Digital Reality Episode #13 | Productivity in IT Does Not Come Easy

In this podcast Cecilia Edwards, Jimit Arora and their special guest, Ashwin Venkatesan, take a look at how productivity levels have changed for both the better and the worse over the course of 2020. They discuss a repeatable process IT organizations can use to drive and maintain increased productivity.

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Jimit Arora:

Welcome to the 13th episode of Digital Reality, Everest Group’s monthly podcast that moves beyond theory and beyond technology to discuss the realities of doing business in a digital-first world. I’m Jimit Arora …

Cecilia Edwards:

… and I’m Cecilia Edwards. Each month we bring you a discussion that digs into the details of what it means fundamentally to execute a digital transformation that creates real business results. Today, I’m pleased that we have another guest with us, Ashwin Venkatesan, who also goes by AV. AV leads our IT and digital transformation research program. And we’re really glad to have him join us today. Welcome, AV.

Ashwin Venkatesan:

Hey, Cecilia. Hey, Jimit. Thank you so much. Really excited to be on.


So today we’re going to talk about productivity. This is an issue that continues to be top of mind for a number of IT leaders, given that we’re still in this kind of remote working timeframe. We’ve been tracking productivity through the pandemic and, not surprisingly, we’ve seen an evolution in terms of how this has panned out. In the early days, we did see a bit of productivity loss when folks were scrambling to get the right infrastructure to enable remote working. Bandwidth and infrastructure were clearly issues, but they were solved fairly quickly.

Once those issues were resolved, we began to see productivity increases. When we polled our user base, across the board we found that productivity went up on average by about 13%. The drivers of those increases were varied. Some of it was attributed to fewer distractions since people had nowhere to go. Some of it was due to less time commuting and some of it might’ve been due to people just working extra hours out of fear of job security.

So now the pendulum is beginning to swing back. We’re seeing a bit of a plateau and even some diminishing productivity, due potentially to fatigue that’s starting to set in or potentially some burnout from the starting intensity levels that people have been maintaining. So today, we want to start a discourse on how organizations are managing productivity – the productivity of their IT teams – and what techniques and strategies we’ve seen be successful in this next new normal. AV, I’d like to start with you. I know you’ve been examining this issue for a number of enterprises. So what’s your take on what’s happening with productivity right now?


Thanks Cecilia, that was great context. And it seems productivity factors are the flavor of the month. Earlier this week, in fact, JP Morgan was claiming that it has noticed productivity decline amongst employees, potentially because of the work from home lifestyle itself. So yes, structurally dealing with the productivity issue has become very important, and a number of factors are actually contributing to this perfect storm for organizations, especially in an IT context. And at the heart of this is something both you and Jimit were speaking about earlier, which is everything is on the table.

So we are at a point where companies have significantly accelerated their digital agendas. But guess what? There’s an associated conundrum to this. On the one hand, IT budgets are limited, and on the other hand, stakeholder expectations are simply skyrocketing. So consequently, people are actually having to think of this as an and function: If we think of stakeholders for IT, be it end users or our customers, these stakeholders want both speed and cost effectiveness. They want experience and efficiency. So it’s almost a duality that needs to be balanced.

And this is where CIOs are struggling, because they’re not able to make the trade-offs. Because, on one hand they need to survive and show value to the business. But on the other hand, the CIO also needs to run a more efficient IT shop. And this is exactly where the concept of productivity comes. So at a very basic level, productivity is at the heart of what every CIO wants, and it is all about doing more with less. We at Everest Group call this hyper-productivity, by which we mean that it’s about getting an order of magnitude in terms of the outcomes. And this is done by optimizing people, optimizing processes, and making changes to your technology stacks amongst other things.

So that’s kind of setting the context around productivity. And, Jimit, at this point, I would like to bring you into the conversation. So you and I have partnered to help quite a few clients, especially over the last few weeks, on this productivity issue. So what do you see as some of the starting points for enterprises on this productivity journey?


