Task Optimisation: How to Keep Your Team at its Creative Limit

January 5, 2018
Will Kaye
Managing Director

Compared to the mainly repetitive and routine jobs of the past, such as digging..

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Compared to the mainly repetitive and routine jobs of the past, such as digging a ditch or packing a product, most of today’s knowledge-based work is much harder to organise and optimise for efficiency. In both startups and massive corporations, the demands on creative and innovative thinking are paramount, such as in app development, web design, and social marketing. These jobs involve a whole network of tasks that aren’t easily separated.

If you want to organise and optimise your team and their projects, it is imperative to understand the structure of the work beforehand, letting you assign the right people to the right tasks for optimised creativity and flexibility. Don’t be afraid of preplanning. It is what provides the structure required for optimisation and efficient task division between team members.

Knowledge workers do need room to explore to be creative and innovative. Innovation is the “successful exploitation of new ideas,” explains a Dutch analysis of innovative outputs, but before you can exploit ideas, you first have to find them (jstor.org/stable/j.ctt46mwvr). When done right, optimisation and efficient flexibility should produce the same level of creative output in much less time. Instead of either stifling your team or leaving them without direction, it is possible to optimise flexible and innovative results right into the plan.

Why Adding More People to a Project Often Results in More Delays

Older areas of knowledge work, such as engineering, accountancy, and law, have long understood the importance of task division and planning. Although something like law might not seem precisely optimised, the incredibly flexible and complex systems of governance it allows is itself a minor miracle. Newer industries have more to learn from these older industries than they might think. For instance, though software engineers may call themselves engineers, their organisation and optimisation are downright primitive compared to mechanical or electrical engineers.

This problem of organisation in knowledge work and software development is not new. Way back in 1975, Frederick P. Brooks Jr. explained in his influential (but rarely followed) guide, The Mythical Man Month (archive.org/details/mythicalmanmonth00fred), that programming could not be optimised efficiently like repetitive assembly work. Instead, when Brooks found that the more developers managers threw at a problem, the more their output decreased. And not only did the issues of communication and task division reduce production from each person added, but those reductions were also often so severe that larger teams took more rather than less time to complete projects.

The problem with programming, as Brooks saw it, is that tasks are often sequential and networked. Therefore, each part of a piece of software or app depends on the working output of other elements. Without a clear, optimised plan, developers often spend less time programming and more time haphazardly trying to coordinate different tasks, and they usually end up waiting around for other people to finish important work. Worse, because programming is a mixture of many interrelated tasks, if one goes wrong, everything can go wrong.

Most organisations have optimisation limits like these. Only so many people can work on a production line before it hits its limit. Just so many people can plough a field before they start getting in each other’s way. But these problems are magnified in knowledge work. It’s better to plan out the complicated interrelation of tasks beforehand instead of waiting for them to pile up on top of each other.

The Importance of Planning and Prototyping to Optimise Task Time

Knowledge work and creativity requires tight planning to optimise efficiently. Organisational researchers have found that creativity and innovation generally break down into two types of tasks, additive and disjunctive, as shown in a 2004 study of creativity in organisations (doi.org/10.1002/job.240). The output from additive tasks depends on the sum of each team member’s performance, but production from disjunctive tasks depends on the best performing team member.

Getting the right people into the right tasks by understanding how those tasks relate to each other is the most important part of optimisation. For instance, the creative output of an advertising copywriting team may depend mainly on the sum of the individual’s creative output, making it an additive task. But the creative output from the production team in the same company may be heavily dependent on the output one person, such as an ad director or actor, making it a disjunctive task.

Additionally, there is another type of creative task to watch out for: conjunctive tasks, where the output depends on the worst performing person in the group. Both additive and disjunctive tasks become conjunctive when the wrong person is in the wrong place. If when developing an app, one central module depends on someone who can’t handle the task, suddenly the entire project is at the mercy of that team member’s poor performance.

Coordinating tasks is difficult, and bottlenecks often result in poor planning that leaves people waiting for the completion of specific essential tasks. In advertising, the production department usually has to wait on copy from the creative side. In app development, teams often have to wait for specific core modules before starting their work. But only so many people can write copy or code a module at once.

In software development, many project and team leaders try to solve this coordination problem by just giving each developer a long list of different tasks to do, hoping that bottlenecks will work themselves out as people switch between these tasks as needed. However, without a clear plan, bottlenecks often aren’t apparent until the team is weeks behind and still waiting for necessary modules or algorithms assigned to the wrong people, or just not divided efficiently.

Even if this method of non-organisation works out for software teams, it often results in disorganised spaghetti code. This code might even be creative and innovative in some buried bits, but it is often entirely indecipherable to anyone but the original coder, making any future changes an enormous headache.

Getting the best people into the most appropriate task takes some time to plan, but it will save project time in the long run. Your team has to know where it is going if it is going to get there without taking half a dozen detours along the way.

How to Keep Dynamic Collaboration While Optimising Your Team

That doesn’t mean that free collaboration and flexible decision making should get thrown out the window. Some knowledge industries, such as law and structural engineering, must have stringent guidelines because the cost of failure is so high. However, in many knowledge industries, such as marketing and software development, iterative failure is a necessary part of the process.

The goal is to balance systematic and flexible approaches. To give your team the benefits of accident and cross-pollination found in the top creative teams, optimise that flexibility right into the plan, and the planning process.

Creative leaders must be able to wear multiple different hats during different stages of work. During the initial planning stages of the process, put yourself in a discursive, collaborative, and exploratory mode, breaking the project down through both systematised initial meetings and more informal collaborative discussions. Encourage positive debate and disagreement, and make sure to ask questions to draw out information.

The collaborative stage clears the path for the systematic and optimised division of tasks, breaking the project down so that the best people get assigned to the most critical functions that are appropriate for their skills. By giving a more unobstructed view of the whole project, systematic collaboration early in the project leaves room for an efficient plan that understand the order of sequential work, helping avoid people sitting around while they wait for other team members to complete their work.

Once the optimised plan is complete, put on your taskmaster hat and make sure everyone stays on schedule, but be careful to give people enough freedom to remain creative, and breathing down their necks will make team members resent you. As well as the initial collaborative planning stage, set aside time in the optimised plan for the flexible and dynamic aspects of creativity, including time for collaborative reassessment to modify the program as needed. And remember to plan for failure and iteration if appropriate, especially if your team is tackling a previously unsolved problem.

How to Optimise Your Team for Creative Efficiency

Because creativity is, by most definitions, the judgment of the value of novelty, the only way to be a good judge of innovation, i.e., new and unique ideas, is to have significant experience with what does and doesn’t work. However, when optimising your team for creativity and innovation, remember that creativity also requires the application of outside knowledge to make new creative and innovative connections with other ideas.

New ideas don’t just come out of nowhere; they have their bases on the combination and networked connection of previous knowledge. The most creative people are often those who have experience in multiple fields. They can see patterns and relationships between ideas and information that extremely specialised people cannot.

Keeping the same team members always doing the same task in every project is the most efficient way to organise people in the short term, and is essential on projects with short timelines. However, it may not be the best way to reach the maximum long-term creative potential of your team. Allow people to move to other new tasks if they suggest it at appropriate times. Not only will this keep team members from becoming bored, but it will also stimulate their creativity by exposing them to new information.

A project with no plan might result in very creative outcomes, it will just fail by running out its time. A project with too rigid a program will only manage to do the same thing the same way it got done before. Find a place in the middle for your team. Optimise flexible creativity into the plan, letting your team be creative and innovative without wasting time.