Pomodoro Organisation? (#pomodoro)

I’m coming to the end of a small development project with Peter Marks. We’ve been using the Pomodoro technique, individually and as a pair, to pace our work over the course of a day, and have become big fans. We were talking about it: Peter wondered what a Pomodoro organisation might be like, and together we tried to imagine what it would be like to work in one.

Your entire company works to the same pomodoro slots. Your day would be structured around six 25-minute pomodoros in the morning, five or six in the afternoon, with a standard break of five minutes augmented by longer breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon, and a two-pomodoro break at lunchtime. (Though you could run the mid-day break itself as two pomodoros…). Teams and individuals at all levels in the company make their own choices as to what to do in the pomodoros depending on their roles, activities, deliverables. Any meetings you hold would be scheduled for a single pomodoro (an efficiency saving at a stroke: if the default slot for a meeting were 25 minutes rather than the 60 minutes it seems to be in most organisations, some people might be faced with the prospect of having to do some real productive work… In the rare event of needing more time, for a planning event or other workshop, you maintain the pomodoro rhythm in the meeting).

Peter noted that this would feel a bit like being back at school: you could even ring a bell at the end of the pomodoro-period! Just like at school (and also built-in to pomodoro) there’s time between periods to move to the next activity, or in this case sometimes to decide what the next activity might be. It would be understood at all levels in the organisation that anyone mid-pomodoro won’t answer the phone, reply to an email, or be called into an unscheduled meeting. To an observer the behaviour of the company would look like a series of episodes of calm focus, separated by short bursts of noise, bustle and activity as individuals break from their pomodoros, stretch their legs, grab coffee, have the conversations they need and then organise for the next pomodoro slot.

Why would you do this? Well, for one thing it would get away from the interrupt-driven schedule that seems to dominate organisations at all levels. A study from as long ago as 1973[1], before email, mobile phones and blackberries, suggested that managers work on average for nine (9!) minutes before being interrupted: what a difference it would make if everyone in an organisation were dedicated to advancing the work of the group in these discrete and inviolable slots. Designers, developers and engineers are used to focused work: it would be great to spread this discipline to other parts of our organisations.

Clearly some activities in a firm are not amenable to this sort of regime, though with care even support or sales functions could be worked into the pattern.

I’d be interested to hear if anyone’s tried this. I can imagine pomodoro taking off at a team level, but making the jump to the organisational level would take some courage. If anyone out there’s trying this at a scale above the team, it would be great to hear from you.

With thanks & acknowledgement to Peter Marks!

[1] H Mintzberg, The Nature of Managerial Work (NY 1973), referenced by Karl Weick, “Sources of Order in Underorganized Systems” in Making Sense of the Organisation (MA 2001), p.40

2 Responses to “Pomodoro Organisation? (#pomodoro)”

  • Peter Marks responded:

    Hey David, thanks for writing this up. A couple of extra points:

    For those not familiar with Pomodoro Technique, a single pomodoro should be dedicated to a single activity - working on a development story, writing a report, researching competitor products, etc. In the Pomodoro Organization (TM ;-)) Some pomodoros would be for activities such as checking and responding to email and other communications, planning, running through small todo items and so on. This is sort of covered in the technique, but is especially important once you scale it up like this.

    At any time you need “runners” or “hall monitors”. These are people who, during pomodoro slots are free to grease the wheels of the organization. They answer the phone, greet visitors, deal with emergencies or just help out if someone focussed on some activity needs something that would distract them. If nothing else, they just help keep the office environment tidy and organized. These could be dedicated admin staff or, perhaps better, a rotation of all staff.

    It should also be possible to check out from the process. Obviously if you are out of the office, different rules apply. Perhaps you have a critical issue to deal with urgently like a server crash of a client tantrum. I suspect the whole thing would be pretty intense and sometimes, even though present, people may need to just check out and chill.

  • Peter Marks responded:

    I should probably also mention that this is not completely untested. At Connextra when developers were working on stories, they were not to be disturbed. They had no email on the dev machines, no phone on their desks and mobiles were silenced or off. They took frequent short breaks where they left the dev area to deal with mail, make calls or chat with other staff.

    We also introduced what I think we called a floating developer. At any time there was one developer available to deal with anything that came up whilst others were working - client support calls, support of sales staff, answering questions. As I recall they had a work queue that they serviced when they weren’t needed elsewhere.

    What we didn’t do was have a work rhythm as we are suggesting here. I think it would have helped both for the reasons of focus discussed in the Promodoro literature and so that others would better know when developers would next be available for communication. We also didn’t extend this idea through the rest of the organization which meant there was alway a bit of an impedance mismatch.

    We should also be clear that we weren’t thinking about large corporates in our vision here, but small startups and dev shops. It might also work for a dev group in a larger organisation though.

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