Sure, AV. I think the first step, thankfully, is a simple one. You want to improve productivity – start measuring it. I know it sounds very basic and very simple, but I think for so long we’ve been thinking about this concept that most enterprises, most IT groups, have made a big deal of this. And they don’t really have a simple measures that allow them to make progress on this. So when you complicate the measurement too much, it becomes a problem. It becomes an impediment. So step one, you need to make sure you start measuring it. And to do that, you need to select metrics that are very simple, and they need to be holistic and capture multiple aspects of impact.

So let me share some examples of what we are seeing, what companies are looking to quantify as they’re looking for their productivity journeys to get ramped up. Most often, it’s starting with what’s the speed or velocity of the output. So, how quickly did I deploy that new code? What’s the quality of output? How many changes are we seeing? So that becomes a good measure of quality indirectly.

Change failure rate is another example of something organizations are measuring and tracking quite effectively. How do you think of business alignment? And this one trips people up quite significantly, but we are seeing some very simple measures around NPS, for example, coming back in. So what’s the employee NPS on the business side? And that becomes something that you want to measure. And as you’ll see, it’s on a velocity metric, which is how we tend to think of productivity, but it is a business impact metric. And then the fourth tends to be cost. And this is where most people have simply fixated.

And as you’ll see, as we’ve expanded this definition of productivity, you want to keep this holistic. So looking at speed, which is what most companies think of. But you’re bundling in quality, you’re bringing in business alignment and cost to operate. Once you start to combine some of these is where you start to see this concept of hyper-productivity kick in. So make them simple, make them complete, and obviously make sure that they are quantitative and can be measured at frequent intervals. And here’s a big secret and in some ways a challenge to conventional thinking that we found, as teams are striving toward greater performance, higher productivity: don’t benchmark it versus the market. Do not seek arbitrary, “Here’s what good looks like in my industry or here’s what Google is doing, therefore that should be my productivity threshold.”

We don’t think there’s a single right answer or a single right industry benchmark in terms of the number of story points an ideal board can deliver in two weeks. Context is what really matters in this productivity journey. Each team and each journey will be different. And I think that’s where most organizations truly trip up. Once you measure what your metric is, you just set the next milestone in a manner that shows progress for yourself, for your team, versus trying at this stage to benchmark it in the industry. Each print or each iteration, you’re trying to drive incremental improvements over the previous baseline, over your previous baseline. And that is the approach that delivers great results. It sounds super simple because in theory it is super simple. Measure it, measure it versus yourself, keep improving.


Yeah, super simple. That’s what everybody’s looking for. So I know that I’ve been surprised that people come in thinking that there’s some secret sauce to this. Productivity to them means, “Hey, let’s bring in the smartest developers, move to low code development, and deploy a variety of tools.” So, sure, these things might help, but they don’t necessarily create a material or sustainable change in the culture. And I think that when we’re talking about looking at that process that you just mentioned, Jimit, and not thinking about an industry benchmark, but having that context, that that’s really what this is about. You’ve got to make some cultural changes.

So the heart of it really is the simple yet repeatable process. And at the heart of this approach is your context, as you mentioned. So to the extent that you’re not trying to meet these kind of arbitrary industry thresholds and designing the program around your environment, your ecosystem. And the thing we often forget is your people as well, that always works. So the key is to not force some mandated set of answers, but to really create a sense of excitement by making the team feel valued and empowering them to think, debate, and solve those problems.

I think that we’ll be really surprised at what teams come up with. I mean, it could be everything from the need to take breaks, right? There’re a lot of articles that I’ve been reading lately on the Tabata method, work for 25 minutes, take a break. Whether or not the team does team norming, how do you recreate the water cooler in a remote environment? It’s interesting that sometimes the breaks are the very things that can actually increase the productivity. So give the team the flexibility to think holistically about what’s going to work in their context for them.


You’re right, Cecilia. And just reflecting on what both you and Jimit have been saying, there is no single answer to this, there’s no silver bullet at the end of the day. There are so many variables here that we can play with to really drive progression along this entire concept of productivity. So this is going to be a multi-pronged approach.

We have obviously been researching numerous client environments over the past few years, and based on all of these experiences, we have identified a few levers that an organization can consider as it embarks on this productivity journey. And we see six of these as key dimensions where changes can be facilitated, and a productivity improvements can be achieved.

So just going through them, and in no specific order: first is the organization structure itself. Breaking silos becomes very, very important. So many IT environments have actually grown into a space and a size where it becomes really hard to bring teams together. But the focus needs to be around how you make the organization structure end-to-end. And how you enable and enhance coordination amongst the business teams and the IT teams. It’s one of the most fundamental requirements, in our view, to help drive the productivity mandate.


And, AV, I think that that’s one where we’re going to see a lot of challenges, right? Because that silo mentality is really strong. And it’s probably strongest not with the junior people, but the leaders who have their kind of empires that they’re building, their domain that they’re trying to protect. And so encouraging that collaborative versus siloed approach is really something that we’ve seen as a challenge, but it’s one of the most effective things that an organization can do.


Absolutely, Cecilia. And you point out a very important aspect, that especially when it comes to organizational structures, it has to be a top-down mandate. You need someone to bring the organization together. It’s a very valid point.

The second, then, is talent and skills. And I don’t think there are any surprises over here, it is potentially one of the huge talking points when it comes to enabling a successful IT operating model at this point in time. So how you build your pyramid, whether you have the cross-functional skills, all of this becomes very, very important.


AV, I think on that talent and skills piece, and I know we’ve spoken about this and I struggle whether it’s an org structure issue or a talent and skills issue, I think it’s somewhere in between. What’s associated with that is also the culture. And I think that, I believe it was Google that came up with this research, where it wasn’t the smartest developers who really enabled high productivity, but it was essentially elements of culture, the ability to work together as a team, the cohesion of that unit, that really determined how successful they were. And it wasn’t about you had eight black hat grade developers in your ecosystem. So, do you see that as an important dimension to the culture?


Absolutely. I think it’s a cliche, we use it all the time, but the fact is that culture eats strategy for breakfast. And in today’s IT environment where we have essentially a proliferation and the kind of themes and the functions that are getting built in.


I think that there’s a basketball analogy that works really well on this. If you think about the all-star games, they’re never really good. You take the absolute best talent from across the MBA, you throw them all together briefly on the court and the games aren’t very good, right? The teams that win are those that have a good mix of people. So they’re going to have the superstars and then not so superstars, but they’ve learned how to work together in really effective ways. Those games are a whole lot more interesting. They produce a whole lot higher scoring and everything. So I think that that’s a good analogy to what we’re talking about here. That it can’t just be about having the best, it’s about how they work together as well.


Sure. LeBron needs a team around him. Absolutely, Cecilia.




Yeah. But that’s a good point. And coming back to this. So absolutely, the organization’s structure, talent and skills, culture sits somewhere in between, but there are other important elements as well.

So the third one, and we simply can’t overlook this, this is about technology and platforms. It’s about making the right choice. And what we see in many cases is there’s almost a fixation to go for what is seen as the best-of-breed technology. We really want to invest in a particular tool because this seems to be the one that the market is telling us is the best. But it’s also about ensuring that that particular tool or solution is very much compatible in your environment and can speak to your existing investments as well. So as I think of technology and platforms, do ensure that the answer is not always about going for the best tool, but it’s about how it fits into the broader environment and the existing investments that you have made. It becomes really important.

The fourth one is the service delivery process. Again, it’s very important in the sense that we have been having IT function around services for many, many years now. Again, to use a cliched term, but the focus has always been on keeping the lights green. But when you are talking about making your own environment productive, there needs to be a flip in the way you measure outcomes from a service delivery standpoint. And this is where we see that the design needs to be expedience- and business-outcomes oriented, rather than being SLA first. It’s an important pivot. Again, things around culture and people and training, everything comes into the picture over here. But this is going to be another key element that if you can get right, it’s going to help you drive significant productivity within your estates.

