40 Hour Work Week: The Secret of High Performance Teams



“Eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours play, make just and healthy day.” – King Alfred the Great

One of the most important lessons at Microsoft was learning the value of a 40 hour work week.

I’ve been on time, on budget for 10 years on projects ranging from grass-roots or “best efforts” to $ million+ investments.

In my first few years, I was on time, on budget through heroic effort.  That’s not sustainable and folks don’t want to sign up for that more than once.

Fix Time, Flex Scope, Flow Value

Luckily, I learned early on how to drive more effective results by fixing time and flexing scope, while flowing value, and optimizing team health.

I also learned the value of figuring out effective product-lines, managing portfolios of investments, finding the best “Hot Spots” on heat maps of customer pain and opportunity, and mastering the art of the WBS (work breakdown structures) and cuttable scope.

For some people that have experienced effective 40 hour work weeks on a regular basis, this will be “no-duh.”

For those that haven’t, this may be unfathomable, so I’ll share what I’ve learned so at least it can give you food for thought and potentially help give you a mental model of what success can look like.

I originally slanted this for individuals and 40 hour work weeks, but I realized it’s more effective if more team leaders drive 40 hour work weeks so that everybody wins.

Why a 40 Hour Work Week

It’s not that I just want happier, healthier, more effective colleagues.  I want a more effective place to work.

In my experience, a 40 hour work week is a benchmark of the most effective teams.

They have work-life balance.

They have buffer to respond to opportunity and to deal with crunches.

They have processes in place, they invest in their learning and growth, and they move up the stack instead of always solving the basics.

Instead of perpetual fire-fighting, they are more deliberate about planning and strategy and they anticipate their customers and the market (through empathy and staying connected to customers.)

They learn and respond and can turn on a dime.

They have a dashboard, they know the score, and they can change their approach.

There’s another reason that cuts right to the chase.  If budget cuts will break you, then the first way to build a firm foundation and execution machine is to master the 40 hour work week.  It’s a forcing function that fixes a lot of underlying execution issues that you just cannot see if your organization throws time at problems.

If you can’t see it, you can’t fix it.

When you bound it by time, you can start testing more effective ways to produce results.  To make this actionable, make it an initiative.

60-80 Hour Week of Ineffectiveness

Here are some of the attributes of teams that lead and drive 60-80 hour weeks of ineffectiveness and inefficiency:

  1. Throwing time at things (this shows up as longer days or weekends and adding more and more meetings.)
  2. Nothing is a priority because everything is a priority (this is a sign of lacking metrics people believe in or a relevant scoreboard or dashboard of results or a lack of setting expectations or a lack of clarity on the end in mind or inability to flow incremental value.)
  3. Working faster and harder to make up for bad planning.
  4. Work on the wrong things faster or longer.
  5. Lots of meetings because there’s more time to throw at them.
  6. Lack of priorities because there is no forcing function like time.
  7. Lack of focus because of a lack of priorities and throwing time at problems.
  8. Bad estimation because it’s spread out over too much work or too much time or too ambitious.
  9. Bad resource planning because of bad estimates and lack of clarity or feedback loops on results.
  10. Scope drives everything, so scope creep is a way of life.
  11. Ship cycles are spread so far apart that nobody wants to version or push to the next version so everything has to fit this time around through death marches and endless fitting square pegs into round holes.

Ultimately, it’s a lost of waste on multiple levels.  Mostly, it’s a waste of human potential.

40 Hour Week of Effectiveness

Here are some of the attributes of teams that lead and drive 40 hour work weeks of effectiveness:

