Flow https://www.getflow.com/ en-us Thu, 26 Apr 2018 12:38:14 +0000 Thu, 26 Apr 2018 12:38:14 +0000 Project Management Software Will Not Save Your Marketing Team https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-software-will-not-save-your-marketing-team Tue, 03 Apr 2018 17:38:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-software-will-not-save-your-marketing-team How Dribbble’s 23 Remote Employees Keep Half a Million Designers Happy https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-at-dribbble Thu, 08 Mar 2018 14:30:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-at-dribbble Say Hello to the New Flow https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-flow Tue, 06 Mar 2018 09:00:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-flow How Design Teams Can Avoid Bad Project Management https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-for-designers Mon, 02 Oct 2017 18:43:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-management-for-designers

Seeing a complicated, time-consuming project through from start to finish is a challenge no matter what your line of work is. But any good design manager knows that project management for designers can be an especially tricky—and at times perilous—task.

Most designers often bristle at the idea of being “managed.” Ask anyone who has made the leap from pure designer to design manager, and they’ll tell you the toughest part of the switch was overcoming this reluctance to manage, and finding some kind of compromise between structure and freedom. 

Overcoming this barrier is crucial, because design project management can be particularly sensitive to the effects of a dysfunctional project management process or workflow. Too little project management can leave a team with no goals or clear sense of what they’re doing, while too much structure can leave it with no time to create or do actual work.

Thankfully, there are a few simple project management habits you can develop to make sure that your next design project doesn’t get in its own way:

Habit #1: Protect Real Work Time

There are a million different things that can derail a large design project, but most of them have one thing in common: they push out real work in favour of busywork.

Justin Watt, Operations Manager at Vancouver-based design agency MetaLab, believes the most important part of his job is to protect his designers from this kind of work so that they have time to do what they’re paid to do: design.

Creating too much process or too much administrative overhead, like meetings or presentations—these are all things that can take away from somebody's ability to spend time actually creating something.

Justin’s solution to creeping administrative overhead is a simple but effective one: he and his teams protect large swathes of his designers’ time from any management-related distractions.

“We found that our teams work best when they have four hour uninterrupted chunks of time. So we made sure that at least three days a week they don’t have anything that interrupts those four hour chunks.”

Deciding to protect team members’ time like this both decreases distractions and also forces companies to get creative with the way they facilitate internal communication. 

“This forced us to remove some meetings from the schedule and find other ways of facilitating communication. We did that through standups: specifically through 15 min huddles in the morning with the design teams on our projects.”

Project managers who understand the value of their teammates’ time know that their schedules aren’t endless to-do lists to which anyone can add tasks. On the contrary: schedules, chat applications, planners and other kinds of creative project management software should be tools for defending your time and protecting work that you think is important enough to schedule. 

Habit #2: Avoid Communication Overload

Protecting time for real work and promoting efficient communication are also valuable habits for design teams that have outgrown their ability to communicate informally. 

At MetaLab, for example, communication over the company’s Slack channels started derailing real work as the company grew to almost 100 employees.

“Notifications were completely getting in the way of people's work. Some team members would have a notification every 90 seconds or so,” says Justin of the company’s increasingly overburdened Slack channels.

As companies and teams grow, project managers often find themselves trying to impose some kind of communication discipline. Justin says that MetaLab did it by discussing the issue openly and finding several ways to make internal communication more efficient and impactful

Encouraging team members to summarize information in single messages, turn off their notifications when they feel overwhelmed, and exercise restraint when it comes to pinging fellow team members at peak hours are all practices that can help avoid communication overload.

Habit #3: Protect Team Members From Bad Clients and Management

The pressures that the outside world puts on your design project often run completely against your team members’ interests. Designers would always prefer to have more time, rather than less; more resources, rather than fewer; and uncomplicated cooperation from clients, rather than resistance. One of the most valuable functions that a good design manager can fulfil is to protect their team from these pressures as best as they can.

I think I spend 80% of my day being a shit filter for everybody who reports to me, so they don’t have to deal with it. 

Says Josh Payton, VP of user experience at Huge, a digital agency. “That’s what I’m doing in all those meetings all day long: shutting down stupid ideas and saying no.”

“Because MetaLab is an agency, clients want and need to be informed at all times as to what's going on and progress of things,” says Justin. “Our project managers are a shield in between clients and the people creating the work that they're paying for.”

Bad clients aren’t the only external pressures that can derail or distract your team. Overly-ambitious deadlines and budgets that teams place on themselves can also kill a team’s momentum and sap their creativity.

“Organizations routinely kill creativity with fake deadlines or impossibly tight ones,” writes Teresa Amabile. “The former create distrust and the latter cause burnout. In either case, people feel overcontrolled and unfulfilled—which invariably damages motivation.”

Habit #4: Find A Balance Between Structure And Freedom

Most design teams tackling larger projects often find themselves in a kind of project management grey area. They aren’t big enough to merit an expensive, complicated project management solution like the kind used at Fortune 500 companies, but they can’t continue improvising and doing everything by the seat of their pants either.

“I came to MetaLab from IBM, which is a much larger company where the red tape has red tape,” says Justin. “I would say the hardest thing, no matter the team size that I've worked with, is finding the right balance for process and structure.”

That balance can be particularly important in a crisis situation, when teams need enough structure to remain focused while remaining flexible enough to react to unexpected changes in direction.

“Remaining flexible is the key to weathering the storm,” says Aaron Irizarry, Head of Experience at Capital One. “It is great to have process in place that allows teams to work collaboratively and efficiently, but when things go sideways you will need to make adjustments.”

Habit #5: Remember That Good Design Project Management Has Nothing To Do With Project Management

But how do you know how much structure is too much or too little for your team? Most experienced design managers find that the answer often has nothing to do with project management and everything to do with understanding their team members as a group of people.

“There is no substitute for getting to know each of your team members individually,” says Zac Halbert, Product Design Lead at Tradecraft. “Building things as a team requires a lot of trust, which is rooted in an understanding of each other’s unique strengths, weaknesses, and quirks.”

Avoid getting caught up in the activities and minutia of project management and focus on getting your team to buy into the project. Focus on developing simple, effective project management habits (check out our Simple Project Management series to see what exactly that might look like!)

Instead of arbitrarily and haphazardly applying project management frameworks to your team, focus instead on improving and building upon what already exists. Consider showing team members that you understand and appreciate their work with rewards and recognition.

“People do projects, and only people,” writes management consultant Sebastian Nokes. “Software, methodologies, and everything else apart from people do not get projects done. People do. So managing people is right at the heart of project management.”

Many managers have a tendency to forget the human element in project management. The most effective ones—whether they work in design or in any other field—know that the best way to get the most out of their team is to treat their people like, well, people!

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Introducing the Flow API https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-the-flow-public-api Wed, 06 Sep 2017 00:27:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-the-flow-public-api

Today we are happy to release public access to the Flow API. 

The Flow API lets you create, read and modify Flow tasks and projects, and follow task and project updates using webhooks. It's now simple to integrate Flow with all the tools your team uses at work.

What can you do with the Flow API?

The Flow API gives you access to Flow data using our simple REST API. This lets you:

  • Integrate Flow with your custom and internal tools.
  • Get real-time updates on Flow tasks and projects with Webhooks.
  • Integrate Flow with popular tools and services including Github, Gmail, and Google Apps, using Zapier and IFTTT. 

Access to the Flow API is available to all Flow users, today, for free.

Getting started

To get started, you’ll just need to create an access token, and follow the simple instructions in our API Documentation

If you have any questions, please send them to support@getflow.com.

A public API has been one of our most requested features. Thank you to all of our users who submitted feedback and helped shape the development of the API. 

We can’t wait to see what you’ll build!

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Nine Easy Arguments For Bringing The Rest of Your Company to Flow https://www.getflow.com/blog/9-arguments-to-refer-your-company Tue, 18 Jul 2017 08:42:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/9-arguments-to-refer-your-company

You’re frustrated.

You like to think that you take projects seriously, and that you’re a professional at what you do. But it doesn’t feel that way, because your small company’s project management system is a mess. It’s a mess because no one uses it.

No one ever knows what’s going on. It reminds you a little bit too much of that student club you were part of back in university. 

You’ve tried convincing people that it’s time to switch to something more powerful, but it’s hard to get people to switch to anything else. One week some people in the office are trying out a new system, and the next week they’ve all left, because if everyone isn’t using the new system, no one is. 

But then one day, you spot something different: 

Flow.

A happy middle ground between what you’re doing right now, and an expensive enterprise project management system. Within minutes you know that Flow is going to be the software that finally gets your team on the same page.

But you rein in your enthusiasm. You think about all the previous failed experiments. You’ve learned from experience that if this is going to work, you’re going to need everyone to buy in. You have one chance to get this right: you need a game plan, and you need talking points.

Here they are:

1. “We need something more powerful than what we have right now.”

Get real with your team. Tell them what they’re already thinking: that your project management system is a mess, that crucial information is constantly getting lost or buried, that people are confused about expectations and outcomes all the time, that it all feels amateurish and unprofessional, and that it’s making all of you miserable.

Tell them the company needs something that reflects the fact that you all take your work seriously. That effectively organizes and communicates tasks, and lets you see a project through from beginning to end without interruption.


2. “We don’t need anything complicated either.”

At this point, you’re all on the same page about what the problem is, but maybe your team is a bit skeptical. You’ve tried implementing new systems and processes before. And you know what, people are right to be skeptical! Most project management systems are complicated and taxing and completely worth the disdain they elicit. But you have something different. 

You have Flow.

Flow has just enough of what you need to get your act together, project management-wise, but none of the stuff that makes enterprise project management systems scary. It has everything you need and nothing you don’t.


3. “What we need is Flow. Here, take five minutes to look at Flow.”

Because it’s beautiful and professional looking, and because it inspires confidence and respect in all who see it! (Flow’s world-class design team has a history of creating beautiful things for clients like Apple, Slack, TED, and Starbucks, so this makes sense.)

The moment you show your coworkers Flow, they will start to understand that Flow is something that will take minutes to start using, rather than weeks.


4. “Yes, Flow looks simple, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful.”

Flow looks extremely straightforward and beautiful. But that’s just a trick of design. 

Flow is actually very powerful—more powerful than basic task management apps like Trello and the rats nest of spreadsheets and email chains you’re currently using.

The fact is that Flow has a lot of tricks up its sleeve. Here are just some of them:

      • Quickly and easily organize your teams around multiple projects
      • View tasks as lists, kanban cards, or on the calendar to plan out exactly what needs to get done by who, in what order, and when
      • Stay on top of projects and avoid the Information Fire Hose problem with simple reporting and a Catch Up dashboard designed to make you worry less about what your team members are doing, rather than more
      • Delegate work with powerful Tasks & Subtasks. Set due dates, write notes, share related files, keep conversation on task with comments, subscribe stakeholders, and more
      • Never lose track of anything ever again with powerful search and filtering controls
      • Link Flow to Slack to get automatic updates on project activity, and easily create tasks using  /flow commands


5. “If we start using Flow, it will mean I can bother everyone less.”

Your biggest problem as a manager is figuring out who exactly is working on what without micromanaging or bothering your team members.

Flow solves this problem by letting you track how projects are going, what team members are working on, and what they’ll be working on next with a single glance. Tell your team that Flow will mean fewer terrible, mind-numbing meetings about nothing. Everyone should be pretty excited about Flow now.


6. “The only way this is going to work is if we all get on board.”

You’ve seen what happens when people are spread across a dozen different workflows and platforms. The only way you can get rid of the cacophony and noise and cross-communication is to put everything in one place, and for everyone to speak the same language when it comes to projects.


7. “Trust me, Flow is the real deal.”

Every day, thousands of teams around the world rely on Flow, from small businesses, agencies and fast-growing startups, all the way to larger, global organizations like Build.com. Flow is perfect for small to medium-sized organizations, but its so powerful that even the big dogs use it.


8. “Flow is going to do everything in its power to make us happy.”

Flow has one mission: to keep its users happy. Flow’s biggest nightmare is an unhappy user. 

Larger enterprise software companies might be able to get away with cutting corners, but not Flow. Whether it’s through world-class support, or simply making sure that everything always works smoothly, you can be confident in knowing that Flow will never leave you behind.


9. “They keep making it better.”

Good software is never complete, and Flow is no exception. The team behind Flow is wholly focused on improving the product to better solve the problems teams like yours face at work every day. But, they don’t add features willy-nilly. Every new feature is built to solve a real problem.

But don’t take our word for it. Our Feedback Forum is one of our main customer communication hubs, and it also happens to be what helps us decide what we’ll build next.

Alright. You got this. You’re ready. You’ve done the homework and you’re confident that you can guide your company into a brave new world of teamwork and organization.

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Small Improvements - June '17 https://www.getflow.com/blog/small-improvements-june-2017 Tue, 13 Jun 2017 16:58:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/small-improvements-june-2017 Since launching Advanced Subtasks we've been listening to your feedback and making some more small improvements to Flow. Here's a quick roundup of everything that's new:

Better subtasks sorting by owner/date

When sorting tasks by owner or due date, subtasks are now sorted beneath their respective parent tasks.

Clearer parent task names and improved subtask filtering  

Parent task names are now clearly displayed for subtasks in the Assigned to Me view. We also fixed a bug where filtering by tag failed to display subtasks with independent tags. 

Collapse tasks to de-clutter your calendar view

The task calendar is one of Flow’s most used features. But sometimes for teams who have a lot of tasks, it can get a little overwhelming. So, we added the ability to collapse longer tasks lists and display only the top 5 tasks per day.

Faster inline task editing from list view

You can now edit the following inline on any task in your task list:

  • Assignees (just click the avatar of the current assignee; option+click to filter by that user).
  • Due dates (click the calendar icon).
  • Tags (option+click the tag).

Improved Emoji support 🤣

Emoji in Flow have been updated to support Unicode 9.0. Say hello to owls🦉, baguettes 🥖, clowns 🤡, and more.

Delete file attachments and project notes without entering edit mode

We saved you a few clicks here 👍

Desktop notifications for Windows 7 and 8

It’s now easier to keep up with what’s happening in Flow when the app is minimized.

Easier text selection in task titles

For easier copy and pasting: You can now select text in task titles when a task is completed.

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The Truth: Your Project Management Plan Has Nothing To Do With Project Management https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-most-important-part-of-your-project-management-plan-has-nothing-to-do-with-project-management Wed, 07 Jun 2017 21:52:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-most-important-part-of-your-project-management-plan-has-nothing-to-do-with-project-management Convincing a group of people to do something can be difficult. But it’s also the bedrock of effective project management.

No roadmap, process or project management plan can convince the people you’re working with that a project is worth investing their time and effort into—that’s something you need to do as a manager.

Managers have a natural tendency to sometimes forget this—that their teams are made of people, each of whom have goals and basic needs. Remembering the human dimension of project management can prevent you from taking people for granted, and help you improve outcomes more than any framework or methodology ever could.

Don’t get caught up in details

It’s easy to get caught up in the activities and minutia of project management – tracking and hitting milestones, meetings, etc. — but good project managers know that these surface-level indicators don’t matter much unless you have buy-in from your team members.

A project will simply not be successful unless people are willing to sacrifice time and energy to complete it.

The ability to persuade team members to buy into an idea is larger than any one project management skill or habit, and often takes years of experience to master. The best way to get better at this immediately is to make sure you aren’t currently doing anything that is actively preventing people from buying in in the first place.

All people deserve and expect to be treated with a certain level of respect. They want the same things that you do: to be understood as individuals, to do meaningful work, and for their efforts to be acknowledged. Ignoring these very basic facts about people is a surefire way to lose the trust of your team members.

The best tip I have received was that people make projects... So many methods try to setup a systematic approach to projects, be it PRINCE2, Agile, Scrum or a method based on one of the other bodies of knowledge, but at the end of the day delivery is all about co-ordinating and motivating people.

— Paul Naybour, Business Development Director, Parallel Project Training

No size fits all

Maybe the most common way that project managers lose their team members is by arbitrarily and haphazardly applying project frameworks that are simply incompatible with their teams.

We’ve all been there before: we read a book or article about some aspect of project management (like this one!), realize it’s the perfect solution to a specific project management problem, and then march into work the next day expecting to apply it to our workflow and solve everything. A big meeting is called, where everyone is told that from now on, the whole team is going to use system X to track tasks, scheduling and deliverables.

A week later, no one is using the task management program anymore and you’re back to square one.

The problem with arbitrarily applying frameworks to teams it that teams are made of people, and every team is unique. Just because a certain way of working was compatible with a previous group of people doesn’t mean it will work with this one.

When encountering a new project and a new team, your job is not to control and shoehorn the group into a specific project management process, but instead to ask yourself how you can improve and build upon what already exists. Get to know people on an individual basis, and figure out what has worked for them in the past. Be open to experimentation, and the idea that the process you start off with might end up not being a good fit. 

Also make sure that you aren’t using project management processes to distract from more fundamental problems with your team or business. A team that manages to do all of their planning with post-its without getting distracted will be a lot more effective than a team that constantly flits from one new project management system to another in the hopes that it will magically solve all of their problems.

The point is to find a project flow that works for you team, not vice versa.

Reward efforts

Never underestimate the role of motivation in a project’s success. When someone performs well, acknowledge the person’s effort. Share the great feedback with the person, his peers, and/or his management. Such recognition will pay off immediately as your team will feel their work is important and valued.

— Katherine Kostereva, CEO and Managing Partner, Bpmonline

One of the most powerful tools that managers at small companies have in their management toolboxes are rewards.

At the end of the day, acknowledging and rewarding good work is the most direct and effective way of communicating to people that you understand and value their work. Someone who feels like their work is appreciated and understood is then more likely to do more good work—it’s a very simple feedback mechanism, but it underpins every healthy management relationship. 

Choosing who to reward and how to do so, however, can be tricky—should you reward entire teams, encouraging effective teamwork? Or should you reward individuals? This can be especially tricky at a small company where roles are mixed, people find themselves on multiple projects at a time, resources are limited, and everyone knows how much everyone else is making.

When awarding bonuses and raises, rule number one is always that they should be as closely tied to tangible, measurable expectations and outcomes as possible. If someone goes above and beyond the call of duty and their effort results in a tangible, objective increase in outcomes, a similarly tangible increase in financial reward is appropriate.

Bonuses, raises and stock options aren’t the only way to reward team members, however. 

Dinners, events and retreats are a great perks that offer a variety of side benefits—they help foster bonds between team members, remove you from your typical work context, and help you get to know team members as people. Getting to know team members can also help you understand what they value, which, in turn, makes it easier to reward them!

There are also small, day-to-day things you can do to communicate to people that you appreciate their effort. If someone goes above and beyond the call of duty to help you out, remember that you owe them one. Sending someone a thank you note, or simply thanking someone in person for their effort can also mean more than you think.

These are basic instincts that are hard to teach, and usually only come through experience. You will not always do this right. From time to time, you will fail, make people feel neglected, and maybe even cause someone to leave the company. This is inevitable in a fast-moving, lean startup environment.

The best you can do is to make sure that instead of repeating these mistakes, you learn from them, and that you never lose sight of the fact that your teams are made of people.

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The Most Important Project Management Skill? Putting Out Fires Without Starting New Ones https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-most-important-project-management-skills Fri, 19 May 2017 18:10:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-most-important-project-management-skills No matter how meticulously you plan them out, and no matter how honed your project management skills are, there is no way to disaster-proof your projects.

By far the most productive thing you can do to prepare for disasters is to accept that they will happen, and make sure your response doesn’t make things worse when they occur. Panicking and implementing knee-jerk solutions can often hurt your projects more than the actual disasters themselves.

Put simply, one of the most fundamental project management basics is being able to put out fires without starting new ones.

Expect disaster and embrace your limitations

In general, it is healthy to expect and accept that each of your projects will, on average, encounter at least a few disasters. Inexperienced project managers who haven’t come to terms with this basic reality of project management often find themselves panicking and reacting emotionally at any sign of things going wrong.

Don’t take it personally when things do go sideways. Keep a cool head and make sure you aren’t making any decisions based purely on emotion. Just because you’ve meticulously planned out every last detail of your timeline in your project management plan doesn’t mean that you’re immune to the kinds of mistakes that everyone else makes.

You have limited control over the situation, with limited time and resources, and to some extent, becoming a mature, competent project planner means learning about and accepting your limitations.

Accepting that things will inevitably go wrong immediately removes the anxiety of whether disaster will happen and helps you focus to what to do when it strikes.

Anything that can go wrong, will, and that’s OK as long as you remember to not take things personally, be willing to adapt, and are obsessed with figuring how to get shit done despite the circumstance. 
— Len Kendall, VP of Communications, Carrot - The VICE Digital Agency

Don’t be afraid to correct major problems

Good project management is about more than just staying calm when things go sideways, however.

Unexpected problems often occur at key junctures in projects, when deadlines are looming, resources are limited, and decisions need to be made quickly. Being able to react in a short period of time can mean the difference between a minor delay and a major missed deliverable.

But following a gut feeling and applying surface-level, incomplete solutions that ignore fundamental, underlying problems can also compound your problems.

The only way to avoid this is to take a step back, look at your team as a whole, and be absolutely sure that the disaster isn’t the result of some deeper problem within the organization.

Don’t use problem solving and fighting small fires as an excuse to avoid having awkward, uncomfortable conversations with team members about fundamental problems that might be affecting your company.

If there’s an elephant in the room, address it. The sooner you get big, uncomfortable conversations out of the way, the sooner you can move on to productive work.

Disasters that really take down startups rarely have to do with technical or procedural tasks at hand, and often ultimately come down to some kind of failure in communication. And often the only way to address crises in communication is more, and better communication. 

Many project managers will encourage this by holding weekly debriefing sessions where team members can vent, talk about what they think everyone is doing wrong, and get big problems out into the open. Being able to talk openly about problems often has less to do with someone’s individual courage than it has to do with having a public forum for it.

Maybe this means having team ‘venting’ sessions at the end of projects. Maybe this means going out for beers after work and fostering an attitude of openness among team members. The ideal arrangement will be different for each team, and project managers should exercise discretion when coming up with their own solution.

Learn from your mistakes

Don’t forget to evaluate the project once it’s complete to identify things that worked well, and what could have been done better. Simply walking through this thought process will help you to be better prepared for the next project.
— Kevin Murray, Senior Director of Talent Acquisition, Wayfair

So you’ve successfully faced a disaster head-on with a cool head, and you’ve had all the difficult discussions that you needed to have. Now what?

After solving a stressful problem, many people are tempted to simply move on and get back to productive work. 

But documenting and taking note of what went wrong can be just as valuable as solving the problem in the first place.

Disasters contain much more information than successes, and every good project planner should take pains to record as much detail about them as they can.

Take notes at your crisis meetings. At the end of a difficult day, write down exactly what went wrong. Forcing yourself to put a problem into words is a great way to help you fully understand it. Also, take it as a rule that if you don’t write it down, you’ll forget it!

Having a log of what exactly went wrong throughout the course of the project can also help you perform a thorough debrief and post-mortem [LINK: https://www.getflow.com/blog/elite-agencies-project-post-mortems] at the end of the project. Doing so might be the last thing on your mind after pulling an all-nighter to hit a deadline, but going through one well-documented, thoroughly analyzed crisis will teach you more about your company than any one success. 

Being able to look at your limitations and mistakes clearly can mean the difference between repeating the same mistakes over and over again, and growing as a company.

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How to Avoid Communication Breakdown While Managing Your Projects Online https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-to-work-on-a-project-online-without-going-insane Thu, 11 May 2017 23:10:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-to-work-on-a-project-online-without-going-insane In a perfect world, we would be doing all of our communicating in person. 

In our modern, increasingly connected world, however, it is becoming increasingly difficult to not work on a project online. An increasing amount of our communication with clients, remote employees, and even team members in the office is being funnelled through email, video conferencing and project management software.

And while project management tools and technology have sped ahead, human habits surrounding communication have been slow to adjust. Communicating online is a minefield, and the best way to prepare for it as a project manager is to assume the worst.

Realize that communicating online will suck

Communication is one of the hardest things we do. 

Even in real, face-to-face conversations, people regularly struggle to put into words exactly what it is they want to convey without offending, confusing, or boring someone. Fortunes have been made trying to teach people how to communicate effectively.

Throw in a layer of technology and a project plan with tight deadlines into the mix, and you have a recipe for chaos.

The only reliable way to pierce through the haze and prime ourselves against the pitfalls of online communication is to understand the many ways in which online communication can suck, and counteract them with a few good habits.

Never assume

Rule #1 of communicating, working and project planning online is to remember that online communication is extremely context and information-poor.

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity, or poor information, or a bad day, or fatigue, or a mis-addressed email, or distraction, or a typo, or a faulty Skype call, etc. 

Remember that there are so many things that can go wrong along the online information pipeline that it is almost always safer to ask when something isn’t clear.

If you’re encountering resistance or poor follow through from a team member, dig in, ask questions, and try to understand the cause.

Don’t worry if your questions sound stupid—doing so is much better than acting on false information.

When responding to someone online, sometimes the best thing to do is to simply avoid adding to the confusion and ambiguity of a situation. If an email chain is getting particularly crowded and hairy, the best thing to do might be to simply not respond. Don’t add to an already unreadably long list of messages.

When you do send a message, nip confusion in the bud by being very explicit in what you mean. Don’t be a black box—explain your thinking, what you want out of the conversation, and any actionables you want to emphasize.

Something that always gets lost in the soup of online communication is actionables. Don’t make your conversations online personal. Stick to the task at hand. Make sure that your messages always contain items that someone can act on. 

This doesn’t just apply to communication with team members. Client communication follows exactly the same rules. Transparency with clients can be the best way to avoid wasted work and client anxiety.

The biggest project management tip I've ever received is to open up the goings-on of your project in as much transparency as possible to your client. Many service companies offer client-facing updates once or twice per week, frequently via a simple email thread. This is not good. Professional Service companies should not be an unknown 'black box' where clients put projects and they pop out a certain amount of time later completed. Be transparent with your process, let them into your project management software of choice, and this will reduce your client phone calls by 20% right away.

—Keith Shields, Partner, Designli.co

Remember the person

The most important piece of context that often gets lost in online communication is the social dimension. Remember that there’s a person behind that email, with their own idiosyncrasies and style of communicating, and that you owe them the same amount of forgiveness and social leeway as you would in a real life conversation.

When in doubt, treat all forms of online communication as you would a professional letter. Default to courtesy: address people by their name when talking to them, use proper grammar and punctuation, treat people with respect, and keep things positive. 

Ad hominems and personal attacks are out, obviously. If there is friction to be resolved, take it to a phone call or an in-person meeting.

Do you like to sprinkle your real life conversations with jokes and sarcasm? Keep those down to a minimum in online conversations, where tone is often extremely difficult to detect. 

Choose the right tools

Communication doesn’t just mean emails and skype calls. It also increasingly involves a suite of online task management tools, like Flow, that blend communication with planning. Choosing the wrong tools can add yet another layer of complexity between you and your team members and compound the problems of online communications

The best way to avoid this, as a small team, is to make sure that the online communication tools that you’re using were built with small teams in mind. A ten person startup should simply not be using task management software for Fortune 500 teams. It’s as simple as that.

Once you choose the right tools, avoid abusing them.

Just because you have the ability to create sticky notes and lists of actionables for other team members doesn’t mean creating an endless list of them is okay.

Be as careful with what you put in someone’s schedule or inbox as you would be about placing something on their physical, real life desktop.

At the end of the day, successful communication online means realizing that you’re communicating with real people, and adjusting accordingly.

Read on to learn more about Simple Project Management habit #5: Putting out fires, without starting new ones.

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Introducing Advanced Subtasks https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-advanced-subtasks Thu, 27 Apr 2017 23:31:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-advanced-subtasks

Spring is here, and with it, something many of you asked for: Fully-featured subtasks in Flow.

Tasks have always been at the heart of Flow, and our users certainly know how to get stuff done. You folks have completed over 10 million tasks! 

We know that clear tasks are also at the heart of good project management. So, after giving you better tools to plan projects, we set out to make tasks in Flow even better.

Today's update gives subtasks superpowers: Transforming them from simple to do lists to fully-featured tasks with their own assignees, due dates, and comments.

Advanced subtasks make top-down project planning and high-level outlining in Flow easier than ever.

Here's what's new:
💁 Assign Subtask
📅 Set Subtask Due Dates
💬 Comment on Subtasks
↕️ Drag a task onto another task to make it a subtask (list view, task pane, and column view)
🔔 Subtask notifications, including redesigned email notifications.
📡 Subtask subscriptions mirror parent task subscriptions, but this can be overridden.
🏷 Subtask tags mirror parent task tags, but can be overridden.

We also added a few neat tricks:

  • When you’re punching out tasks in the task list, use shift-return  rather than the usual return to create the task, and you’ll enter inline subtask creation mode. Get wild. 
  • If you’d like to add a subtask to a task in the list or column view, hover over the task and click the little ‘Add Subtask’ icon.

All these task goodies are available today to all Flow users, for free. Check out the video above to see subtasks in action, or log into Flow and get cracking.

New to Flow or want to give it another try?
Click here to start a 15-day free trial →

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Protecting ‘Real Work’ Is One Of The Simplest Project Management Basics https://www.getflow.com/blog/protecting-real-work-project-management-basics Thu, 13 Apr 2017 16:56:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/protecting-real-work-project-management-basics In a flexible, lean startup environment, the biggest enemy of real, meaningful work is the task “treadmill”—the cycle of meeting, email-answering and planning that seems to cannibalize all other forms work in its path.

Companies that aren’t careful about the way they approach urgent tasks, set deadlines, and break down larger projects often find themselves in this state, constantly ’getting started’ on a million tasks tasks without finishing any of them. 

Protecting real work time

One of the best ways to prevent your to-do lists and calendars from filling up with meaningless work is to be relentlessly defensive in the way you schedule your time.

People who understand the value of their time know that their schedule is not an endless to-do list to which anyone can add tasks—on the contrary, a schedule should be a tool for defending your time and protecting work that you think is important enough to schedule.

One way to encourage this is to literally, physically block off parts of your calendar for the most important things on your todo list. 

Don’t let anything but emergencies enter these spaces. If someone needs to meet with you, too bad, that’s protected time, you’ll have to reschedule. Protecting this time might seem hard at first, but it’s the only way your work won’t be eroded by distractions in the long run.

Defensive calendaring allows you to take control of your schedule and identify key recurring time slots where you can accomplish specific activities. Short of a true emergency taking place, these blocks of time help you defend against over-committing, getting pulled into meetings,and losing yourself in an endless barrage of spontaneous calls and drop-ins from clients and associates.

— Brent J. Osborn, Director of Business Analysis, VectorOne

Not sure which blocks of time to protect? Studies have shown that most people are at their most effective and focused in the morning, so that might be a good place to start. Saving your mornings for the most important work also means you’ll have time later in the day for follow up, if need be.

Knowing that you have a few hours of protected, blocked-off time every morning also means you can schedule your days more precisely and confidently, knowing that your plans won’t be derailed by unwelcome distractions. 

The best (and simple/effective) project management tip I’ve ever received is to create your to-do list the night before.  That way when you walk in that next morning, you’re ready to go and don’t need to spend time digging through emails and time creating that list.  

It may save you five minutes, or it might save you a half an hour.  Having a focused list first thing in the morning is what will help jumpstart your day in the right direction.

— Ryan Kwiatkowski, Retirement Solutions, Director of Marketing

Not sure whether an urgent distraction merits your attention during your protected hours? 

A good test for this is to simply ask yourself, “is this urgent thing actually important?” If it’s urgent, but not important, then guess what? It’s not important, or urgent!Another thing that might try to impinge on your protected time is information. If you’re not careful, you can spend all day reacting to every bit of new information and not doing any real work in the process. Recognize what data is worth acting upon, and which is worth ignoring. Checking your email and analytics all day is not real work. 

Breaking larger tasks into smaller ones

We are at our most distractible and least focused when we feel overwhelmed by big, seemingly intractable projects. When presented with a task that we can’t quite wrap our heads around, we default to looking for smaller tasks, like emails and meetings, and real work goes out the window.

In these circumstances, one of the most useful project management steps you can take is to break down large, complicated projects into similarly-sized small chunks.

Some of the benefit here is psychological: when we break large projects down to their constituent parts, they immediately seem smaller and more manageable. People are far more likely to tackle something optimistically if they can fit the entire task in their head.

If you're overwhelmed by a project, break it down into smaller and smaller pieces. Actually write them down, too, until you get to a level where you can deal with each bit. Then keep your head down and JUST focus on one small piece at a time.

— Beth Bridges, VP of Digital Identity, Jitoutsource.com

Breaking things down into smaller chunks can also help you remain flexible, particularly if your projects involve working closely with picky clients. What might seem like a complete 180 from far away might, once you’ve zoomed in, really only involve minor tweaking.

The importance of flexible deadlines

The most valuable thing that project managers can do to protect real work, even more than encouraging it, is making sure their project management methodology isn’t actively destroying it. 

If defensive scheduling is the best way to defend real work, aggressive scheduling, in the form of arbitrary deadlines and overly-ambitious timelines, is the best way to quash it.

And by far the best way to ensure that you aren’t eroding a team’s real work time is to let team members set their own deadlines.

This might strike some managers as being overly accommodating or charitable, but flexible deadlines are often more beneficial to a project manager than they are to any individual team member. They often immediately provide a project manager with extra information about how much time a task should take to get done, and how realistic a deadline actually is. 

People have a tendency to over-promise and be overly-eager to agree to impossible deadlines, especially when the deadlines come from superiors. Letting employees set their own deadlines also eliminates this social pressure and moves the focus from pleasing a superior to increasing efficiency.

Let employees set their own deadlines. You may be assigning some aspect of a project that you believe will take a week, but maybe that employee can get it done in 4 days, or even just a few hours. By asking employees to set their own deadlines, you can also ensure that they are held accountable to their word.

— Ajay Prasad, RepuGen, Founder & President

Read on to learn more about Simple Project Management habit #4: Avoiding derailing your projects through online communication.

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Catch Up for Android and Some Small Improvements https://www.getflow.com/blog/android-updates-and-small-improvements Wed, 12 Apr 2017 22:45:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/android-updates-and-small-improvements

We know Flow users everywhere rely on Catch Up every day, so we're pleased to announce that it's now available on Android, too!

New in Flow Tasks for Android

  • Catch Up is the easiest way to quickly get caught up on what you missed, and what your team has been working on, from your Android device.
  • Use the Catch Up tab to quickly review notifications (handily grouped by type). Swipe right to dismiss notifications.
  • Check out the Review tab for a historical view of all of your notifications, which you can refer to any time you’d like.
  • Google Sign lets you sign in using your Google Account.

Catch Up is available now in Flow Tasks on the Google Play Store →

And, as always, we've been listening to your feedback and working on some small improvements to the core Flow web experience, too:

Download images straight from the lightbox

“Do you have any plans to add a download button for images and graphics? This would be a AWESOME feature for my graphics/design/videographer team :)”

This was a no-brainer that makes things a little easier for all those teams using Flow to share graphics and visual assets.

Flow Search now remembers your ‘recent’ or ‘relevant’ preference 

“It would be great if we can set our default search settings for tasks to be "recent" instead of "relevance" I almost always click recent. Thanks!”

This one will hopefully save a lot of folk a few clicks.

Have feedback or thoughts? Head over to our feedback forum or send a quick email to support@getflow.com. We love working with you to make Flow better. 


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Avoid Project Management Chaos By Establishing A Project Plan https://www.getflow.com/blog/establishing-a-project-plan Tue, 28 Mar 2017 23:36:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/establishing-a-project-plan

Projects at small companies and startups will often take unexpected turns. You don’t have much control over this. 

What you do have control over are the expectations that you bring with you into each project. 

Experienced project managers know that the best way to organize and communicate your expectations is to create a project plan, and to do so as early as possible. Project plans help you visualize what success looks like, let you distinguish between distractions and priorities, and help you be more flexible when something inevitably goes wrong.

The importance of setting expectations early

Diving into a project full-bore and simply getting things done can be tempting, especially in a startup environment where time is of the essence, team members are hungry for early success, and your company has told itself that it wants to do things ‘differently.’ We always know the least about projects at the very beginning, so why not simply get started now and see where things go?

Most startups quickly discover that diving into projects blind often leads to disaster.

Team members’ roles become mixed up and start to conflict. Employees start to feel like their managers don’t respect their time. Managers have no way of tracking team progress. Work at the company starts to feel like barely-controlled chaos. Companies find themselves being pushed around by their projects, rather than the other way around.

Team project work is simply impossible without some basic set of shared expectations.

This is usually the point where startups will begin experimenting with various rudimentary project planning methods: Gantt charts, Kanban boards, etc. 

The ideal planning solution for your team will depend on the nature of the project, the size of the team, and the goals of your organization. 

What won’t change is the fact that your project plan should accomplish three things: a) ensure that you’re solving the right problem b) describe success and c) do all of this while remaining flexible and amenable.

Solving the right problem

If I were given one hour to save the planet, I would spend 59 minutes defining the problem and one minute resolving it.
— Albert Einstein

Smart, ambitious people are hard-coded to solve every problem that comes their way. Many people think that this is what makes for a high-performing, successful team—an ability to simply force your way through every obstacle and win at any cost.

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it often leads to hours of wheel-spinning  and meaningless work that doesn’t actually result in any tangible success.

Far from brute-forcing their way through projects, teams that are successful in the long run often develop a keen ability to precisely define problems before any work is done.

One can do 100 tasks “right” but if you miss the one that is most essential to those longer term success factors, a project can and will often fail to meet stakeholder expectations. 
— Samantha Schwartz, CEO, The Plaid Agency 

Forcing yourself to define a problem correctly is the primary purpose of a good project plan.

In the beginning, it gives you an opportunity to look out over the expanse of the project and identify exactly what it is your team wants to accomplish.

As you work through a project, a project plan can also be a constant reminder to make sure you’re solving the right problems. 

As unexpected tasks and distractions creep up, your plan will help you understand whether they’re worth solving. Saying “no” becomes a lot easier with a project plan. If you’re a project planner, a project plan will become the primary tool in your project management toolbox for keeping your team on track.

Visualizing a finished project

A project plan is more than just a constantly evolving summary of all your problems, however. It’s also the most reliable way of visualizing and understanding what exactly success will look like once you’re finished a project. 

In some cases, a project plan can literally be a visual representation of what a finished project will look like, in the form of a chart or list of outcomes.

What is it that we’re trying to accomplish? What specific pieces have to fall in place for us to be satisfied with a project? What will it look and feel like once we’re done?

There is no way to predict what exactly success can look like before you’ve started work on a project, but your plan should at least attempt to answer some of these questions. 

Having an image of what success looks like that everyone can point to will help you further distinguish tasking, timeline and methodology from actual progress.

Staying flexible

Create a plan and a path to get the project done, but stay open and flexible to alternative options.
—Erin Rohr, Account Director, Metis Communications

Maybe the most counter-intuitive thing about creating a project plan is the effect that it has on the flexibility of teams. 

One of the main reasons why small teams put off the chore of planning and task management is the idea that plans are unnecessarily constricting. 

Won’t a plan lock us into one specific way of doing things? Won’t it prevent us from seeing unexpected benefits down the road? Also, how could someone possibly plan for every detail at the outset of a project?

Locking yourself into a way of working too early can indeed be harmful. But entering a project with a plan can often help teams be more flexible, rather than less.

A project plan that is widely-shared, up to date, and does an effective job of communicating the state of a project to team members can cut down dramatically on the need for meetings whenever unexpected problems crop up or a project takes a turn.

Indeed, working on a project without a plan can sometimes become a recipe for inflexibility. Without a widely agreed-upon set of expectations, teams begin to operate on instincts and individual beliefs, which are much harder to amend than an item on a to-do list.

And for experienced project managers that understand that plans are always amenable, provisional documents, they can become a constant reminder to be flexible—to revise and check over milestones and make adjustments as needed.

Read on to learn more about Simple Project Management habit #3: Protecting real work time.

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What Is Project Management? Choosing Your Goals, Wisely https://www.getflow.com/blog/what-is-project-management-choosing-what-to-do-next-wisely Tue, 21 Mar 2017 22:18:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/what-is-project-management-choosing-what-to-do-next-wisely

There are a million different things that you could be doing right now.

Every manager at a small company knows this. The daily to-do list at a small startup can grow impossibly long, especially if your startup is growing and constantly encountering new projects and opportunities. In a lean, flexible environment where ‘pivoting’ is the norm, the risk of distraction and losing sight of the bigger picture is ever-present.

What is project management? At its most basic, it is the practice of answering this question in an intelligent way.

One of the most fundamental and important habits that a project planner at a small company can develop is the ability to confront an organization’s never-ending list of to-dos, opportunities and new projects, and choosing what to do next in an intelligent way.

And one of the best ways to start doing this is to start asking a simple question: “Why?”


Why are we doing this?

Why should we take on this project? Why are we working on this? Is what we’re doing really worth four hours of meetings a day?

Maybe the quickest way to cut through the chaos of a small business environment when project planning is to ask yourself why you’re doing something.

One reason why this works is because growing startups are often filled with ambitious, driven people who are ready to move forward and expend a lot of energy towards achieving a goal—sometimes any goal, regardless of whether it actually advances the larger interests of the company. 

This is understandable. By their very nature, startup employees are in “go” mode, not in doubting and asking “why?” mode. More often than not, forcing yourself to justify a business decision or a to-do list can immediately clarify whether or not it’s worth pursuing.

Take the time to connect the project goals to your business goals... This will help keep your project team focused, add purpose and context to the work, and provide a reference point when you inevitably have to triage your deliverables

—Mike Beck, Head of Growth & Marketing, EarthClassMail.com

But asking “why” is even more important because it often leads to a series of other useful questions like: What are our goals as a company? How does this project impact what we prioritize as a business? We are a design company—does this logistics project really make actually make sense for us to pursue? Asking “why” ultimately forces you to consider whether your projects are actually connected to your company’s goals.

Once you get into the habit of doing this—making sure that your project goals are connected to your company’s goals—task management becomes a lot more straightforward.

Saying “no” to things immediately becomes easier. If a project or task has nothing to do with your company’s goals, you set it aside and focus on the more important stuff. 

It also makes saying “yes” a lot easier. If a project seems particularly connected to your company’s goals, you immediately jump on it. When you’re creating a project plan, thinking about how the project connects back to your company goals also makes prioritizing tasks and deliverables easier.

In the short term, beginning to ask “why” can keep you and your team focused and organized. But in the long term, getting into the habit of asking “why” can also ensure that your company is doing meaningful work.

Are we pursuing meaningful work?

Numerous studies have shown that the worst-performing companies are ones where employees don’t understand the connection between their efforts and the overall goals of the company. Maybe you’ve worked a job like this before—spending eight hours a day going through the motions and whiling away at busywork that doesn’t seem connected to any tangible outcomes or goals.

Good managers know that more than anything else, people want to do work that is meaningful. Not world-changing, Malaria-eradicating type work—just something that has a tangible impact on the fortunes of their company. 

Many startup managers fall into the trap of assuming that meaningless work is only a large company problem, when startups can often the most susceptible to it. 

Think about all the startups you’ve encountered that are unable to explain, in clear terms, what exactly it is that they do. Imagine how hard it must be to find meaning in your work if you don’t even know what it is exactly that you do.

Startups also often pay their employees with equity, which is meaningless until the company actually becomes successful. Most startups are also often months away from shutting down, and can feel more like an idea than something solid and value-yielding. More than 90% of startups will fail, and very likely, yours will too.

The best way to ensure that you’re doing meaningful work in this kind of environment is to choose projects that move things forward.

Choosing projects that align with a company’s goals automatically simplifies the task of project management. People become less confused about their roles at the company. Employees become more engaged with their work. People start to feel invested in outcomes and develop a sense of ownership over their projects.

In the end, choosing projects that are meaningful to your company sets the tone for all of the smaller decisions that need to be made in a project. 

If you choose what to do meaningfully, so will your team members. Task management will become a reflex and a necessity, not a chore. Everyone in the company will feel invested in the company’s success, because what they’re doing makes sense to them.

Read on to learn about Simple Project Management Habit #2: establishing a project plan.

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New: Project Updates in Slack https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-slack-v2 Mon, 20 Mar 2017 01:19:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-slack-v2

Flow for Slack just got some new moves 🙌

Project updates give your team a new way to manage projects straight from Slack, and stay up to date with what’s going on in your team. 

Watch the short video above for a quick overview of what's new, or read on for more details.

Haven’t added Flow to Slack yet? It’s easy, just follow our short getting started guide to get up and running in a few minutes.

Never Miss a Beat with Project Updates

Project updates send notifications about Flow activities to your linked Slack channels. 

Linking an individual Flow project to a Slack channel is a simple, unobtrusive way to give everybody working on a project clear visibility into how things are going.

You can also link a Flow team to provide updates on all the projects a team is working on. This is a great way for managers to get a higher level overview of everything happening across their team or department.  

Don’t need to be notified about every update? No problem. You can adjust a channel’s noise level to customize which activities you’ll be notified about. Set a linked channel’s noise level by typing /flow activities [all | most | some | off]


e.g. /flow activities some will pipe only task creations / completions and due date changes into the channel. To learn more about exactly which updates are shown at each noise level, click here.


Take Your Conversation to Task

It’s really easy to give your team a clear path from discussion to ‘completed task’ by creating tasks directly from Slack. Just use the /flow task TASKNAME command. You can learn more about setting due dates, assigning sections and more on our support site.


Go Heads Down with Focus Mode

When you just need to focus, the familiar information overload from a steady stream of messages and notifications is the last thing you want. 

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered: When it’s time to focus on a task, flip on Focus Mode in Flow and set how long you'd like to focus for. 


Slack’s Do Not Disturb will be synced, and new notifications in both apps will be silenced for the same duration. You can also enable Focus Mode straight from Slack by typing /flow focus [ ]h or [ ]m to set your number of hours or minutes. Eg. /flow focus 45m


As always, we’d love to hear what you think. Send feedback and ideas straight on over to support@getflow.com.

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Simple Project Management: The Answer To Your Project Management Process Headaches https://www.getflow.com/blog/simple-project-management-process Tue, 07 Mar 2017 02:25:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/simple-project-management-process

Matt was feeling kind of dumb.

On the outside, his twelve person startup looked successful. It was profitable, winning awards, and undertaking big projects with Fortune 50 companies. 

On the inside, it was a different story. Projects were going over budget. People were leaving the company as fast as they were joining it. Projects would routinely go off the rails and Matt would find himself scrambling just to stay on top of things. The company was in a state of constant, barely-managed chaos, with no project management process in place.

A few weeks earlier, Matt had decided that the way to fix this would be to read up on project management, take some project management courses, and implement some kind of project methodology—a magic bullet that would solve the issues of improper client management, late delivery, and exceeded budgets. 

He had started reading blog posts, learning about different frameworks and trying, fruitlessly, to install them in the company. At one point he picked up a 500 page textbook on ‘Agile’ project management and started reading.

But the more he waded through the jargon and the deeper he wandered into the world of big project management, the dumber and more helpless he felt. Popular complex project management methodologies were simply too big for his small team to absorb and implement. They were clearly designed with larger teams in mind, they never paid much attention to how his team really worked, and at the end of the day, they simply didn’t work.

How Project Management Processes Hurt Small Companies

So why does Matt feel dumb? 

Why is it that, for every Fortune 500 project manager who has read books like Agile Project Management, there are hundreds of Matts out there who have read the same books, attempted to implement the same methodologies, and achieved mixed results at their small company, or even made things worse?

And if traditional project management can’t help Matt rein in the chaos, what can? 

The first step to reining in the chaos at a small company is to acknowledge that a certain amount of uncertainty is inevitable. 

Weird and unexpected things happen when a company goes from a small group of pals to a real team.

Managers find themselves taking on multiple roles—managing projects, accounts, hiring, business development, and everything in between. The list of basic things to figure out—how to keep the lights on, how to make payroll—becomes impossibly long. Every week becomes a struggle to stay above water.

At the same time, the big picture questions never stop. Which management structure should the company use? What are the company's values? What is the company’s mission statement? Who’s the target customer? What’s our pricing model? Should we hire now? Did we hire too fast?

Scaling up, rather than being a central goal, can weirdly turn into a bothersome, even annoying prospect. Companies become so focused on week-over-week sustenance that the future often appears only in soft focus, barely a blip on the horizon.

The bottom line: The nature of work at small companies is different from work at large companies

Many a project management institute has been built trying to convince small business owners that big company project management solutions can work for them as well.

But small teams are usually working with limited resources, are less structured, and have a need for a kind of flexibility that you won’t find at large companies. And so it makes sense that project management solutions designed for giant, well-financed, regimented teams can mislead and even hurt smaller teams. 

Smaller teams need a different solution — something much simpler and more flexible than a methodology. 

Thankfully, this solution already exists, in the form of good project habits that your small company might already be engaging in. 

We’ve decided to call these good habits ‘Simple Project Management.’

Enter: Simple Project Management

The first step to implementing Simple Project Management at your company is understanding that you need not feel dumb for not learning traditional project management methodologies. 

Put down that 500 page textbook and take a deep breath. It’s going to be okay.

The second step is understanding that, while traditional project management solutions might not work for you, just squeaking by via any means necessary also isn’t good enough.

Consistently failing projects can poison your business and make everyone feel terrible at their job, especially when you’re at a small 10-person startup. Having no structure of project discipline at all is no way to approach project management at any company, large or small. 

Think about the value of your team’s time. At a small, ascendant company, every second is enormously valuable.

What your team needs are good, common-sense, methodology-agnostic habits for getting stuff done right now. 

You need habits that, rather than grinding things to a halt and overhauling the way you do everything, complement what you’re doing and results in immediate benefits. You need habits that, hopefully, become the bedrock of a company-wide culture of project discipline.

This series on Simple Project Management is about six habits that we believe represent the simplest solutions to the most common project management problems at small companies.

In putting together this list, we wanted to cut through the reflexive advice of project management—the stuff that might be a bit advanced for your average handful-sized team—and create some solid, actionable rules for managing work better today. 

After all, getting into a rhythm and learning to run projects at your company successfully can take years. You don’t go from zero to Waterfall master overnight. No amount of project management certification can replace good project management habits. Everyone needs the right habits before they can do anything, and conversely, if your team grows up with bad habits, no methodology can save them. 

Think of Simple Project Management not as a magic bullet, but as a starting point.

Read on to dive into Simple Project Management Habit #1: Choosing only projects that help achieve your business goals

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Small Improvements - February '17 https://www.getflow.com/blog/small-improvements-february-2017 Mon, 27 Feb 2017 22:37:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/small-improvements-february-2017 While working on the big things (ahoy 👋, Project Planning!), we try to be careful not to forget about the small stuff, too. We're always listening to your feedback and recently made a number of small improvements to make Flow that little bit easier to use, all-round.

Tasks are now unassigned by default

"Currently, Flow assigns new tasks to the creator. In our team, tasks are regularly created by someone other than the intended assignee (brainstorms, etc), so it takes us lot of extra clicks to assign them to users who actually needs to complete the tasks.”


We heard from many teams who routinely create multiple tasks before assigning or claiming them after the fact. This small change will save y’all some extra clicks. Also for those of you who are button clickers rather than keyboard thumpers, we’ve added a save button to Quicktask creation in kanban mode. 

You can now assign a section to tasks created via email or Slack

"When emailing Flow to create tasks we regularly assign them directly to projects using the MyProjectName syntax. It’d be great if you could add the ability to also assign tasks to a section.”


You can now use the {section} syntax when creating tasks over email or in Slack to assign them to an existing section in a project. Learn more about creating tasks via email on our support site.

The task pane now automatically scrolls to the newest comment

“It’d be great if the task pane automatically loaded/scrolled to the newest comment!”


Previously, users needed to scroll to the bottom of longer conversations in task comments to see the newest message. This tweak saves you some scrollin’.

You can now set due dates in the past

"I’d love to be able to set task due dates to a date in the past. It may seem like it's not a needed feature, because you can't go back in time to do it, but it comes in handy for keeping track of when an overdue task was due, and how overdue it is.”


Some of you might think this feature is a little overdue 🤔, well alright — you can set a task’s due date in the past now. Enjoy retroactively keeping an eye on overdue tasks ❤️.

It's easier to filter the task calendar

"When I click on a task in the Calendar view, I expect to see the detailed view of that task on the right side. That happens about half the time. The other half of the time, the Calendar view filters for that task instead. Weird! That's not what you guys intend, is it?


It certainly wasn’t! Now, when clicking a task in the task calendar, it will always open the task pane. Option-clicking a task’s project name will still filter the calendar view to display only tasks in the associated project.

Recurring tasks are now clearly marked in kanban view

"It’d be useful for us to be able to see if a task is recurring without having to go into the details."


There’s no longer any need to waste clicks: Recurring tasks are now marked directly in card view.

Have feedback or thoughts? Head over to our feedback forum or send a quick email to support@getflow.com. We love working with you to make Flow better. 

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Introducing Project Planning https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-project-planning Tue, 14 Feb 2017 01:17:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/introducing-project-planning

Your friends at Flow have been working hard on all kinds of good things, and today we're really excited to share some features that will help you better plan and understand your projects in Flow.

Project management doesn't need to be a headache. We're making it really simple to put your projects on the calendar, and easy to see how your projects are doing with straightforward reporting everyone on your team can understand.

Adding a start and end date to a project is an awesome way to see how all your biggest efforts fit together. To say that we’re just giving you the ability to add a timeline to a project however, is a bit of an understatement.

Check out the short video for quick overview, or read on for a full tour of what's new.

Project Calendar

We’ve added a project timeline view to the calendar. From here you’re able to get a bird’s-eye view of all your active projects and how they’re progressing. We’ve added some color coding to projects so you’ll know what’s Upcoming (Light Blue), On Schedule (Blue), Behind Schedule (Orange), Overdue (Red), Complete (Green), and Archived (Gray). In case you find yourself wishing you could assign custom colours to projects, we wish that for you too! Which is why we plan on releasing custom colour support soon.

Hovering over a project timeline provides information about that project: Who’s got tasks in the project, how many tasks are left, and how many are completed. Faces are sorted by who’s got the most open tasks 😉. If you hover for a little longer the other projects will fade out so you can focus on the project you’re interested in. 

Need a little more time on a project? A little less time? In addition to our Project Dates picker, you can grab either end of a timeline in the calendar to adjust it.

New projects can also be created right from the project calendar, just hover over the bottom of a day and click “New Project”. 

If you’d like to see the tasks for all the active projects on a day, simply hover over the top of a day and click “View Tasks”. Flow will show you all the open tasks for the projects active that day. 

Project Pane

We quickly realized that jumping back and forth between the Project Calendar and the existing project view wasn’t ideal, so we decided to give you a Project Pane! The Project Pane has all the powers of a regular project, but the added benefit of letting you click through all your different projects on the calendar without leaving it behind. If you’d like to expand a project pane into a full project view, there’s a little button for that (and the other way around too).

Project Reporting

We’ve added some really handy task counts to our projects, so that you can quickly see the total number of both open and completed tasks. With a bit of math based on how many tasks are completed, and how much time is left. We also show a progress meter, so that at a glance, you can quickly see how a project is progressing:

  • If a project’s task completion percentage is less than the amount of time that is left in the project, Flow will display that project as behind schedule (orange). 
  • If a project is past its due date and still contains tasks, Flow will display that project as overdue (red). 

Flow gives about 15% leniency at the beginning of a project, 10% in the middle, and 0% towards the end. This dial will show in both the project pane and the…

New Project View

Things were getting a little crazy with all these fancy new project features, so we had to simplify the project header view. Project Notes and statuses now live along the left side of a project in Kanban mode, which simplifies scrolling greatly (especially for Windows users (I promise we love you)).

Project timelines can be added to a project by clicking “Add a project timeline”. Once a timeline is added, you’ll see the project tracker dial. Definitely give that a whirl, otherwise you won’t see any projects on the project calendar either 😀.  If your team doesn’t work weekends, be sure to check the “Exclude weekends” option so that Saturday and Sunday are removed from your project status calculation.

The new filter field is now 100% less confusing to use and a little easier on the eyes. 


You can collapse a project into a project pane with this handy little guy.


Ever wanted to link to a project in Flow? Well we’ve added a “Copy Link” button- go wild.


Favoriting projects for the side bar (or the favorite projects view in the project calendar) is now a little more adorable as well. 


That's it! We hope this simplifies your project management process and helps your team get stuff done! There’s more great stuff cooking that we can't wait to show you. Stay tuned.

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New and Improved Task Subscription Notifications https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-and-improved-task-subscription-notifications Thu, 15 Dec 2016 18:52:00 +0000 Jesse Herlitz https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-and-improved-task-subscription-notifications

When we revamped our notifications system we aimed to reduce notifications just to the important stuff. Flow was so full of information that it was hard to distinguish what was important and what was noise. Subscription notifications were often followed by comment notifications, and they felt quite duplicative. Often you'd get a message that you've been subscribed to a new task, followed quickly by a comment notification on that task- this felt too noisy, and we ended up cutting the feature.

After we removed this however, we noticed that whenever there wasn't a comment on a task we'd miss tasks that were getting created. It's an interesting Catch 22- In one scenario Flow was being too noisy, and in the other people were missing out on important information.

Now when you create a Task in Flow, we'll ask you whether or not you'd like to notify your subscribers of the new task. If you know you're going to be adding a comment in short order, or simply don't want to start a conversation yet- you can hold off on notifying people. If however you'd like to give everyone a heads up about the task, you can opt to send them a task notification upon task creation.


So what about when people are subscribed to a task after it's created? Well, we've found that that's usually that's when you'd like someone to take a look at the task- so we'll always send a subscription notification to people that are added to a task after it’s created.

Subscriptions are one of the most powerful features in Flow, and after putting this update through its paces internally we can truly say that we feel like we don’t miss a beat. Enjoy!

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Get Caught Up on the go from iPhone and iPad https://www.getflow.com/blog/catch-up-for-iphone-and-ipad Thu, 01 Dec 2016 13:30:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/catch-up-for-iphone-and-ipad Catch Up on iOS

Since we killed the dashboard on the web and replaced it with Catch Up, we’ve heard from teams everywhere who have come to rely on it as a core part of their daily workflow.

Catch Up is a great place to start your day in the morning, but it’s also ideal for when you’ve gone off the grid for a couple of hours and want to see what you’ve missed. Unlike other dashboards, Catch Up doesn’t show you an endless feed of information: Its sole purpose is to get you back to work—not to create more for you.

Teams using Flow have found Catch Up  useful to help them quickly see and respond to important questions they may have otherwise missed, unsubscribe from noisy task conversations and keep track of who has completed which tasks.

Now, it’s easy to get caught up on the go, too:

New in Flow Tasks 4.7

  • Catch Up is the easiest way to quickly get caught up on what you missed, and what your team has been working on, from anywhere.

  • Use the Catch Up tab to quickly review your notifications (handily grouped by type). Swipe right to dismiss notifications.

  • Check out the Review tab for a historical view of all of your notifications, which you can refer to any time you’d like.

Catch Up is available now in Flow for iPhone and iPad.

New to Flow? Sign up for a free 15-day trial and download Flow from the iOS App Store.

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Quit Slacking Off: How Teams Are Using Slack as a Project Management Sidekick https://www.getflow.com/blog/slack-project-management-sidekick Tue, 15 Nov 2016 14:59:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/slack-project-management-sidekick

In May of this year, Recode referred to Slack as Silicon Valley’s “darling of the moment.” That may be true—with over 3 million daily active users and customers from 77 of the Fortune 100 companies, the team messaging app is hands-down the most used out there.

There’s no doubt that Slack changed the game in regards to connecting colleagues in real-time, and it has certainly revolutionized work for remote teams all over the world.

But the bridges it created in terms of work communication have shown modern teams the gaps that remain as it relates to project management.

Sure, there are many valid arguments out there that question Slack’s ability to help people stay focused on what matters most. “With you in my life,” began Samuel Hulick in his critique of Slack over at Medium, “I’ve received exponentially more messages than I ever have before.”

Many others have penned thought pieces speaking to how Slack, with all its fun features, is often used as a slick way for teams at work to feel productive when, even if unintentionally, they’re just slacking off.

Still, through Slack’s ubiquity and adaptability, it’s always encouraging to see how some teams are finding interesting new ways to use Slack to bring their team together and boost productivity as a result.

For Savannah Reising at Astropad, Slack serves as a way for her team—distributed between Minneapolis and San Francisco—to begin building relationships:

When Giovanni uploads a picture of the gnocchi he made for lunch, for example, it makes it easier to jump into a video call with him later because now we have a way to break the ice.”

For QuHarrison Terry and his team at Redox, Slack is a way to share the joys of work that are often missed on those solitary days of staring at a computer screen:

Every time a developer commits code, their camera is set up to take a picture of the moment they submit their work. This is a ‘Lolcommit,' and we have a whole channel devoted to capturing the special expressions of sheer happiness and elation that often accompanies the completion of a coding project.”

Through our work with leading teams around the world we’ve come to see that while Slack is an amazing tool that people enjoy using, the best way to actually be productive with it is to pair it with other tools—to think of it like a gear in your overall project management machine.

In other words, when it comes to the basics of project and task management, Slack should be the sidekick—not the star.

Too often we see teams with productive intentions jump from a Slack conversation, then to Post-It notes and meetings, and then back to Slack. The result? Even in the best scenario, many great ideas and conversations inside of Slack aren’t so much captured as they are buried in the mosaic of messages.

When Slack becomes the sidekick, however, there’s a shift in mindset. Now, more of the ideas and conversations in Slack are created with the intention to drive projects forward—and with a project management tool like Flow, they can be immediately turned into actionable tasks.

The more we talked to teams at work, the more an interesting picture began to form:

Slack is a way to chat about projects, but it’s not a tool to help manage them. (tweet this)

While a team chat app alone can’t shore up fundamental communication challenges, teams from all over the world shared with us how they’re trying to use Slack to better manage projects.

Take, for example, how the team at Delphic Digital, a marketing agency based in Philadelphia, uses Slack to keep track of all those “Hey, can you do this?” tasks:

A fast-paced office also means a full Slack inbox. A lot of people on our team use starred items as a way to keep track of tasks that people ask of them throughout the day. One tip is to reserve 30 minutes at the end of the day to check off all of your Slack stars."

These seemingly innocuous tasks—those that often aren’t directly part of a particular project—are often the cause of missed project timelines, yet they are rarely organized or documented. Furthermore, it's typically the best collaborators among your employees who will get blamed for slowing down projects. 

What's the solution? Don't just react to tasks, take control of them. This helps employees make more informed decisions about what to work on next, and it will likely help those natural collaborators achieve the states of deep focus they need to complete the project-related tasks that may be more important.

Delphic’s strategy serves as a quick way to prioritize those tasks while they are top-of-mind, but it’s still a rather clunky hack. With Flow's new Slack integration, teams can create actionable tasks as they come up in conversation, right inside a Slack Channel, removing the need for workarounds like this.

The consensus, after many conversations with teams who use Slack heavily, breaks down like this:

1. Slack grants them the crucial ability to have real-time back-and-forth conversations in project-based channels, but it doesn’t ensure a project is moving forward. 

2. Slack gives teams a great atmosphere to foster creativity and generate ideas, but it doesn’t offer an easy way to pulse that creativity into a project or help teams capture those important ideas.

Slack’s impact on modern workplace productivity is without parallel, but productivity wonks and project managers are increasingly realizing that it’s only a messaging app. The best way to get things done is to use Slack for what it was meant to do, and take advantage of integrations to sync the best of what happens inside of it with tools like Flow that actually help teams stay on top of workloads and drive projects forward.

Teams using Flow can use our new integration to turn Slack into a productivity powerhouse. 

Sign up for a 15-day free trial and add Flow to Slack today → 

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Say Hello to Flow for Slack https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-slack Tue, 15 Nov 2016 14:58:00 +0000 Aidan Hornsby https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-slack

It’s always better when your favourite tools work together, which is why we’re launching a powerful integration between Flow and Slack.

If your team uses Slack, listen up. It's now easy to:

✅  Go from Discussion to ‘Done’

Wasting time boomeranging between apps? Connect Flow and Slack, and give your team a clear path from discussion to completed task.

📝  Create Flow Tasks in Slack

Easily create and delegate public or private tasks, attach Slack conversations, tags and assign due dates—all from your Slack Channel.

🔔  Subscribe to Task updates from Slack

Subscribe to Tasks created in Slack to push updates to Flow’s Catch Up feed.

🔗  Link Flow Teams or Projects to Slack Channels

Link Flow Teams or Projects to dedicated Slack Channels to keep discussion focused on the work at hand and immediately capture action items as Flow Tasks.

What are you waiting for? Click here to learn more and add Flow to Slack today →

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From Remote Maker to Remote Manager: A Primer https://www.getflow.com/blog/remote-maker-remote-manager Wed, 02 Nov 2016 15:50:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/remote-maker-remote-manager

The perks are touted and we all know them quite well, but there’s another side to remote work. It’s a side made of equal parts procrastination and rationalization—a continuous battle between choosing to do what you need to do vs. choosing to do what you’ve convinced yourself you need to do:

  • Revamping the homepage copy vs. Vacuuming the house, again.
  • Preparing for an All-Hands meeting vs. Oh, we’re out of coffee. I better go grab some.
  • Updating the project Kanban board vs. I’ll just pop over on Twitter and see what’s new.

The situation might not always feel like a battle, but on remote work’s other side an individual must have the capacity to make disciplined decisions. Failure to do so can mean your productivity plummets even as you feel you’ve been working all the time; this is a result of work always being on your mind but not always top of mind.

The other side can also mean a life that feels out of control, where you have the need to defend yourself against anything that may disrupt your ability to focus—phone calls during the day, family asking for your attention when you’re in the middle of work, and of course your own mind’s easy drifting to tasks unrelated to work.

This is all amplified when you're:

  • Working for a progressive startup that values what you get done rather than how long you’ve been clocked in to do it.
  • A newly-minted manager feeling the pressure of a new role and wanting to shine.
  • Managing a remote team and trying to keep everybody on task and in sync.

First, let’s lay the groundwork for what is meant by “maker” and “manager.” A maker is a creator. Think of them as the writers or programmers on your team. A manager points the way. Think of them as the team lead or boss.

In Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, Paul Graham writes that the maker’s schedule is “embodied in the traditional appointment book, with each day cut into one hour intervals.” Managers often switch up what they are working on or thinking about each hour.

For makers however, work happens differently. They typically need longer stretches of uninterrupted deep focus, which means even one or two meetings throughout the day can disrupt their ability to remain productive.

But there’s a special group that doesn’t get much love. They were makers, but they’ve become managers. They were depended upon, perhaps for a significant portion of their working life, for their creative prowess. They primarily lived in the cycle of taking directions and then executing beautifully.

Just looking at the scheduling differences, can you see how challenges could arise?


Great Maker to Stressed Manager

When I moved into an executive editor role at a growing media company, I felt those challenges first-hand. For starters, my instinct was to roll up my sleeves and create. When a pressing story needed to be covered in my first week on the job, I spent the day writing an article about it.

As a maker, this would have been me taking initiative and doing a damn good job. As a manager, this was me failing my team. As I later realized, I had several writers itching to cover the story. A few of them even sent drafts along that I didn’t see until late in the day because I’d been in deep focus mode.

The result was that my piece went live, but several others sat unpolished and therefore went unpublished. We had only mine, but we would have had three or possibly four stories—each one covering a different, important angle—had I been a manager and properly delegated.

That was a wake-up call, for sure. But there was a huge problem: I didn’t know how to take action on the wake-up call. And I wasn’t even entirely sure what questions to ask.



It’s only when I look back that I realize how much I learned from watching others on the executive team. They had spent years in managerial positions, and seemed to have a better grasp on things. Now, with hindsight and the space to reflect, here are a few questions I would have asked during my first few weeks:

  • How much time should be spent delegating work to my 100% remote team of content contributors vs. thinking big picture about the overall company direction?
  • How should I keep track of their project progress without micromanaging?
  • When was the right time to gently push?
  • How can I create a process for us to stay ahead of our editorial calendar while also granting our writers the periods of maker’s space they need to write when newsworthy topics come up?

A Few Project Management Basics, Remotely Applied

As the years went by, I established a few processes that were inspired by insights from those on the executive team and by some of the core tenets of project management. While I can safely say I answered questions like “Does remote project management really work?” (of course it can), here are a few basics that would have helped me during that early transition and that certainly help me now here at Flow:

1. Ask Lists Before Task Lists. Before embarking on any part of a project, it’s important for your team to have absolute project clarity. This sounds super simple, but when your colleagues are in different timezones and everybody loves the concept it’s crazy easy for a few go-getters to get cracking before there’s a plan in place.

Before any task, all questions must be asked. As the manager, it’s your job to present the project to your team of makers. But it’s also your job to seek feedback, and create the safe space crucial for your team to feel like they can ask questions about their role, the expected timeline, and the reasoning behind the overall decision.

I recommend trying to have synchronous meetings if possible. Regardless, keep all important notes (from meetings, team chat apps, etc.) in a single document and be sure to include who made the comment, and when.

2. Synthesize and Prioritize. When your team is informed on both the direction and their individual expectations, this is your time to draft a charter of the project for all to see. Whittle down the notes you’ve taken and the questions/feedback you received and share this more synthesized version of the overall project (with timelines and expected schedules) with your team. This is the manager’s time to be a maker.

3. Communicate, Address, Drive. Depending on the size of your remote team, this is your chance to check-in with each colleague to ensure they understand what the deliverables are and precisely how they’ll be achieved. Address any additional questions they may have, keeping in mind what you now know about the importance of the maker’s schedule. Lastly, give them the green light and know that your role from here on out will begin to shift from delegator to monitor.

4. Monitor and Maintain. It’s easy to stay too long in delegation mode, and this is what often leads to new managers (especially new remote managers) becoming micro-managers. They want to check in all the time, but this is typically more a result of their role insecurity than of their trust in the team. Get out of the way, trust your colleagues, and make sure you are monitoring progress (we use a Kanban board in Flow, but there are other methods). As you monitor, note when the project is veering from timeline expectations (it’s likely) and work to find solutions to keep the project on course.

5. Appreciate and Evaluate. As your team completes the project, sift through your notes, genuinely applaud your team’s effort both as individuals and as a team, and conduct a thorough project post-mortem. Our own Mark Nichols described project post-mortems like this:

On the surface, it’s a discussion about what went well, what went poorly, and how the team can be better. Under the hood, though, it’s an opportunity to remind your group that excellent team performance does not happen by accident—it’s a process that happens in increments, as a collective.”

For remote makers turned remote managers, it’s important to realize that in successfully being a remote maker you have already overcome some of the major hurdles of remote work. You’ve achieved high levels of disciplined decision-making, and you’ve learned how to listen and execute.

This experience grants you a unique perspective into how best to manage a team of makers. Couple this perspective with a framework similar to the basic project management ideas presented here and you’ll be well on your way to successfully making the transition.

***

Illustrations: Bully

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The Voice of Siri, Susan Bennett, Tells Us How She Stays Focused on Her Task List as a Performer https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-state-siri-stays-focused Wed, 19 Oct 2016 17:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-state-siri-stays-focused

In our interview series, Flow State, smart people tell us how they can bang things off their task list while achieving their most productive, creative, and focused state of mind. Susan Bennett is most known as the voice of Siri, but she's also a singer and professional speaker.

Being a performer means the flow state, for me, primarily happens when I’m on stage. That’s probably the most obvious thing, but what’s not so obvious is the preparation behind-the-scenes that leads me into that flow state.

When it comes to preparation, I’m a person who has a tendency to really overthink everything. So the flow state truly begins when I can finally take some action.

When my mind drifts to worrying it means my thoughts are not in the moment of where they need to be."

For example, I’m currently in the process of putting together a new Siri presentation. So, if I can tap into the flow state when I close the doors to my office, put the presentation clicker in my hand, and start my presentation, it means I’ve immersed myself deep enough into the practice stage.

Even during practice you have to imagine that you’re on the stage, and if I can do that enough eventually I get to a point where when I do get on stage I sort of go to a different place—a place where I can act without thinking.

But the most difficult part for me is the memorization. It always worries me that I’m going to forget something, and my only way through that worry is practice... rehearsing to the point where my presentation becomes second nature, as an actor would do for a play.

Worrying is a big distraction from the flow state. When my mind drifts to worrying it means my thoughts are not in the moment of where they need to be.

I don’t know why we humans have this state of anxiety—it seems easy for us to doubt ourselves and cause problems for ourselves. I mean… there are enough problems externally without us having to create our own internal problems, but we seem to do it quite well.

This inner struggle means that I’m always trying to out-guess myself, thwart myself when I start leaning into that too critical mode.

But on stage, once I really get going, there aren’t any issues. For me, that's when I'm beyond the point where decisions have to be made. I’m just in-action, and this is my deepest state of flow. The hard part, that anticipatory time, all that time before the performance… that’s where the second-guessing comes in to pull us out of our flow, but we can mitigate that through practice.

It’s important for me to maintain integrity and a sense of honesty in every interaction I have."

In the voice-over industry, technology has changed everything so much. It’s such a saturated industry now, with so many people, and this is in large part because so much of it has gone non-union. Basically anybody with an iPhone and a closet can have a recording studio. And so there’s a ton of competition these days. So much of the structure has gone out of the business.

It all feels like the wild west—this big crapshoot of trying to win auditions that go out to hundreds of people sometimes. I bring this up because with such fierce competition and the importance of distinguishing yourself in some form, it’s increasingly easy to be pulled out of your state of flow, to second-guess and doubt yourself.

Maybe more than ever in this industry, you have to be mentally strong to deal with all of this—either that or just not be an introspective person at all. I’d say most performers I’ve met have insecurities, and they work hard to achieve the focused states of mind necessary to overcome those insecurities.

And this is all to build to that state of flow, so that when the task list and practice is done, and they take the stage, they are in it fully.

Along the way, it’s important to develop some kind of strategies for social media and for determining what to say yes or no to. If I gave full attention to my Twitter, for example, it would be a full-time job and I’d have no energy left for voice-over work. At the same time, it’s important for me to maintain integrity and a sense of honesty in every interaction I have.

In the end, to do well in front of an audience, you have to exude confidence. This means cutting out all the extra stuff along the way that may pull from you being able to build that confidence. The thing is… you have to get to that stage of confidence before you actually take the physical stage. And that demands a ton of work and practice. Some people seem to be inherently confident, but for most of us it’s a bit of a challenge.

Lastly, in any performance industry, you have to make the audience comfortable. They won’t be comfortable if you’re not comfortable, and the only way you can get comfortable is to be confident, achieving the flow state in practice so you can carry your confidence to the stage.

As told to Cameron Conaway exclusively for Flow, a simple project management solution that helps creative teams move faster and ship great work.

***

Illustration by Jacob Dewey

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How Elite Agencies Run Project Post-Mortems https://www.getflow.com/blog/elite-agencies-project-post-mortems Wed, 12 Oct 2016 12:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/elite-agencies-project-post-mortems

For the first time in the history of the workplace, it’s perfectly acceptable to celebrate mistakes. 

“Fail fast” has transcended the office to become a personal mantra—words to live by when you’re urging yourself into the unfamiliar and staring down disappointment (it might be a framed poster on your wall right now).

However, there’s a misunderstood piece of this new-ish culture of failure: That failure is some kind of endpoint. It’s not. It’s never enough to simply dust yourself off after a critical mistake.

We shouldn’t feel guilty about failure, but we also must remember this:

Treating failure as an endpoint gives it too much power. (tweet this)

Failure is, at its worst, a roadblock. And at a growing business, your team needs to not just crash and burn, but pull themselves from the wreckage of errors and deconstruct the crash so that it never happens again.

Similarly, we need to capture our wins so that they aren’t remembered as lucky breaks. 

We need to give a name to absolutely everything that had a notable effect on our projects, good and bad, and let them become the fabric of how we get stuff done. It’s only in these trusted processes that our teams can find focus.

An amazing way to collect and analyze these peaks and valleys is a project post-mortem. In my experience—and the experience of some others that you’ll hear from below—project post-mortems are a key part of team management, and a crucial way of honing in on what makes your team click, and what makes them… well, crash.

Just what exactly is a project post-mortem?

Alex Shootman, the CEO of Workfront, told us this of his experience with unsuccessful projects:

Every project will encounter at least three disasters along the way. And none of these disasters will be related to the technical, mechanical or procedural tasks at hand. They will all come down to communications.”

It’s true that projects often die at the hands of bad team communication. But when it comes to a project post-mortem, team communication can also be the saving grace.

While project post-mortems can take many forms—they are typically formalized at all-hands meetings involving all members of a project. That said, they can also involve individual or segmented discussions for larger teams—the inner workings of a project post-mortem are all about cutting through poor communication practices, and letting your team objectively discuss the outcome of a project.

On the surface, it’s a discussion about what went well, what went poorly, and how the team can be better. Under the hood, though, it’s an opportunity to remind your group that excellent team performance does not happen by accident—it’s a process that happens in increments, as a collective.

Followers of the Agile framework believe so highly in the project post-mortem—within the community, it’s called the much less morbid ‘retrospective’—that it’s one of the core principles of the Agile Manifesto:

At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly."

Agile also very vocally values “Responding to change over following a plan”—which can be very instructive advice when considering that your team is not a static object. Much is changing in any growing enterprise—let alone one caught in the insanity of client work—and it’s important to be constantly acknowledging change.

In all likelihood, your team is too new and half-formed to hold ideas too close to heart. So why not make decisions rapidly, based on experience and a desire to continually improve?

With all that in mind, we talked to the best in the biz to find out what makes for a perfect post-mortem—one that ensures that project mistakes of the past stay in the past.


1. Record results early and often.

Any team that does client work will tell you that a week-long project almost never takes a week. Communication slows down, deliverables get rejected, and the perfect schedule proves too ambitious after all. To make matters worse, we rarely raise any flags when it’s clear things are starting to drift off schedule, as Knight, Thomas, and Angus pointed out in HBR:

Why don’t more project managers sound an alarm when they’re going to blow past their deadlines? Because most of them have no earthly idea when they’ll finish the job. They don’t even think it’s possible to know. Too many variables. Too much that’s out of their control.”

At this point, the project usually becomes a crawl to the finish line for everyone, project managers included. The collective eagerness to move on mutes out the good and bad parts, and the main takeaway at the end will be “Thank god it’s over. Let’s move on.”

To maximize lessons learned, try to engage your team throughout your projects. This ensures that your team, exhausted and eager to move on from a long project, doesn’t limp their way through a post-mortem.

Samuel Wheeler, a project manager at Inseev Interactive, suggests holding regular “Innovation Sessions” to improve processes and operations:

In this session, your team can discuss ways that current projects can be improved or changed. It is a great way for the leader of the team to receive feedback and allow the team members to be involved in the operational side of the project. I love to hold these sessions over a beer or some light snacks as it helps to encourage creativity and conversation. I have found that these structured meetings often result in high quality action items that improve every project.”

By following Samuel’s lead, you can not only improve process and outcome throughout a project, but arrive at the post-mortem armed with real, live data from your team—not just whatever wins and losses remained in the rubble of a project. At your post-mortem, open all of your collected findings to the team, and see what still resonates.

2. Emphasize team performance, and kill the witch hunt.

The average guilt-ridden person likely feels that any unsuccessful project is their fault—or that a very successful project was due in no part to their contributions.

Worse still, the people who are really at fault may come into a project post-mortem eager to shift the blame elsewhere (“Dev would have been on schedule if design hadn’t dragged their feet!”). It may seem like the best path to open up the floor to everyone—but if you open it up to the blamers, you’ll have a poisonous post-mortem on your hands.

The problem to solve here: 

How can we remove the idea that anyone stands to lose anything personally by attending a project post-mortem? The answer may lie in emphasizing that this is about improving team performance, not supercharging the loudest individuals in the room.

While transforming a group of individuals into a team involves some serious alchemy and is not an easily-solved problem itself, Linda Hill and Kent Lineback summed up what makes a team quite beautifully over at HBR:

The powerful ties among members of this social structure spring, first, from purpose and goals. A common, worthwhile purpose creates a sense of doing something important together, and specific, challenging team goals based on that purpose create a sense of going someplace important together. Without purpose and goals, no group will become a team.”

Knowing this, it’s valuable to ensure that your team understands the reasoning for a project post-mortem goes beyond “I guess we screwed up, and our boss is mad.”

Successful project post-mortems bring critical reflection into a safe space. (tweet this)

Giving your team—and company—a clear purpose can help them think past the next project, and towards the bright future. Dependably smooth projects, then, simply become a means to achieving this shared goal.

Yes, your team is trying to keep clients happy and do terrific work. But what’s it all for?


3. Record, recognize, and reward victories.

A key outcome of any project post-mortem isn’t just a small process improvement—it’s a leap forward in your team’s motivation to go out and crush the next big project. And as much as your laundry list of criticisms may feel like the true path to successful projects, motivation lies on highlighting wins.

Over on the Portent blog, Kyle Eliason writes about how mindset plays into the dynamics of the reflective team:

It’s important that your team is in the right mindset: positive and learning-focused, not defensive or hypercritical…. Generally, the more powerful or proud they feel, the more effectively they can process constructive criticism.”

Think of it this way: Do you want to storm into a project post-mortem looking sullen and ready to explode, or do you want to cruise in with an air of optimism? Do you want the first words out of your mouth to be “We made some critical mistakes, and we’re lucky we got out of this alive,” or “We retained a major client, and shipped an unbelievable website”?

The former in each example may rub your feared leader ego the right way, but the latter gives your team a major cushion when they’re taken aback by critique. If the lede reads that the project had some big wins, the realities of failure and criticism will be far easier to stomach.

A team whose victories are often highlighted—but especially in a project post-mortem—may surprise you with how far they’re willing to go for the sake of the company, as Katherine Kostereva of bpm'online told us:

Never underestimate the role of motivation in a project’s success… Such recognition will pay off immediately as your team will feel their work is important and valued. A highly motivated and engaged team will always be ready to go the extra mile to ensure the project’s success.”

4. Be transparent with your clients.

If all goes well, you and your team will leave the project post-mortem with a list of improvements—and in all likelihood, a good idea of how your team could have given the client or customer a smoother experience with the company. Your instinct here may be to quietly work these findings into your process for the next project, and let your client be amazed by how much better things felt on the second, third, fourth, or fifth go around.

But is not owning up to those mistakes really the right way to go?

Many client services companies sell their services as a ‘partnership.’ They say that they’re equally as invested in the outcome as the client. Why shouldn’t a project post-mortem acknowledge that and let the client in the loop? Hell, maybe the client has a part to play in the outcome of a less-than-successful project, too.

Keith Shields, partner at Designli, offers this advice on the sometimes adversarial relationship between clients and agencies:

Professional Service companies should not be an unknown 'black box' where clients put projects and they pop out a certain amount of time later completed. Be transparent with your process, and this will reduce your client phone calls by 20% right away.”

By removing the client from the feedback loop, you become nothing more than another black box—an impersonal place your client comes when they need something.

Give the client a chance to care about your team and how they get things done, and you might be amazed by their enthusiasm. Conversely, you might be amazed by how little they care. In both cases, you’ll be treated to a keen sense of whether they’re a fit for your agency going forward.

Sharing these results with your client can take the form of a simple email, a report, or an in-person meeting. However it’s done, it shows that you care about their opinion, their money, and maybe most importantly, their trust.

Trust, after all, is what business is all about, although we don’t talk about it that often. Clients entrust us with their money. Customers entrust us with their data. And employees entrust us with their careers.

Running better projects—and showing continual improvement across the board—is a tiny way of communicating to everyone involved: Yes, I have your trust, and yes, it’s important to me.

***

Illustrations: Bully

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Welcome to Essentialism, Where You Can Boost Productivity By Working Less https://www.getflow.com/blog/essentialism-boost-productivity Tue, 04 Oct 2016 13:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/essentialism-boost-productivity

On a winter day in California years ago, Greg McKeown had just welcomed a healthy and happy daughter into the world. But as his daughter lay in his wife’s arms at the hospital, he was glued to his phone, answering e-mails and debating whether or not to attend a meeting with a client.

“Instinctively, I knew what to do,” writes Greg in Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less. But he agreed to attend the meeting, leaving his exhausted wife and day-old daughter at the hospital. He felt serious regret as he arrived at the meeting, and got some immediate scorn from the clients.

I had said ‘yes’ simply to please, and in doing so I had hurt my family, my integrity, and the client relationship.”

It’s a key illustration of the imbalance in all of our lives, both at home and at work. We often know what’s best for us, but with a litany of equal-seeming tasks, meetings, and discussions competing for our attention, we become unable to make smart decisions about what’s most worthy of our time and attention.

This experience led Greg to ponder some major questions:

  • Why do we make decisions that go against our best judgment?
  • Why do we so often knowingly leave our abilities untapped?
  • Why are we never satisfied with focusing on just one thing?

It all led him to Essentialism.

From priority to priorities

Most of us are just like Greg in that moment at the hospital: We feel that we have to do it all, from client meetings to emails to all requests in between. In our quest to boost productivity, we default to trying to do more. But our brains may not have caught up to this phenomenon. After all, over the past century, we’ve been a culture that has shifted from having a singular priority to plural priorities, and in the process, we’ve lost much of our ability to overt orient—or, focus intently on one single thing.

Taking an inverted approach to the most common thinking behind productivity, Essentialism is not about how to get more things done, it’s about how to get the right things done. It’s about thoughtfully extracting the priority from a mess of priorities, and treating everything else like the noise that it is. It’s about acknowledging our brain’s craving for focus.

How do we end up with so much noise in our lives, though? Where is this I have to do it all mindset coming from? It starts with what Greg calls “The Paradox of Success.” As we work harder and become more successful, we have an increased number of options and opportunities—and we’re suddenly spread thinner and thinner, typically against our wishes.

And much like a browser window with 25 tabs open, we quickly forget what we were looking for in the first place.

How Unessentialists falter

Faced with an overwhelming number of opportunities, the Unessentialist—Greg’s term for anyone who isn’t an Essentialist acolyte—approaches a problem like this:

One, they ask themselves, “How can I do it all?”— rather than the Essentialist-friendly “Which problem do I want?” They approach significant decisions in terms of what they stand to lose in the trade-off, rather than the inevitable gain in focus that will come with fewer opportunities. Essentialists love focus. Nonessentialists rarely have it.

Two, they end up just doing everything, because they haven’t yet discovered the joy of saying no. Success, or at least the prospect of it, is addictive—guilt-tripping bosses have trained us to believe that once an opportunity is turned down, it’s gone forever. Essentialists acknowledge that saying no is a realistic option. And an attractive one, at that.  


When we say yes to everything, we say no to control

The result of saying yes to everything—and making no decisions over which work is truly important to us—is catastrophic. As Greg writes in Essentialism:

When we surrender our ability to choose, something or someone else will step in to choose for us.”

We resign ourselves to being a to-do machine, and we become nothing more than a function of our companies, and other people’s sometimes sordid agendas.

When we’re not making our own choices, we’re not working towards where we want to be. That leaves us floundering, frustrated, and taking inefficient routes to getting our most important creative work done.

Essentialism may be primarily about personal choices, but ignoring its implications sends shockwaves across entire teams and organizations.

Striking back against priorities

So what’s the key, according to the Essentialist, of taking back this control over our destiny?

To Greg, Essentialists know the appeal of the slow, thoughtful “yes” and the quick, decisive “no.”

As he told us in an email interview:

“We emphasize the fear of missing out. What we need to discover is the joy of missing out.” (tweet this)

To start down the path of getting better at the slow “yes” and the quick “no,” Greg suggests taking stock of everything, and starting the process of locking in on what’s essential to you. It’s the first and most important step towards having that crystal-clear priority.

Start with the nonessential tasks you have total control over,” Greg told us. “Slowly build your essentialist muscles in order to better discern what is most essential and why, and then how to negotiate and navigate the requests you have less control over.”

To aid that process of discernment, Greg let us in on a simple method for knowing what’s most meaningful at that moment:

Write each (task) out on a separate piece of paper and then compare each one to every other item with the question, ‘If I could only have one of these items, which would I pick?’ Once you are done with this process, you will have a prioritized list. Then start work from the top.”

The Essentialist team

But the Essentialist life too often comes up against a culture that doesn’t quite agree with it. Our workplaces have been constructed and reinforced over the years to repel the focus that comes with something like Essentialism—and to be more accommodating to the get-everything-done-all-the-time mayhem of which most of us have adjusted.

“Most modern offices are extremely essentialist-unfriendly,” Greg told us.

This is why when people know they need to focus and get a big piece of work done, they leave work and find that special place, corner, room, or plane to focus on the essential work that needs to get done.“

Greg also holds fast that even if Essentialist principles are mostly executed at the personal level, it’s ultimately a challenge best addressed as a team.

Understanding it's a cultural challenge is sobering,” says Greg. “Once we can see the culture clearly, we realize the urgent need for us to make different decisions personally.”

In fact, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less highlights “clarity of purpose” as a core part of any Essentialist team’s toolset. After all, if our physical workplaces are going to be this inhospitable by design, we may as well focus on changing our company’s values from the inside-out.

To the Essentialist, the answer is establishing an Essential Intent. This is not an airy mission statement, or a vague and impossible objective—it’s a clear, achievable goal. Without this clear company objective, people play the game of their own careers, rather than working together. This clarity of purpose can inspire your employees and differentiate your team—and, as Greg points out, it serves as a consistent predictor of team success.

It’s as simple as asking the question that Greg poses in his book:

“If we could be truly excellent at only one thing, what would it be?”

From there, decisions can be made with the dead simple calculus of:

“Does this new idea really help us achieve our intent?”

Essentialism in practice

I’ll admit it—after reading Greg’s book and even interviewing him, I was a skeptic. It sounded like an unachievable dream of modern worklife. Used to it as we are, the noise of options and tasks often seem too loud to drown out. And I’m terrible at saying no.

But a few days after my emails with Greg, I was on a flight to Montreal for a vacation with my wife. I wrote out a list of restaurants to try, museums to see, buildings to gawk at, parks to drink in. And like a flash of lightning, I realized how impossible my expectations were of this trip. (For one, we had fewer meals to eat than restaurants to visit.)

I quickly rattled off the Essentialist mindset to my wife, and told her that we needed to decide what was important to us on this trip, and make decisions around that. For me: I had an old friend who had recently moved to Montreal. My wife, who had gone to school there, had friends she wanted me to meet who she hadn’t seen in years.

That became the Essential Intent of the trip for us: See friends, and let any other experiences be a byproduct. It was a simple goal that would let us say with certainty whether the trip had been successful or not.

The relief was unmistakable. And we finally felt in control of our vacation destiny.

***

Learn more about Essentialism on Greg’s blog: http://gregmckeown.com/

Illustrations: Bully

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How to Build Deep Focus Into Your Organizational Culture https://www.getflow.com/blog/deep-focus-organizational-culture Tue, 27 Sep 2016 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/deep-focus-organizational-culture

Let’s say you’ve developed the habit of flexing your focus muscle. Maybe you’ve adopted certain contemplative practices like mindfulness meditation, or invested in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that are working wonders for you. Perhaps you’ve taken it a step further and dug deep into our BLOCC framework.

Deep focus—those prolonged periods of time when you focus precisely on what you want to focus on—has become an integral part of your life. You simply can’t imagine going back to those work days of darting in and out between brief moments of focus and long stretches of distracted meandering. 

     For our free book on deep focus, click here.

Whatever got you to this point, let’s say your confidence is developing and you’ve even communicated to a few of your colleagues how important you think focus is.

In getting this far you’ve already completed the two most difficult steps:

(1) You’ve established a personal practice, and

(2) You’ve created a bridge to bring this practice into your organizational culture.

As such, you’ve internalized this crucial lesson:

Focus isn’t just a state, it’s a practice. (tweet this)

But this is where many of us get stuck. Where to from here? What’s the best way to ensure that the habits you’ve formed can begin to change your organizational culture?

After all, a workplace culture that places a premium on focus is one that will be better equipped both to grow and to adapt when market conditions change.

We are a work-in-progress like everybody else, but here are three ways we’ve been able to build our individual commitments into collective commitments and then (sometimes) into team habits so ingrained we barely think to do them anymore:

1. Take Team Size Seriously. 

Deep focus can quickly lose its legs when teams are huge and the completion of a seemingly simple task has to go through too many people. This year our team grew significantly, which meant new teams were formed and existing teams now had additional teammates.

While we were ecstatic to hire such incredible people, we also made sure to keep top-of-mind how our own research has aligned with other research in the field to find this:

5-7 member teams are typically the most productive. (tweet this)

This number tends to be where workplace productivity peaks; it’s just the right amount of smart minds and different perspectives, without becoming a distracting party or a time-consuming drain just to make basic decisions.

Evaluate the size of your teams and the nature of their work to see if you can bring them down to an optimal size. This is especially important during those periods of growth when the excitement of bringing new talent on board can cloud the important process of reflecting on your existing project management methodologies.

Likewise, this clouding can happen when projects become more complex. It’s often our first instinct to think, Well, our team must grow to meet this increasing complexity.

But there’s a good chance, when you take a step back, that you’ll realize how you can meet that complexity more efficiently not by growing a team but by splitting it up.


2. Assess task focus and project focus. 

And realize that all deep focus at work is not created equal.

In The Two Ways We Lose Focus at Work, Mark Nichols summarized task focus and project focus like this:

Sometimes, we’re losing focus in the moment, at the task level. This is when we’ve decided exactly what we’re going to work on, but we just can’t bring ourselves to get it done. This is a loss of task focus….

If lost task focus is the inability to hunker down and complete a task, lost project focus is the inability to even pick that task.”

Few of us as individuals have mastered the art of task focus and project focus, so what does this mean when we add in the complex dynamics of working on a team?

It means chaos, usually, and that it’s ultra-important to put a process in place so that everybody is on the same page.

Robin Kwong, Special Projects Editor at The Financial Times, told us he believes project clarity at the outset is paramount. Kwong makes sure each individual member of his team, before beginning any project, knows exactly what they should work on, when they should work on it, and why they are working on it in this particular order.

It seems simple, but this team-based ability to seriously organize task and project focus before pursuit of the larger goal means that each member of the team can establish deep focus because they know precisely what they should be working on.

It also means focus, depending on the influence of your particular team, is to some degree becoming embedded into the fabric of your organizational culture.

This strategy works for Kwong in one of the world’s preeminent business and economic newsrooms, it works for us, and we believe it (or some variant thereof) will work for you.

3. Establish focus signals.

This one can be as fun and creative as it is important.

As individual commitments to deep focus start rolling out, it’s important to grow them into habits (especially if you’re working in an open layout) that allow you to easily and quickly identify whether or not your colleagues are in deep focus.

Some teams signify this simply by wearing headphones. If an individual is wearing headphones, it’s a signal to their team that they are going deep.

Another focus signal can simply be sitting and working together.

In an open layout office, for example, members of a team within a tech company may be spread all over the workplace. They may communicate primarily through an app. But to avoid shoulder nudges from other members of the company, and otherwise make sure everybody knows that they’re focusing with their team, creating a signal by sitting together can do the trick—and through presentation alone can build deep focus into a part of your organizational culture.

As we have remote employees at Flow, and as many of our customers do as well, we needed a way to create a focus signal that worked for everybody. So we created a switch within our app called “Focus Mode.”


When an individual switches it on, all employees at the company know that that employee is focusing. Messages won’t be delivered to the focusing teammate until Focus Mode is switched off.

The possibilities for creating focus signals are limited only by your creativity, but we’ve found them to be an important component for simultaneously achieving and communicating the state of focus we’re in.

Truth is, focus is rarely brought up in discussions around organizational culture. But with important books like Group Genius from Dr. Keith Sawyer (which brings the individual concept of Flow State into the context of teams) paving the way for new books like Deep Work from Cal Newport, we think all signs are pointing to how business success will increasingly depend on a company’s collective ability to focus.

***

People illustrations: Jacob Dewey

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BLOCC: A Framework For Staying Focused On Your To Do Checklist https://www.getflow.com/blog/blocc-a-framework-for-staying-focused-at-work Wed, 21 Sep 2016 17:49:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/blocc-a-framework-for-staying-focused-at-work

If Google searches are any indicator, many of us are obsessed with finding tips and tricks to increase our productivity. This leads many to practice mindfulness meditation, others to scramble for some type of focus app, and some to experiment with cognitive enhancement supplements that promise deeper levels of focus.

And of course we read. A lot.

In our want to dismantle distractions at work we read articles with ‘hacks’ about how we as individuals can get focused and stay focused.

This is precisely where the disconnect begins. While most of us want to improve our focus as an antidote to distractions at work, the articles we’re reading are typically speaking only to what we as individuals can do.

As you know, the workplace is a complex ecosystem of moving parts, unexpected events, and dynamic team collaboration. Improving our own ability to get focused and complete our to do checklist is great, and certainly doesn’t hurt, but we believe it’s only one small piece to what must be a comprehensive, team-based approach to staying focused at work.

Many of us have fallen into the trap of believing that proximity can shore up focus problems. We often assume that if we're all in the office together (even sitting at the same desk) then surely we are all focused.

But this isn't necessarily the case. Even if we're all driving toward the same goal, one member of the team may be thinking about something else, another may be the type who interrupts periods of focus every few minutes to start an unrelated conversation, and the other may be receiving text messages that vibrate the table just enough to temporarily distract the other members on the team.


Over the years, we’ve found it helpful to think about distractions at work by splitting them into 5 groups and an easy-to-remember acronym. For us, it serves as a reminder for what blocks our deep focus practice:

BLOCC

  • Brain
  • Lifestyle
  • Office layout & culture
  • Commitment
  • Communication

Let’s take it from the top.


Brain

The first barrier we need to face head-on is the one inside our head. In his piece for The New York Times titled Addicted to Distraction, productivity thinker Tony Schwartz put it like this:

The brain’s craving for novelty, constant stimulation and immediate gratification creates something called a ‘compulsion loop.’”

That is, as we feed and fulfill the craving, our brain demands more of what we’re feeding it in order to reach the same level of satiation. It’s a similar concept to that of an addict, who increasingly needs more of a drug to reach the same level of effect.

It’s important to hold this information alongside compelling new research suggesting that many of us are addicted to the very interfaces we most often associate with our work. Computers (and smartphones, tablets, etc.) provide all-day instant access to novelty, as well as constant stimulation and immediate gratification whenever we need it; all pulling us away from our to do lists.

study from Deloitte found that we check our phones 46 times per day. (tweet this)

For those between 18-24 this number jumps to over 70—with signs pointing to that number only growing higher in the near future.

