Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

The essence of productivity

Rethinking efficiency

7 min readJan 4, 2024


Most productivity improvements in knowledge work environments focus only on efficiency.

Many teams measure productivity by looking at tangible things like
effort, competence, and environmental factors. Typically, to increase capacity they add more people. Or maybe they hire senior people in the hope to increase competence. Or maybe they invest in expensive equipment and productivity tools. Or, the introduce more granular metrics to improve estimations.

The focus is on standardizing processes and reducing variance. Something that worked well in the industrial age where products were things like cars or telephones where quality was partly measured by the ability to re-create the same thing as fast as possible.

Although there is a place for these things, the most productive thing you can possibly do in the age of knowledge workers, though, where the quality of products are measured by innovation and usefulness, is to align your team, strengthen the relationships, and develop enough autonomy and ownership so that decision making can be better, and faster.

Swimming upstream

When even one person in your team is proverbially swimming upstream from the rest, it introduces friction which slows down progress.

In most teams I’ve worked with (and I’ve worked with many different teams of all shapes, sizes, and locations) it’s far more common for everyone to swim in a different direction.

The result is that most effort is spent on correcting misalignment and miscommunication than productive work. Imagine how much more productive your team will be if everyone was swimming in the same direction.

Productivity² = goal x feedback × motivation²

The simplest definition of productivity is measuring the ratio of inputs that is used in order to provide a useful and desired output people will pay for. The fewer inputs and the shorter the lifecycle to turn inputs into outputs, the more productive you are, regardless of whether you’re measuring people productivity in software development or building a car in a factory.

Focusing only on increasing speed and reducing variance is not necessarily productive at all. You have a 50% chance of your effort being productive.

It’s impossible to be productive without a goal.

It’s only productive if you’re clear on the goal and confident that it is a product or service users actually want and need. No efficiency improvement alone is going to ensure that you’re working on the right goal.

Without a goal you can’t be productive

To maximize your productivity, clarify your goal and build in meaningful feedback loops that is both scientific and meaningful to the customers.

Measuring analytics, for example, is useful to test what is already created, but it is more useful to speak to a select few customers to uncover what’s missing when you’re building a new product or service.

It’s not the one or the other, it’s about understanding what you want to learn and finding the best way to do it.

Feedback is more important than outputs

The faster you can learn and improve, the more productive you are.

Without feedback loops you are not learning at all. It’s better to speak to a handful of key target users early in the process than to get 1, 000 users using your product after it’s fully build, just to discard it after a day or two. It’s about getting it right early on, not getting it perfect once off.

Perfection is a waste. Feedback is value.

The missing (and most important) key to productivity

Although you might have a goal and short feedback loops, by far the most crucial key to productivity in a knowledge work environment is human motivation.

A motivated human is eager to produce, make less errors, and communicate better ultimately reducing errors and wasted effort. When an employee is demotivated, on the other hand, they are bound to work slower and make more mistakes.

The most productive teams work as well together as what they play together.

If you don’t already, invest time in discovering what motivates each person in your team and what their individual strengths are. There is little more motivating than allowing a person to use their strengths. And make space for emotions. Life is full of emotional ups and downs and it’s not possible for a human to always be in top form.

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball that’s hard to deal with. It’s human to be distracted or simply demotivated at such times. Expecting people to, like machines, always be on optimal productivity levels is insane and far from realistic or achievable.

You can have the best tools and skills, but without strong relationships and human-to-human connection you are as weak as the weakest link in your team.

Are you measuring the right thing?

If you’re measuring speed, velocity, or number of outputs you have a 50/50 chance of being productive, even when there is an increase in these measures.

Efficiency becomes useful when you produce the same artifact repeatedly.
In software development we mostly produce something that has never been produced before. If you haven’t done it before, it’s pretty much impossible (and mostly useless) to estimate. It’s only a guess. And we’re not very good at guessing when it comes to time.

The key to productivity is thus getting clear on the desired outcome. Are you solving the right problem to begin with? And do you understand the problem and the underlying need? Or do you just think you do? Without speaking to users and letting them use it in their contextual setting, you can’t possibly be sure if you’re solving the right problem.

There are of course useful metrics such as measuring lead time (the time it takes to release a single feature), the deployment frequency (how often you release new features to production), and other DORA metrics. But they all assume you are building the right thing.

What if you’re measuring the wrong thing?

Debunking the but’s …

Most teams, when asked, will come up with a but — some sort of excuse why they failed to deliver or be productive.

  • We don’t have enough people.
  • We need funding.
  • We don’t have the best tools.
  • We need more time.
  • It’s complicated…

None of these but’s are valid or true. Resources are rarely, if ever, the cause of productivity issues.

You don’t need more time. You need to improve what you do with your available time and how you spend what you have. Are you jumping in and solving a problem you think you know the answer to? Or are you doing fieldwork to discover the underlying needs?

You don’t need more people (in most cases). Adding more people, as in a typical manufacturing environment, introduces unnecessary complexity that slows down rather than speed up production. More people simply means a higher probability that some will be swimming upstream, while others are swimming downstream.

You don’t need funding. Funding is a tool for expansion and growth and there’s a handful of companies that rely on adequate funding in order to be successful. Uber, for example, needed a certain amount of cars and drivers in order to gain traction. Most companies, however, don’t need that. If you’re working on 99% of software products, you don’t need funding.

All funding will do is put more pressure on keeping shareholders happy, naturally increasing the friction and increase complexity. If you can’t make it work without funding, you’re probably don’t have feedback loops or strong relationships. Or you don’t fully understand the problem you’re trying to solve. If you know why you’re doing something or what you’re trying to achieve, you can get feedback and learn using something as simple as pen and paper.

You don’t need better tools. Or any tools for that matter. There is not a single tool on this planet that will meet all your needs. They all have pro’s and con’s. There isn’t something like the perfect tool. Never will be.

Most tools doesn’t even meet the needs of the creators in most cases, as tools are by nature less adaptive and flexible than a whiteboard, a conversation, or a pen and a piece of paper. Tools, in most cases, add a level of complexity and administrative waste that decreases your productivity.

If you strongly believe that you need better tools, I invite you to take a deep look at yourself and why you think you need these tools. Is it really to increase productivity? Or is it to manage and control and know what’s going on all the time because you don’t trust that the people will do the right thing?

Your problem isn’t that complicated. You’re making it complicated. Most probably because you haven’t spent enough time iteratively understanding the user needs, finding patterns, and doing architecture design upfront.

Apple become the world’s most loved brand for one thing and one thing only. They simplified complexity and delivered less, but better quality.

In the age of knowledge work adding more increases cognitive overload
which leads to slower decision making and higher probability of mistakes and organizational waste in re-doing work as a result of these mistakes.

If you think you’re product or service is complicated, it’s a symptom of fragmentation in your organization and conflicting goals.

Productivity for humans

Productivity for humans requires a clear goal and constant small corrections to stay on track as best as possible. Like a GPS, it’s not about staying on track all the time, but correcting your route early and often, always having the end-goal in mind.

To create hyper productive teams, you need clarity and alignment towards a shared goal, regular and meaningful feedback loops, and the ability express yourself fully.

To maximize your productivity, you need to essential get more clarity on your vision and goals, and strengthen your relationships. If work doesn’t feel like play, you’re not being productive.

Want to be more productive?

Get in touch at or visit to find out how I can help you.



Kate Dames

A cup of fresh ideas for old problems. Integrating technology, agile, gamification & lean to make workplaces more human, productive & fun.