The Power of 1%

I frequently participate in a podcast called This Agile Life. Recently, a listener asked how much time Agile teams should spend on self improvement. I said 10% to 25%, leaning towards 15% to 20% for most teams. That comes to at least one hour per day, and maybe even more than one day per week.

I’m including personal self improvement and team retrospectives in this self-improvement time. This can be as simple as configuring your IDE to make you more efficient, learning to use a tool better, or following up on action items from a retro.

That may seem like a lot of time “wasted”. But I think I can justify the cost of all that time.

The purpose of spending time on team or self-improvement — the whole point — is to increase our performance and our efficiency. How much improvement can we expect? Can we improve by 1% each week? That doesn’t sound too unreasonable. I think that’s an achievable goal for almost any team, at least on average.

Spending 20% of your time to gain 1% doesn’t seem like it’s worth it — until you consider the long term. With compound interest, you’ll be 67% more efficient by the end of a year.1 At that point, you’ll be able to get things done in 59% of the time — saving 41% of the time required at the beginning of the year.2 The following years will show even more progress, as compared to when you started. If 10x programmers exist, continuous improvement is apparently the way to get there.

So there’s a pretty good return on investment, even with a small amount of improvement each week. You’ll be significantly more efficient.

But efficiency isn’t really what you should aim for. You should aim for effectiveness. You can be efficient in creating the wrong thing. Part of improving should be ensuring that you’re not just building things right, but that you’re building the right things. Build what the customer really needs. Find ways to ask the right questions.

Most importantly, find ways to keep improving. It would be a waste of time not to.

1: (1.01 ^ 52) – 1
2: (0.99 ^ 52)