Location, the fifth one, and it’s an interesting angle. So the debate around onshore and offshore has gone on for quite some time, but it’s a lever that you can again use within this context.

And then finally the sixth one, which in our view is a little overlooked, is reusability. And this is essentially tied to the knowledge management angle. So how do you institutionalize your experiences and learnings so that you do not reinvent the wheel, so you save input and consequently drive productivity? Now, typically what we have seen is there’s a lot of innovation that happens across different parts of the organization. It happens in silos. So one part is obviously the cultural part of it and the org part of it. But also a key requirement becomes how do you have a knowledge management platform that underpins all of this and then helps people learn best practices, previously used tools and accelerators, and whatnot? So reusability, a potentially overlooked item, but an important element.

And the key point here is if you look at all six levers, you have a variety of choices and adjustments that you can make. And in this, your context is what’s going to dictate what’s best for you.

Let me offer a couple of examples where we have seen some of these success stories. So Cisco as an example, sometime back, they claimed that they had reduced 40% of defects in their subscription billing platform. Now this was done by just launching three agile release streams and making them work together. So it was simply an organizational tweak that helped Cisco reduce defects by 40%. And it was almost like quite a bit of time and productivity being built into their entire platform and consequently helping impact revenues.


Airbnb, very recently actually, claimed that it improved its product development by erecting a single environment wherein it brought designers, engineers, and even the researchers, everyone who’s involved in the product development process, so that they could pull in ideas and create synergies. So this one, again, is an org and a process design lever being pulled together. But again, helping drive productivity.

Now, going back to Jimit’s points: these are good examples, but we’re not saying that what worked for Cisco or Airbnb is going to work for you. We can offer a set of standard guidelines, but we want you to remember this that it is always going to be very contextual and what worked for another organization won’t be working for you. But if you want to get started on this entire enterprise productivity journey, and especially if you want a copy of a framework to get started with it, feel free to ping us. We’ll be very happy to send this across and maybe have a product conversation.


Perfect. Hey, AV, thanks for that. I think this was a very productive discussion, if I may. And I know we’ve played around with one graphic that I like fairly well, which is: think of this as an equalizer. It is a graphic equalizer where each of these individual levers serves as a toggle switch, which you can move up and down. Every switch individually will create impact once you reach the most optimal configuration for your environment, that’s when you get to beautiful music. And so I learned a fair bit, and there’s obviously a lot of lessons for us as we think through how organizations need to create a culture of high performance, high productivity – hyper productivity – and effectively achieve more with less. These lessons we call digital reality checkpoints, so there’s a few that I wanted to sum up with.

First one, don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Don’t try to create the right perfect productivity plan. Take the first step, identify a set of simple metrics, measure them, get started. Second, recognize that each organization will have this variety of choices. You do have multiple levers to continue optimizing to deliver greater impact and increase productivity. So it’s not a one and done. And each journey is different. For those of you who’ve been with us on this journey, you know that we consider digital transformation to be a journey. Of course it is, but it’s your journey. Understand your context, try not to seek industry benchmarks as you’re starting. Eventually, yes, we’ll get to that. But don’t start by going after arbitrary numbers, which in some cases might create a false sense of progress, “Wow, I’m doing better than the industry. So I don’t need to improve.” Or, become such a big mountain to climb that they result in early failures. So it’s your journey, make sure that you progress along it in your context.


So I’d like to add my thanks to AV for joining us today. And I’d like to thank you for listening to this episode of Digital Reality. Please check us out at or follow us on LinkedIn at Jimit Arora and Cecilia Edwards. If you’d like to share your company’s story or have a digital topic that you’d like us to explore, reach out to us at [email protected].

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