I wrote a piece up on Inc.com entitled, “3 Ways to Inspire Innovation From Remote Teams,” that touches upon a critically important point that frankly needs a deeper dive than what my editors over there typically want. Thus, the double click here.
There’s more to it than just saying the work from home workstyle gives companies ways to foster greater innovation from their teams. This is true, but it’s too flip a way of saying what needs to be said.
The modern enterprise is a lousy place to try to think. You can’t think in an open office environment. And even if you’ve squirreled your way into a “huddle room,” you’re still dealing with co-workers popping their heads into the windows – or worse, the doors – trying to either steal your newly won space or just trying to find out what you’re doing. None of this is conducive to actual deep work. And suddenly, without the modern organization having anything to do with it, the solution arrived. In the form of a pandemic.
By forcing workers to work at home, the chain is broken – not just of covid-19 transmission, but of distraction and the light-weight thinking that comes from socializing ideas before they’ve ripened.
Organizations have the opportunity given this pandemic and the enforced work-from-home workstyle to re-think the balance between individual productivity and group collaboration. Today, it’s hopelessly stacked towards collaboration, which is foolish. We don’t need more collaboration. We have too much of it today. We have presence indicators in our unified communications stacks. We’re too easy to collaborate with. I don’t need presence to chat to voice to video when I’m trying to think. I need absolute silence and a distraction-free environment. A noise-canceling headset is the first step – but the important step is physical distancing from my co-workers. Even the ones I like.
Organizations have the unique opportunity to re-think the balance between individual productivity and group collaboration – and they need to push the chips towards the individual if they’re to survive long-term. When we asked workers which of these two diametrically opposite forces was more important to their personal success, two-thirds said productivity. “The work we do alone” is more important than “the work we do together.” We need deep work. We need focus and analysis if we’re to have anything worth collaborating on with others. This is a big issue in organizations today. We collaborate for the sake of collaboration. We are forced to do our deep thinking on the fly, in the room with others. We don’t prioritize “the work we do alone.” It’s what individual contributors and other assorted introverts do. Sure, we prize them the way we prize a particularly clever underling, but we don’t elevate them in the modern organization – elevation goes to collaborators, in my experience.
Organizations have the opportunity to put more emphasis on “the work we do alone” because at this red hot second, we’re working alone. So re-creating the office environment, where little gets done, is stupid. Don’t fill your calendar with “collaboration” so you can “keep the team apprised.” Instead, look at the enforced work-from-home reality as an opportunity, not a constraint. What should we do about all this?
One: Don’t replicate the office.
Change the team’s habits. Do your collaboration thing in the morning, for example, but open up the entire afternoon for deep thinking. Consciously shift the organization’s priorities to elevate “the work we do alone” so that we won’t just take a lousy way of working and send it home. We have a unique moment in time to instill a new habit here – thinking while working. This time, though, we’re not flitting between meetings, small talk, the water cooler, and boredom – we’re able to get in our space, alone, with noise canceling headsets on, and sink deeply into the Zen-like flow-state where great work gets done.
One of the bigger outputs of the Culture & Technology Intersection studies we’ve done over the past 4 years is understanding the gap between individual and group work, particularly as it relates to how big ideas are born. These things don’t simply spring into life. They are teased out, usually with a good amount of excitement and with an equally good amount of scratched out drafts. And we have to scratch it out – we need white boards, paper, and desk space for these ideas to emerge and take shape. Without this, we’re left with half-baked ideas that are socialized too soon, either to be killed by the understandably protective layer of management above us or prematurely brought into the light in a less-than-perfect form.
The often trod out aphorism that “Perfection is the enemy of done” applies here, just in reverse. Perfection is often greatly desired where “done” is little more than institutionalized mediocrity. We need more than “done” to move us forward. Sometimes, we need something perilously close to perfection, at least brushing up against it with sort of inspiration and hard work that only comes from deep dives of intense focus and insight that only appears after many hours of lost time. The light bulb goes off and we bolt out of our chairs, startling the dogs lounging under our desk, and realize our back hurts because we haven’t changed positions in what must have been hours.
That’s where great work comes from. It’s not a “ship it” culture – it’s a “ship it when it’s really very, very good” culture. Modern organizations with their open offices don’t allow this to happen very often – but they can now. So let’s seize this opportunity, shall we?
Two: Reward the outputs of “the work we do alone.”
Prioritize creation while we’re forced to be apart and more apt to be mentally available for bigger thinking. This is a time for knowledge workers to push “the work we do alone” to the fore – and their managers and leadership need to embrace this and set the right goals to ensure this doesn’t just become a time of inefficient collaboration and less-than-we-hoped-for teamwork.
Content creation. Deep analytics. Strategy. Product development. Business process innovation. Fixing inexorable problems that we know are there but are too messy to deal with today (looking at you, channel programs). All organizations have things that need fixing, just as they need work that needs time and focus to bring to life. Now is a uniquely perfect time for doing this. Let’s not screw it up.
Three: Formalize innovation and deep thinking in this particular unique moment.
This is for leadership. Identify the Venn Diagram intersection of capabilities, passions, and burning business needs and unleash your people on unsustainable problems. You said you want innovation – it’s probably plastered all over the posters in your now-shuttered break rooms back at the empty office. Now you have the opportunity to task your people with identifying those big ideas they want to work on and set them loose.
Teams of one or teams of several self-organized around common points of deep interest or pain now have the deep thinking time to work on them. This really doesn’t happen when we’re all in the office because it’s impossible. Now we can not only start tackling these issues, we can put processes and incentives around accomplishing them.
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All this is a careful look at turning a constraint into an opportunity, of questioning the givens of the situation and realizing we have a big opportunity to grow in a new direction instead of trying to replicate our old way of doing things in an environment suddenly more barren for this purpose than it was a few short weeks ago.
But if the environment is worse for collaboration, it’s far better for individual productivity – and if we can just shift our emphasis over to the individual, we stand to gain far, far more than whatever it is we think we just lost.