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By The Numbers

Workplace Survey, Findings

1.Workers are struggling to work effectively. 

When focus is compromised in pursuit of Collaboration, neither works well.

2. Effective workplaces balance focus and collaboration. 

Workplaces designed to enable collaboration without sacrificing employees’ ability to focus are more successful.

3. Choice drives performance and innovation. 

Employers who provide a spectrum of choices for when and where to work are seen as more innovative and have higher-performing employees.


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When Ed Scanlan founded Total Attorneys in 2002 to make customer-relationship-management software for law firms, he and a handful of employees would write code on the fly. Projects were completed quickly, and employees often worked late nights and weekends to launch new features and fix bugs. But as revenue grew to $24 million, the company abandoned the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach in favor of a more formal system. Sometimes referred to as the waterfall model, this system divides a software project into sequential stages, in which the work is handed off from designers to coders to quality-assurance testers. But Scanlan found that the waterfall model made Total Attorneys move a lot more slowly -- so slowly, in fact, that in some cases clients' needs had changed by the time a piece of software was complete.


Scanlan's search for a solution led him to Getting Real, a book about agile development published by the software company 37 signals. "I learned about cutting the 'big picture' into small pieces," Scanlan says. "You have to be able to change course as often as your customers' needs or market conditions dictate." Here are three practical ways to accomplish this.

1.Small cross functional teams.

This means by breaking down large departmental silos and creating small, cross-functional teams instead. A typical team might be made up of one project leader, one designer, one coder, and one quality-assurance tester. Large projects get carved into lots of mini projects, often with deadlines as short as a couple of weeks. Each team focuses on one mini project at a time and is given the freedom to make decisions. 

The teams hold daily meetings -- or "scrums" -- to discuss each member's progress and daily objectives. Scanlan adopted the strategy and found that the software team's productivity improved. What's more, employees seemed happier. That got Scanlan thinking: Could he use agile development to change how the rest of his company operated as well? He decided to find out.

2. Shorter deadlines.

Another key to the agile approach is shorter deadlines. In software, that means building smaller pieces over shorter periods and evaluating them rapidly rather than waiting months to see if they hit the mark. In Total Attorneys's sales department, it means setting three-week sales goals instead of annual targets. That way, the sales team can more easily adjust its strategy and forecasts if the company introduces a new service or experiences fluctuations in demand.

At the beginning of each three-week period, the company's sales managers, each of whom is responsible for a five-person team, set goals for their squads, such as landing a certain number of clients in a new sales territory. At the end of the period, the teams evaluate their results and devise new goals for the next three weeks. 

Because commissions are based on meeting targets set just three weeks prior, salespeople can strive for realistic objectives, which has boosted morale. "Sales jobs can get stale fairly quickly," says Brian Pistorius, the company's 2008 salesperson of the year. "But we are constantly changing and doing things differently to hit our goals. It makes a real difference to get a sense of achievement and recognition every three weeks rather than waiting until the end of the year."

3. Customer feedback.

Another strategy Scanlan has borrowed from agile development involves inviting a few customers to test and provide feedback on a product as it is being developed. Last fall, for example, Scanlan decided to launch a new service, legal process outsourcing. The service is aimed at clients like bankruptcy lawyers, who often must complete dozens of forms for each of their clients. Launching the service required hiring a team of paralegals and transcribers as well as building new software. "In the past, we might have developed a fancy system and just announced it to our customers," Scanlan says. "This time, we used agile development to put together a pilot program in less than three months."

For the pilot program, Total Attorneys created teams made up of operations employees and call center reps. The teams collected feedback from five firms that agreed to participate in the pilot. "We learned that not all our customers work the same way," says Scanlan. "Today, we have about 50 customers who love our product because we built it, step by step, using their input." One of those customers, Rustin Polk, a bankruptcy attorney in Dallas, can't wait to see what Total Attorneys comes up with next. "A lot of companies try to forecast or guess what their customers want," he says. "Ed Scanlan just listens to what his customers are telling him."

One downside to changing things on the fly, says Scanlan, is that it has become increasingly difficult to make accurate financial projections. That's why the accountants now like to sit in on daily scrums to keep better tabs on where the company is headed. "We are moving so fast in so many directions," Scanlan says. "But if we focus on communication and transparency, we can control the chaos, even when it seems like everyone is running in different directions.”