  • Get smart people on a cadence.  If there is a regular rhythm of results or a regular ship cycle or a regular time when the trains leave the station, you can always improve everything else.  The worst mistake is having timelines of jello.  When you have a cadence, people can version things, they can tune and improve processes, they can scope and chunk things down, they can ruthlessly prioritize, etc.
  • The team is fully engaged in the work they do.  They co-create the future they buy in to the journey and path, and believe in the end-in-mind.  They give their best where they have their best to give.
  • Ruthlessly prioritize value.  It’s not “how much can we do” … it’s “what’s the next best thing to do?”  This also means following the 80/20 rule and focusing on the 20% of the work that gets you 80% of the value.
  • Learn your capacity and throughput.  Throughput is simply the amount of work you can do in a given time period.
  • Have the right people in the right roles.  A sign of a strong team is they *feel* they can run towards the problem versus want to run away.  The two simplest way to kill an otherwise effective team are to have somebody out of position (e.g. catcher playing third base), or missing a key player (e.g. no pitcher.)
  • Spend more time in strengths.  Strengths are NOT what you are simply good at.  Strengths are your natural thinking, feeling, and doing patterns.  This is going with the flow or going with the grain versus against the grain.  If you are always fighting your natural patterns, then you aren’t leveraging your strengths or making the most of what you’ve got.  Instead, you are creating a liability.  This often happens by having people out of position or lack of the right resources.  By spending more time in your strengths, you amplify your impact, you renew your energy, and you grow faster in your strengths than you possibly can in your weaknesses.
  • Spend less time in weaknesses.    This is the Hedgehog Concept in action.   Stop doing what you’re not good at.  Do this by spending more time in what you are great at.  You can shave and slough off the time you spent in weaknesses by deliberately carving out more time to spend in your strengths.  Again, this will help keep your energy strong, which is the key to great results in less time.  Keep in mind that if you have serious liabilities, then you need to reduce them, but you don’t get great by improving your weaknesses, you get great by growing your strengths.
  • Push the bottleneck around.  Every team or organization has something that gates them.  It can be a lack of money or the right ideas or the right people.  In my experience, I often see heavy handed processes that made teams ineffective.  I also see the lack of the right vital few people (like playing baseball without a pitcher or playing hockey without a goalie.)  I also see a lack of the right investments, which is usually a sign of either a lack of clarity on the end-in-mind or a lack of understanding about the nature of the work (such as what it takes, how long it takes, who can do it, how to make it more efficient or effective, etc.)  There is always a bottleneck and if you can put your finger on the most important one, and you eliminate it or change the bottleneck, you can exponentially amplify your results.  My favorite lens for looking for productivity bottlenecks is the Theory of Constraints.

While these insights and lessons might seem easy, intuitive, or simple, they are actually hard-earned and they are directly from the school of hard knocks.  It took multiple managers, testing with multiple teams over multiple years, and a lot of trial and error to figure out what actually works.

Cornerstone Concepts for More Effective and Efficient Weeks

There are some fundamental concepts and shifts to understanding why and how a 40 hour work week is more effective than a 60 or 80 hour work week.   You need a few concepts under your belt to help guide you through change:

  • Energy is the key to productivity, not time.   Give me four Power Hours over 40 hours of suck-the-life-force-slowly-out-of-me any day.  A Power Hour is where you are in the zone or in your flow and your energy is strong, while your creative juices are flowing or you are your most resourceful and solve problems with ease.    You get more Power Hours by people working in their strengths, playing to their passions, getting sufficient rest, enjoying work-life balance, and feeling valued for the work they do.
  • It’s value delivered, not time spent.  Spending more time does not mean creating more value.  If you’re metric is “butts in seats” or “*** in chair,” you’re missing the point.   You want to measure value, and value is not a linear line of widgets you just crank out in the knowledge arena.
  • Shifting from Industrial Age thinking to the Knowledge Age.  In the Industrial Age, spending more time, meant producing more widgets.  Not so in the Knowledge Age.  Now it’s about coming up with new ideas, new ways, changing the game, and responding to demand in more creative ways.  Knowledge and ideas are our main source of economic growth.  It’s about turning knowledge from ideas in the mind, into valuable things and making things happen, through networks and systems of collective intelligence.
  • Intrinsic Value vs. Market Value.  For the sake of argument, let’s say a can of soda has an intrinsic value of $1.00.  It should never be worth more than that, at the intrinsic level.  Put that same can of soda in the desert, and now it’s market value is $50 or $100.   This gap between intrinsic value and market value is why bubbles burst or why customers that were paying $50 or $100 over here, can suddenly pay $1 over there.   Your opportunity for innovating in both your processes and your products comes from knowing the intrinsic value of things.  At some point, you’ve found the bottleneck or the glass-ceiling.  The key is to make sure your costs are close to intrinsic value and that if your market value is over-inflated to know that somebody, somewhere around the world can beat you on cost if you’re playing the cost game (A pattern I keep seeing is cost is losing, quality is winning for the long-haul – quality and brand are hard to copy.)
  • Sustainable pace.   Effectiveness is not about random acts of heroic effort or regular fire righting or reacting to perpetual surprises that could have been anticipated.  Effectiveness is also not about reacting to bad planning or over-estimating or unrealistic expectations.  A sustainable pace comes from setting a bar, in this case a 40 Hour Work Week, and designing for it.  It means biting off what you can chew within that chunk of time.  It means ruthless prioritization and focus by focusing on the smartest things that have the most value and letting the rest go.  It means having clarity on the end-in-mind, knowing the path or waypoints, and correcting course as you go.
  • Smart BI (Business Intelligence).   In an online, connected world, there is no reason to be flying blind.  You can guess at what works, or you can instrument, test, and measure.  This is the key to Amazon’s online success.  They can learn and respond.  By using BI effectively, you can figure out exactly what customers want, how much they want it, how they are looking for it, and where they are finding it.  Don’t “push” products.  Find the “pull.”  You can find the appetite or the demand to help drive and shape your supply.
  • Prosumer Model.    The prosumer model is where the producer joins forces with the consumer or user of their product.  Involve your customers earlier in the cycle and co-create the future with them.    You can’t miss.  However, don’t let the tail wag the dog.  For example, if Henry Ford asked customers what they wanted, they would say a “faster horse.”  Use customers to find their problems and what they would pay for or what they value.
  • It’s a Darwin world.   Along the lines of the book, Good to Great, you have to compete at what you can be the best in the world at.  In the physical world, you can compete on location.  On the Web, you really want to be number one for your niche or micro-niche.  Customers have slots in their mind, and you want to be pole position for whatever your slot in their mind is (positioning isn’t just position in the market, it’s position in the mind.)  If you compete at what you can be the best in the world at, you improve your sustainable pace and your competitive advantage.

