Tick Tock 

How teams at Doberman find flow with radical scheduling

We can’t do it!!! It will mess up all our projects!

I was having an argument with Tove, our Creative Director, about project scheduling. For a long time she had been frustrated by the fragmented nature of our working hours, and now she and a group of colleagues had a radical proposal that they wanted us to try.

Scheduling of projects and team members is at the existential core of most organizations. It is where project quality, personal growth and sustainable profitability meet.

For years we had cut and sliced people’s time in half-day increments to maximise how talent could be spread across projects and optimise budgets. People could be working on three to five projects at a time.

tickTockMTWTF

Now she was telling me that we should work on one project per week, and alternate between max two clients, every other week. She called it Tick Tock after the two scheduling “slots” this way of working created.

tickTockWeekly

The challenge was that in the current “spaghetti model” of scheduling, the staffing of every team was interconnected with other teams. We would not be able to detangle one or two teams to try Tove’s proposal. We would have to shuffle people between every single one of our 20-plus project teams.

Being the person responsible for sales and operations, the thought of this disruption made my head explode.

The case for change

Tove had strong arguments for changing our approach:

  1. By far the #1 complaint of our team members was the lack of focus time, collaborative time and feeling of flow.
  2. Constant scheduling conflicts were burning out our project managers. Frequently team members looked like they were available but turned out to be scheduled for different projects on different hours, and in reality would have little or no face time together. This led to endless efforts to coordinate calendars to seek out what face time possible.
  3. Significant time was spent to bring team members up to speed, instead of working.
  4. Frequent context switching is cognitively costly. Science tells us that it takes around 23 minutes to refocus after being interrupted in the middle of a complex task. Frequent context switching thus reduces general productivity, but to make things worse it is particularly detrimental to our ability for ‘deep work’ on challenging tasks and working in a state of flow.
  5. Communication/interaction overload. Due to the small slivers of work time per project, there tended to be a lot of distracting communication in between. Lets say you work on 4 projects in a week and each project has a team of 5 colleagues and 5 clients. That is 40 potential people wanting to communicate with you at any given time.
  6. The out-of-control amount of internal meetings. As well-meaning meeting owners looked for holes in peoples schedules without coordinating the total load, internal meetings could flood the calendar, swamping the work week and stressing the teams.

In the middle of the studio, Tove and I were still arguing. Then it struck me. Who are we, if we don’t try? We asked this of our clients and of our teams all the time. Tove was now asking the same of me. It can be hard to practice what you preach. Of course we should pilot this!

Ok, let’s try it.

Good enough for now, safe enough to try

Over a few days, a group of us representing design, project management, sales and operations worked out the exact shape and timing of the pilot. We decided that:

  • The Tick Tock cycle would be one week instead of two. Tick would be first half of the week, Tock the second. This way projects would make progress every week, something we assumed would fit most clients’ pace.

tickTock

  • Any and all internal meetings, such as company all hands and celebrations, would be scheduled on Wednesdays, “between” the Tick and Tock.
  • All projects would shift to the Tick Tock model. It would be the same amount of work when shifting the teams around, and if we wanted to continue, it would save us a second round of shifting. All-in.
  • Pilot launch was set to right after vacations in August. Minds rested, clear and ready to try the new model. Also most projects were new or resetting at that time anyway, making it easier to transition.
  • We would try the model for three months, evaluating it in October.

The transition

On Midsummers Eve, all the project managers gathered at a massive wall. Every team member was represented by two tickets: one for tick, one for tock. Each project had a worksheet. There was excitement in the air and strawberry cake on the table. For four hours we planned and negotiated in real time more than twenty new teams.

tickTockCoCreation Every employee was represented with two tickets: one green for Tick and one yellow for Tock

In August everybody came back to a new world of Tick Tock. We were all a little tense and apprehensive. Where would it break first? And then… nothing happened. Everything ran smoothly. If anything, there was a tangible absence of scheduling conflicts. Maybe this would work, after all.

One year later We didn’t evaluate in October. There was no reason to. It may sound incredible but everything just kind of worked and it felt much, much better. A year later things are still very positive. But don’t just take my word for it.

tickTockBetterSameWorse

In a recent internal poll 97% thought Tick Tock is better than our previous model. Polls are great but comments such as this capture the nuances better:

There will be howls of protest if you change it back. Love it. // Elin Aram, UX Designer

Over the course of the year we have learned a few things:

Advantages of Tick Tock

For makers, the shift to Tick Tock has indeed created much more focus time and flow, largely resolving our team members #1 complaint.

For managers, the straightforward structure and clear language of Tick Tock allows schedulers to focus on team makeup instead of detangling spaghetti. Because people who look available are available, Tick Tock has practically eliminated wishful thinking in scheduling. Scheduling conflicts have almost disappeared giving valuable time and energy back.

The words Tick and Tock have entered our language and made discussing scheduling options much easier. “Are you busy in Tick?” “Can we switch this project to Tock after Christmas?”

The once sprawling internal meetings have been constrained to Wednesdays, decreased in scale and, in my personal opinion, increased in meaning.

I also sense that our teams work not only work faster but have also increased their ability to take on more complex challenges.

In our implementation, both makers and managers win.

Disadvantages of Tick Tock

So far we haven’t experienced any true disadvantages. That said, there are some considerations on our radar:

  • Public holidays seem to fall disproportionally on Tock, at least in Sweden. So sometimes, a project can move faster if it is in Tick.
  • Tick Tock may not fit with the rhythm of the client. It has yet to happen for us but we still check for this in every new project.
  • It takes a little time to get used to the 2.5 day “chunks”. They felt very large, inflexible, even “expensive” to start with.
  • It does not solve all project friction. For instance a tight budget, an open-ended challenge or collaboration issues still need to be actively managed for the team to achieve flow.

The future

Winston Churchill once said “we shape our buildings, thereafter they shape us.” I believe the same can be said for processes and schedules.

Tick Tock may work great for us now, but we need to keep challenging it. Maybe one day we will try doing one project per week. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Tove Blomgren, Linnéa Becker and Therese Björkqvist for driving the concept. Thanks to Maria Lübeck, Jenny Pettersson, Anna Essen, Anna Strömberg and Henrik Karlsson in Operations as well as our Process Managers Angela Tillman Sperandio, Gustav Rådström, Hilary Persson, Hanna Öquist, Hannes Strassburg, Marith Fält, Patricia Richter, Sara Johannesson and Sofie Nilsson for refining the concept and making it happen!

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