AWS Cloud Enterprise Strategy Blog

Making Time to Change, Part 1

A person who chases two rabbits catches neither.


“I need to transform my organisation to become more agile, but I don’t have enough people or time.” Does this ring a bell?

As organisations look to evolve their culture and adopt supporting cloud-based technologies, one significant challenge is how to do this while also keeping the current business and initiatives running. Many CIOs believe their employees simply don’t have the time to take on more work, a conclusion that sometimes is reached a little too quickly. If I could share approaches that have been shown to increase customer and employee satisfaction, halve product time to market, and increase your overall agility, would you be interested?

In this two-part series, I will share some of the root causes of a perceived lack of people and time, and then share ideas on how to free up time to become more agile.

Ten-Percent People: Too Much Work, Too Little Ownership

A stressed businesswoman is overwhelmed with too much workI co-opted this term from a customer as it really resonated with me. Imagine having 10% of your time assigned to just 10% of an aspect of ten different projects. One weekly project allocation of four hours is spent developing requirements for a system. How emotionally engaged would you be in the initiative’s success? Not much I’d bet. Then imagine that up to half of this time is spent on discretionary, numbingly boring jobs others could do better. Oh, and as the proverbial nail in the coffin, let’s add in all that time spent waiting for others to complete their activities before you can proceed.

Once valuable activities can become time-sucking vortices. To address this, extra managers are added to an organisation to increase discipline. These individuals create more demand on others’ time, and so the vicious cycle continues. How time is handled in many organisations is slightly worse than sub-optimal. The original dream of the advocates of scientific management was the opposite of this situation: engage employees for their brawn rather than brains and have them focused efficiently on repetitive tasks. Neither scientific management nor adding additional managers addresses today’s needs.

Gaining Insight into the Problem

Applying lean engineering techniques to eliminate waste is healthy but hard because of our well-established disposition to justify the status quo. The fight to eliminate waste starts with data on how time is being spent in your organisation. This can trigger two responses. One is the fear others have about what your real goal is with the analysis. The other is justifying activities or ideas we hold dear, often to prevent our own value being questioned. If these are concerns, I would suggest reading my recent blog post on psychological safety as a starting point.

Assuming you do a great job explaining the rationale, and respondents are honest, I think you will find the results of your data collection enlightening. I did. If I were to try to summarise the likely results from this research in a pseudo equation, it would be this:

While the time available is relatively immutable, the other factors aren’t. By breaking down each of these aspects we can get an appreciation of the barriers preventing the liberation of time and agility in an organisation.

Lack of Emotional Engagement

Whilst I’ve written about emotional engagement before, as with any essential element of a change, it’s worth revisiting. Many of us work hard throughout our careers but still find time at home to engage in hobbies. It’s usually because we are enamoured with learning or building something new; we crave an emotional investment in something enjoyable.

As humans we look for things to stimulate our heads and our hearts. Businesses that do this well can unleash the same energy and excitement that individuals invest in their hobbies, and yet too many organisations don’t do this. Beyond feeling an emotional connection to a company through its purpose, most of us need a feeling of excitement in day-to-day work. This means having sufficient ownership of an outcome, not just a sliver of an initiative. If I am writing requirements for a product but never see it come to life, I am unlikely to have the same passion and energy as if I were actually involved in seeing it through to launch.

So Many Priorities, So Little Focus

A room under renovation is being paintedHere comes the tough one: how can you reduce the number of priorities and tasks an individual needs to work on? The normal argument here is that there are not enough people to do the work required, so an employee needs to multitask. Numerous studies stress humans’ hopeless ability to do so. If I were to paint my house for one hour every week, how long would it take? Well, given the setting up and cleaning up phases, likely at least twice as long as doing it in one fell swoop. Oh, and it would take far longer than expected due to distractions, and the end results would look patchy. This is what we typically ask many employees to do today. My “ten-percent people” metaphor misses this point as the maths doesn’t end up adding up to 100%. I hypothesise that when multitasking, you are likely getting less than 70% of someone’s capability in approaching work allocation due to time wasted mentally transitioning from one project to another.

Another contributory factor is changing priorities. We cannot expect a business to stay static. What can feel like changing priorities, though, is more often our inability to move at the same pace as the business. Complexity increases, and the frenetic pace of internal change distracts from the faster rate of real change in the external environment.

As leaders we can implicitly compound this behaviour by going around a room of peers asking for feedback on an individual during performance review season. Lack of familiarity with an individual becomes as much a determining factor for their performance as the work itself.

In turn these issues prevent us from deeply considering issues such as how to more effectively deliver value. When we couple this lack of time with too much oversight of even seemingly trivial decisions, poorer decisions are made, pushing issues off until the future wasting even more time.


Muda is a Lean engineering catch-all term for non-value-added activities, namely waste. Do you recognise any of these in your own company?

  • Wrong work: building functionality no one uses, or the wrong functionality due to a lack of understanding
  • Watching the watchers: updating the PMO before they update the portfolio director before they update the VP before….
  • Old routines: attending a bi-weekly portfolio review because, well, we’ve always done it
  • Late engagement: a post-dev security gate review highlighting an issue, delaying deployment
  • Mismatched priorities: waiting on a Cloud Centre of Excellence to prioritise and build a new AMI
  • Slow approvals: waiting for a quarterly review to get approval to move to the next stage of development
  • Too many chiefs: decisions being made but overturned by someone else who claims to have the decision-making rights

I’ve experienced all of these multiple times. Building features is a fun one to dive into particularly if your applications have been well instrumented. Quite often functionality is built based on a particular individual’s wish list but underestimates the adoption friction or end users’ desire for the feature. It’s not uncommon to see 50% or more features not used, and only a minority of the remainder used frequently. Not only is the work not wanted, but it sucks in more time through managing subsequent testing in releases and related technical debt. All this and still no-one feels ownership for a poor decision.

One other source of waste that deserves a chapter unto itself is waiting time. Some analysts suggest that as much as 80% of a developer’s time can be spent waiting. This could be waiting on the clarification of a requirement, or for another team to finish their widget before you can test if it integrates with your widget. Another common example is the manual error-prone building of infrastructure. Done right this can take minutes. Done badly it can take two months with adverse implications for cost, agility, and wait time.

Start with the End in Mind

With all these complicating, time-wasting factors, it’s no wonder so many organisations feel like they don’t have the capacity to transform. Armed with this information, it might be tempting to jump to process junkies’ habitual go-tos: extensive workshops to generate process maps with inefficiencies identified. This spawns even more projects and time demands, which lead to more bottlenecks. This approach falls back on engineering for efficiency and ignores effectiveness and people’s passions. Before we dive into solutions in the next blog, assume innocence. If wasteful work is being undertaken, assume this is an organisational problem, not an individual or team wanting to waste their time. In agile organisations teams are allowed to get on with the work, and the organisational hierarchy is responsible for removing blockers.

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More on this topic

Waste Identification and Elimination in Information Technology Organizations,” Al-Baik & Miller (2014), Empirical Software Engineering Journal

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun

Phil Le-Brun is an Enterprise Strategist and Evangelist at Amazon Web Services (AWS). In this role, Phil works with enterprise executives to share experiences and strategies for how the cloud can help them increase speed and agility while devoting more of their resources to their customers. Prior to joining AWS, Phil held multiple senior technology leadership roles at McDonald’s Corporation. Phil has a BEng in Electronic and Electrical Engineering, a Masters in Business Administration, and an MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice.