have along the way, provide them with the tools they need and the coffee they like and leave them alone.

2. Self-Motivated Individuals

Don’t just hire the smartest candidates. You want to look for programmers, not people who can program. That means you need to look for people who:

  • Love to code
  • Spend their holidays learning new technologies or techniques
  • Have freelanced in the past
  • Work on side projects (do not discourage this!)
  • Get excited for opportunities to learn new technologies, not just stick to what they know
  • Love optimising algorithms
  • Hate improperly indented code


Look for programmers, not people who can program

Hire these kinds of people and productivity won’t be an issue because you’ll have a team that are not just there for the pay cheque, but because they love to code.

3. Flexible Work Arrangements

This has to do with where and when developers are expected to work.

There are many reasons why someone would get into software. But one of the biggest perks of this trade is that everything happens on the cloud. Meaning as long as I have internet access, I’m able to work from anywhere! Developers love working from home, at cafes, on a bean bag, or by the pool (just for the gram though, no one wants to work in the hot sun or be afraid their laptop may get wet).

With the benefit of being able to work from anywhere, this opens up the possibility of working outside the normal 9-5 window, as developers can (and often do) work from home till the wee hours of the night.

Time is the name of the game. So indeed let them:
a) Maximise time by working when they are most productive
b) Save time by working around the majority population’s schedule (like escaping the rush hour)
c) Use time they’ve saved to do what matters to them


So indeed let them maximise time, save time and use time

When developers are not stuck in the jam for hours, have time to relax, spend time with the family, fix up the house, work out, or whatever else that’s important to them, they will be healthier physically, emotionally and mentally.

Some are early birds, some are night owls and some are 9-5ers. Let them work when their productivity is at its peak, not when you can best keep an eye on them.

Do this and you’ll be rewarded with a team that is primed to deliver great software for you.

4. Applaud Positive Culture

Everyone can use a positivity boost from time to time. Especially if you’re in a position of leadership or management, be generous with your compliments. Don’t keep these affinity grenades on your belt, let them loose to wreak havoc in your teams.

A few things that we do:

  • Share client feedback forms with the entire company
  • When someone does something great, thank them specifically and publicly.
  • When someone is proactive, reply affirmatively and get as many people involved as possible to see your approval. It could look something like this:

    “Thanks for asking @Shafiq.. Hey @Aneesa and @Kevin do you all need any support on the Module_B? Shafiq is killing it on Module_A and the P.O. can’t get him features fast enough for his skills.
  • We send out monthly newsletters to the team. This is an opportunity to shoutout employees that have displayed outstanding performance and behaviour.

A kind and encouraging word can boost morale and improve productivity more than you know. You can’t track it, you can’t quantify it. But give it a shot and see how it transforms your team.

5. Reward them

Finally, put your money where your mouth is.

Skilful software engineers, who deliver quality software on time, manage and communicate with clients well, coach juniors, and are contributing to a positive work culture are tremendously valuable. They are few and far between and can be the catalyst to take your company to new heights.

So compensate them!

You can give them all the compliments, shoutouts, and flexibility you want, if you’re not compensating them, someone else will scoop them up in a hurry.


If you’re not compensating them, someone else will scoop them up in a hurry.

Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., the Former CEO of IBM said, “I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game, it is the game. In the end, an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value.”

Culture is nurtured over time. Invest in building that culture- one that is healthy and positive, where teams are empowered, expected and applauded for taking ownership over their work and it will reap benefits for you in the long run.


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