What your dev team can learn from Greg McKeown’s principle of essentialism

Everyone wants to get more done in less time. However, that is not what Greg McKeown’s New York Times bestseller book “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” is about. It is rather a book about getting the right things done and focusing on the things that are essential while eliminating the clutter.

In the last few weeks, we covered productivity and communication topics here on our blog and asked how they can be applied to working together with your dev team.

In this article, we want to take a look at the tipsMcKeown’s is suggesting and ask how they can work when you are building digital products with your dev team.

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Getting the right things done

What does it mean to get the right things done? How do you know what to focus on and what does it mean to focus on the essential things?

These are questions McKeown is tackling. His book is divided into three main sections that are – at the same time – steps for a new approach to productivity and time management. His ideas revolve around:

  1. Exploring what it is you want
  2. Eliminating the clutter and
  3. Executing the tasks ahead

We’ll break down what these steps mean and what they can mean specifically for your dev team.

1. Exploring your highest contribution

“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein

A central question and part of McKeown’s book are figuring out where you can make your biggest contribution. You can be anything you want, but you can’t be everything. In other words: What is your one skill/ability/contribution you want to make at your workplace and in life?

“Essentialism”, McKeown writes, “is a disciplined, systematic approach for determining where our highest point of contribution lies, then making execution of those things almost effortless.”

Most people are stretching themselves thin by trying to be everything when it would be wiser to choose one area they are most talented in.

For a dev team, this means assessing everyone’s skill set and looking into where each and everyone can make the highest contribution that is aligned with their skillset and personal goals. What tasks does Maria enjoy most? What area is Jake most skilled to-dos? What is Jane’s contribution?

By focusing on everyone’s skill set and joy you are not only increasing productivity but general work happiness as well.

This is an important thing to consider from the start when you are building your team. People in your team should have complementary skills and strengths making sure that your team is covered to achieve the defined tech/business goals.

2. Declutter: Eliminate the non-essential

“The wisdom of life consists in the elimination of non-essentials.” – Lin Yutang

One essential principle in McKeown’s book is cutting out everything that is non-essential. In a story early on in the book, McKeown presents the example of an executive, who – in an attempt to cut out non-essential tasks – would ask himself when presented with a new request:

“Is this the very most important thing I should be doing with my time and resources right now?”

McKeown suggests to ask the following questions in order to eliminate the non-essential from our work days and daily life:

“How many times have you reacted to a request by saying yes without really thinking about it? How many times have you resented committing to do something and wondered, ‘Why did I sign up for this?’ How often do you say yes simply to please? Or to avoid trouble? Or because ‘yes’ has become your default response?”

What does this approach mean for you and your dev team?

Start by looking at everyone’s daily to-dos and time spent. Maybe you have a log that lists everyone’s daily tasks. Go through all tasks one-by-one and ask: Is this essential? Is this a necessary task or is it just here, because it was essential three months ago.

Open up each story or task. Ask yourself, “does this story create value?” If it does, it deserves to be on your backlog, so prioritize it accordingly. If it doesn’t, discard it.

Do a regular decluttering of your backlog both for yourself and your team. This system can also mean decluttering your product of unnecessary features that require continuous time investment or cleaning up the code to have fewer maintenance issues in the long-run.

3. Prioritize tasks (and your life!)

“If you don’t prioritize your life, someone else will.” – Greg Mckeown

Prioritizing means to make decisions and to be able to say No: to tasks, to requests, to meetings. Everything that demands time and energy has to be scrutinized.

The idea of essentialism is to focus your energy on the few things that are truly important and to leave the rest out. We all have a limited amount of energy that we can either spread over many tasks or concentrate on one thing.

McKeown writes:

“By investing in fewer things we have the satisfying experience of making significant progress in the things that matter most.”

What does that mean for managing a dev team?

Prioritizing ties back into eliminating. What are tasks your team members should focus on? How can they retain their energy by concentrating on their core strengths?

Even when eliminating all the non-essential tasks, there are probably still a variety of tasks to do for every developer in your team. Make sure that everyone starts with the most important task first and prioritizes them in the order of importance (read: urgency), but also in the order of their highest contribution.

4. Execute tasks wisely in your dev team

The last step and section in McKeown’s book are on executing on your intentions. It is about finding a system that makes execution as effortless as possible.

The Essentialist approach is that execution (such as finishing a project, organizing a meeting) is not draining, but that it is just the last step of a system that starts with exploration and elimination. By using these systems, you are removing obstacles from the beginning and not just in the execution stage.

For dev teams, this means execution should be as effortlessly as possible. It is not the execution stage where you make decisions in the first place. Especially if you are doing a sprint – are focusing on a sub-project in a limited time-frame – it is important to clearly separate the stages to make execution non-draining.

Wrapping it up.

McKeown’s book is about productivity, time management, about work and life. Its principles can be applied to any situation. It is not so much a method than rather a discipline that you apply to your own life. This discipline can also be applied when working together with your dev team. Just try the three steps – explore, eliminate, execute – with your team and see where they lead you.

This post was brought to you by Usersnap. Usersnap helps you work together with your team, communicate effortlessly, and have more fun.

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