How I Learned the Value of the 40 Hour Work Week the Hard Way

One of my toughest lessons to learn at Microsoft was the value of a forty hour work week.  I was known for being a workhorse.

16+ hour days, 7 days a week was just a way of life for me.

Long ago, I heard the saying you’ll have plenty of time to rest when you’re dead and it stayed with me ever since.

To make it worse, when I joined Microsoft, I was surrounded by passionate people who also worked well beyond a forty hour work week.  I was in the zone.  Not just that, I was spending my time in my passion, so I never burned out.

Throwing hours at problems was no sweat and I liked the pace.

Throwing Hours at Problems Hides Capacity Problems and Inefficiencies

My first taste that this was a problem was when my first manager sat me down and said that my perpetual over-time was a problem.

He said I was throwing off the head count.  I was doing the work of multiple engineers.  It made it hard for him to argue for heads if the work was getting done, and he worried that I would burn out.

Luckily, I never burned out.

It turns out the primary ways you burn out are by trying to solve the same problem over and over like a broken record with no results, or by spending time in things that drain you.

The simplest cure for burnout is spending more time in your passions or moving to new problems or changing your container.

Throwing Hours at Problems Hides Capacity Problems and Inefficiencies

My second taste that this was a problem was when I joined patterns & practices.  After my first few projects, my manager told me I needed to find a way to work 40 hours and produce the same or better results.

Additionally, I had to get more effective results from the rest of the larger team.  In other words, I wasn’t setting a good example, I set an impossible bar, and I had to make the most of the team (Oh, and did I happen to mention that this larger team was always a distributed team around the world, from UK to Argentina to India and the US?)  The good news is, the story has a happy ending …

To bottom line it, by setting a constraint around the 40 hour mark, it dramatically improved team processes, improved clarity on impact, and it helped flow value versus waiting for big bang.

This also had an amazing set of by-products, including achieving work-life balance for all team members, helping people spend more time in their passion and strengths, reducing downstream risk and surprises, and keeping the energy strong across the team in a more durable way.

It also helped us improve our daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms of results while improving our team practices and procedures.  We basically moved up the effectiveness stack and it got faster each time we had to build a new team.

The basic approach I used is what I call Monday Vision, Daily Wins, and Friday Reflection.

I did “show and tells” on Thursdays as a forcing function to drive results but to also give folks on the team a chance to show off their work and get feedback earlier versus later.

Call to Action

Make a 40 Hour Work Week an initiative, for yourself, for your team, or for your organization.

Start small.  Lead by example.

Start with yourself, then help other people.  Focus on finding more effective ways to do things, focusing on the vital few things that matter the most, playing to your strengths, and improving your energy.  Know what counts and be able to put your finger on it.

You can explore the system in Getting Results the Agile Way.   It’s a fast tour of the landscape filled rich with strategies and tactics for changing your game.


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