Efficiency at its Best - The 15 Minute Rule

Whenever I start a new employee, there is a bit of time when they are feeling out the waters. Do they ask a lot of questions and risk annoying their boss or colleagues? Or do they keep quiet, figure things out and risk doing something wrong because they just didn't know what or how they were supposed to do it?

When the job is a simple routine that is spelled out for anyone to follow, then this isn't such a big deal. Usually a business has an official way to do things and a training session or program to make sure new employees know exactly what they are supposed to do and how.

But when you begin to hire highly educated professionals that need to figure out what their job is every day because it is different every day, the training only goes so far. This is a pretty big problem when you are hiring software engineers like we do. The engineer is generally working on creating systems that do the routine for them so the majority of their time is spent doing things that haven't been done before, at least not quite in the way they are doing it today.

When I first started managing software engineers, I found that some would pester me so much that it was annoying and I could not get my work done. Others would just work away and then spend a day or even a week trying to figure something out when they just should have asked someone for the answer so they could move forward.

What I found worked well for me was the 15 minute rule.

What I love about this rule is its simplicity. Essentially, if an employee gets stumped or encounters a problem that they cannot figure out how to fix, we ask them to spend 15 minutes trying to figure it out. If after that 15 minutes they do figure it out, great! They move on. However, if they are still stumped, it is time to ask a colleague or their boss.

In general I have found this simple rule to eliminate over 80% of all questions I was getting from the employees who were not afraid to ask for help. It also allowed me to set a limit for the employees who fixated on the problem and kept them from wasting days or weeks before asking for help.

One of the great side effects of this rule is that when employees figure out the solution to their problem themselves, the solution sticks better in their minds the next time it comes up than if someone had just told them the solution. This means the employee is a better problem solver and they usually understand what the real cause was. Those employees then know how to avoid the problem from the start and can even solve similar problems more quickly. In short they learn from their research into the problem so that 15 minutes was great education and is never a waste.

Another way to use this rule is when telling someone it is time to set something aside and work on something else. When you are working on a creative project or having to solve a problem no one else seems to be able to help you with, you need to learn when it is time to step away. By stepping away from your work or moving on to something else, you jostle yourself loose from what has you stuck. By the time you come back to it, you are thinking differently. Whether it is that you have some new creative idea inspired by a friend or something you saw or just that your synapses are firing a little differently that day, I have found stepping away for an hour, a day or even a week allows me to come back with a new perspective and a quick solution. Most of the time I slap myself on the forehead and say "Why didn't I think of that before?"

I hope you find this simple little rule of benefit to you and a quick and easy productivity booster for your whole team. Let me know how it worked for you!