Similarly, a survey from Adobe found that the average white-collar worker spends 6 hours per day just on email—and this doesn’t include time spent on social media, platforms that Cal Newport, author of Deep Work, told us he believes are “ad engines hand-crafted to be as distracting as possible to transform your hours of attention into revenue.”

Schwartz continues:

Endless access to new information also easily overloads our working memory. When we reach cognitive overload, our ability to transfer learning to long-term memory significantly deteriorates. It’s as if our brain has become a full cup of water and anything more poured into it starts to spill out.”

In other words, just as multitasking provides us the feeling of being productive without actually being productive, endlessly accessing new information gives us the feeling of learning without actually allowing for learning to take place.

He stumbled on his own addiction upon opening a book (the physical kind) and realizing he simply couldn’t stay focused enough to finish the first paragraph. Through habit, he had hardwired his brain to flit back and forth between reading online, clicking out of ads and pop-ups, checking the ever-changing traffic numbers on his company’s website, shopping, browsing multiple tabs, and checking social media.

When it came time for deep focus, to make the serious commitment of reading words on a page over an extended period of time—and to giving himself solely to that act—he just couldn’t do it.

While it may be an extreme example, part of Schwartz’s story has probably rang true for all of us at some point (and in all likelihood will continue to do so on a more regular basis unless we make the choice to do otherwise).

Nicholas Carr says it this way in his book, The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains,:

The net is designed to be an interruption system, a machine geared to dividing attention. We willingly accept the loss of concentration and focus, the division of our attention and the fragmentation of our thoughts, in return for the wealth of compelling or at least diverting information we receive.”

So what’s the answer? How do we focus in and manage to cross task after task off our to do checklists? How do we balance the recognition of how easy it is to be distracted while, for work-related purposes, use the very instruments that most easily distract us?

Below are 3 strategies to get you started, but know this first step of simply being aware of the issue is the most important. As you progress through BLOCC, let each challenge and solution presented percolate a bit. That is, bookmark this post and return to the ideas in future days, weeks, and months.

Granting these ideas our full focus now is, of course, crucial, but the percolation stage—sitting with the ideas before taking action—according to research from Professor Adam Grant at the University of Pennsylvania, often leads to our own personal creative awakenings.

Ultimately, our team here at Flow has found some solutions that allow us to continually tick items off of our to do lists. These solutions have worked wonders for us over the years, and we’re happy to share them. We also believe empowering you to find your own solutions is a crucial part of staying focused at work.

Okay, now to those 3 strategies for staying focused while using the machines that often disrupt our ability to focus:

1. If possible, and we ask you to seriously consider this, strive to respond to email at two dedicated periods of time during the day. So let’s say you choose 9am and 3pm. Rather than checking email upwards of 50 times all throughout the day, you’ve granted yourself two periods of time to respond. When you check at 9, allot a given amount of time to respond. This could be from 9 to 10am, and then from 3 to 4pm. Outside of these times, you do not check email.

2. Shut off WiFi when you’re entering a period where you really want to stay focused (and obviously don’t need it for research). Switch it on only when you seriously need it. The “always on” WiFi signal means our ability to stay focused can easily be interrupted by checking a few social media platforms and otherwise darting mindlessly through the internet. For many of us, when we’re starting to feel tired or feeling our focus fade, we’ll “take a break” by, for example, combing through our Facebook feed. This makes it difficult to reclaim focus. A far better way is to break by actually breaking—taking a walk or otherwise getting some time away from the computer.

3. Keep your desktop(s) clean. As with #2 above, when our attention begins to wander we often feed this wandering by casting our eyes (and attention) elsewhere. For many of us, a cluttered desktop (both our actual desktop and those on our computers) filled with notes and files entirely unrelated to what we’re trying to stay focused on can be a great source of distraction. In many Zen monasteries, for example, the monks, partly in an attempt to achieve their deepest levels of focus, will sit facing a blank wall (rather than facing their community or the zendo).


Lifestyle

This one, at least on the surface, is far easier to understand than the mechanics of what’s happening with our brain. Our current lifestyle—both the internal things we can control and the external things we can’t—contribute significantly to how we achieve optimal levels of focus at work.

Take, for example, the fact that you’re simply not all that thrilled about the work you’re doing. You look at your to do checklist and your eyes glaze over. This makes it all the more difficult to really commit yourself to going deep.

So rather than staying focused on the quarterly marketing report that you find insatiably boring, you may vacuum the house, or make another cup of coffee, or find something to do other than what you know you need to do. Again, this is where choice comes in.

Though it can be awfully difficult, especially when our existing habits have wired our brains to do otherwise, to carve out the space we all need for staying focused at work, buckling down and just doing it can mean freeing up significant time and energy that we can spend in whatever way we choose to spend it.

The alternative to this is one you may know well: The exhaustive sense that you’ve been working all day when in actuality you’ve only truly worked for a few hours (but you’ve had work on your mind all day and therefore feel like you’ve been working all day).

Remember this: Our “lifestyle” is part of our work, not something entirely separate. Practicing the habit of staying focused, therefore, doesn’t just help make you better at your job, it helps make you better at whatever it is you want to be better at.

One way to buckle down and blast things off your to do checklist is to provide a reward for yourself and hold yourself to the results. When you dismantled distractions and stayed focused long enough to bang out quality work you’re proud of, for example, find a way to reward yourself by taking advantage of the time you likely freed up in your schedule.

The other side we need to keep in mind as it relates to lifestyle are the external qualities of our lifestyle—unexpected health complications, friends needing our help, the joys and challenges of raising children. Staying focused at work for long periods of time can feel like a pipe dream to the single parent working remotely and trying to do so while two kids are running around the house.

This is okay, and entirely natural. Part of this process of improving our ability to get focused and stay focused is separating what we can control from what we can’t. What we can control, we will try to control. What we can’t control, we will let go of trying to control.

This “letting go” part is especially important because of this:

Focus is a finite resource. What we waste of it cannot be reclaimed. (tweet this)

From here, we recommend detaching from this article to jot down some responses to the following questions.

Rather than spend considerable time on this, try to embrace novelist Jack Kerouac’s idea of “First thought, best thought.” Whatever arises first, get it down:

  • What distractions at work can I do a better job of having control over?
  • What distractions at work do I simply have to find a way to accept?
  • What recurring distractions at work can I immediately take action on?

Upon finishing this article we encourage you to go back through your responses to really flesh out the ideas.

Next up in BLOCC:


Office layout & culture

As you know, there is a movement afoot to dismantle the old traditional office cubicle and replace it with hipster new open layout designs. Those of us who have been in the game long enough know those open layouts aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. While they offer a layer of transparency and visibility well beyond what the cubicle can do, this comes at a cost to our ability to stay focused.

For more on the history of this, check out Improving Your Team’s Focus, and Why Office Layout Matters.

So how do you stay focused on your to do list at work when you’re dealing with an open office layout? First, it’s important to voice your concern and begin the process of shaping your office for mixed-size ways of working.

Creating areas for dedicated individual and small-team focus either through cubicles or even through putting up simple curtains (as Ethan Bernstein of Harvard Business School revealed through his research), can go a long way in allowing a culture of focus to spread and teams to work smarter together.

Second, it’s important to note that office layout plays a major role in office culture. Where staying focused is valued—even if merely valued through physical walls—a sense of respect for this type of focus can permeate throughout the workplace.

An office that feels like a party all the time… well, it can make it quite difficult to go deep. This becomes especially true when fused with Parkinson’s Law—the theory that work expands to fill the time available for its completion.

In other words, if you’ve given your team six weeks to complete a project, there’s a good chance they’ll take six weeks to complete that project—even if they could have banged it out in half the time.

This isn’t something sinister on their part, in many ways it’s human nature. But some managers erroneously see a way to cut through this by simply making ultra-tight deadlines… asking their teams to complete a project in half the time they would normally allot for it.

A far better solution is to create a culture of deep focus in your workplace, where all employees value focus, have found ways to achieve states of focus as a team, and complete projects based on this shared set of values within the workplace culture.

How to do this? Through a combination of commitment and communication of that commitment.

First up:


Commitment

By now you know that staying focused on your checklist at work demands commitment. Our brains are craving distraction, certain lifestyle elements are pulling our attention, and perhaps our workplace is ill-equipped for achieving states of prolonged focus.

But what does commitment look like beyond telling ourselves we want it?

Here are 4 ways we’ve found to turn the commitment in your mind to a habit in your life/work:

1. Start small and start anywhere. Staying focused at work need not begin with three glorious hours of unbroken concentration. And get this: It need not even happen at work. By starting small and, say, committing to practicing deep focus 30 minutes a day for three days a week, we can begin to rewire our brains to shutting everything else out except for what we want to allow in. This can happen at home, and like Tony Schwartz, it can happen through the simple practice of dedicating time to a particular book.

2. Track it. As with achieving any other goal over a period of time, tracking your progress can be an excellent way to reinforce your commitment and keep bending it toward becoming a habit. There are tons of tools to do this, but perhaps the most tried-and-true way is simply using pen and paper and updating your progress in a notebook or on your monthly calendar. Those of us who keep checklists should find the tracking fairly simple. 

3. Share it. The psychology of why we share, especially on social media, is an intriguing new field that is emerging. Much of the research suggests that we share because it reinforces who we want to be (and who we want to project we are). If you’re committed to focus, think about a person you may want to share this commitment with—perhaps someone who has helped support you through previous commitments, or maybe even someone who would be interested in joining you on this focus journey.

If you can find a colleague in this regard, brilliant. You’ve just taken the step from personal commitment to collective commitment, and that’s where an appreciation of focus can really begin to spread into the workplace culture.

4. Build carefully, stay steady. It can be easy, in the excitement of our deep focus commitment and the empowering taking-back-our-life feeling it can provide, to reach too far, too soon. After that first week of nailing your 30-minute goals, for example, build carefully and as necessary. A jump to two hours a day may not be appropriate or even necessary. Lastly, strive not to beat yourself up. Even if you miss a few days in a row, just being aware that you missed those days means the commitment is still top-of-mind and that you are still driving towards your goal becoming a habit.

This leads us to the final C in BLOCC:


Communication

Part of the importance of communicating your want for focus is to crush the stigma that focus is purely a solitary pursuit and that you are alone in your need for it. In sharing your struggle and commitment to addressing it with your colleagues, you're opening the door to a conversation (perhaps one they’ve wanted to have as well).

Staying focused at work and on your to do checklist may start with an individual, but for it to take full effect it must grow into an essential company value. That is made all the more difficult because of this:

Focus isn’t part of most workplace culture discussions. That must change. (tweet this)

It’s one thing to share your commitment with that friend or spouse who has and will always support you, but it can be quite another to have the vulnerability to open up to a colleague. After all, the majority of us most want to focus at work, and if we’re developing our skills at home and at the individual level but trying to apply them in the workplace as though we were at home, we may be setting ourselves up for additional barriers.

So, how to get the ball rolling at your workplace?

A great way to start is by taking the small act of simply sharing this or some other article about focus with a colleague. Your effort to communicate your commitment and interest in focus need not immediately sweep across your entire workplace. That’s not how social change, and indeed that is what we’re talking about here, ever happens.

It happens when a single person believes in an idea enough to act on that idea, and then shares this with another, and if all goes according to plan the sharing continues and an individual commitment blossoms into collective commitments.

Here at Flow, we believe secret sauces are overrated and sharing is underrated. If you truly believe you’ve found a way to improve your focus on your task list or goals, and that this effort is positively changing how you work at work, why hide it? Let your colleagues know, and your team will grow better and stronger as a result.

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Illustrations: Jacob Dewey

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How to Get Focused (and Stay Focused) After a Long Meeting https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-to-get-focused-and-stay-focused-after-a-long-meeting Sat, 17 Sep 2016 15:32:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-to-get-focused-and-stay-focused-after-a-long-meeting

We’ve all felt our focus slip during a meeting. It happens for a variety of reasons, ranging from our feeling that the meeting is a waste of time to simply not getting enough sleep the night before.

It could even be because the long meeting interrupted a period of our own focused work, and we found it too difficult to detach from the project we were working on so we could be fully present. A pivotal study from 1989 even found that:

40% of corporate VPs admitted to falling asleep or dozing off during a meeting (tweet this)

Regardless of how successful the meeting was (or where our mind drifted off to during it), the moment immediately after a long meeting is nearly always a struggle. Post-meeting work typically goes down in a few of the following ways:

-You try to reclaim the focus you had before the meeting, but it’s difficult to get back to where you were.

-You’re on the maker’s schedule, in the Paul Graham sense, and the meeting disrupted your work day and perhaps even lowered your ambitions for getting focused to tackle an important project.

-You’re an introvert and, while meetings can be invigorating for extroverts, they are especially exhausting for you.

-The long meeting actually ended on an actionable item, and you first need to compile minutes, capture the agreed-upon solution, or otherwise focus on some sort of post-meeting work.

-You pat yourself on the back for participating, and rationalize why you should take an extra-long lunch break or cut your day short.

To be clear, there are countless other reasons. But while there’s a veritable movement rallying around how meetings sap productivity—and seemingly infinite list articles about how to make meetings more productive—there’s strikingly little out there about how to get focused and stay focused after a meeting.

So what does getting focused after a meeting look like? 

For starters, it means not coming back to your desk having to make a bunch of micro-decisions before you can go deep. Ideally, you’ll come right back to your desk and know exactly what you need to work on. 

To immediately dial-in like this you’ll need to pre-prioritize which tasks first need your attention, what can be completed in the time allotted, and what might be better off pushing to the next day.

Here are 3 ways, based on some of our own challenges over the years, to reclaim focus after a long meeting:

1. Have a pre-meeting meeting with yourself and/or your team (I know how counterintuitive that seems, but stay with me).

The most frequent meeting time is 11am, and the average meeting length is 31-60 minutes. Look what happens to the average team's Flow activity throughout the day. Productivity takes a big dip, particularly with Tasks Completed and app opens:


Lunch is certainly to blame, but it’s worth expanding that blame a bit. If the average meeting is at 11am, that means it’s typically followed by lunch, and that means your focus was disrupted for a long period of time right in the middle of the day.

And you aren’t able to get it back to where you had it in the morning.

A major challenge in returning to work after a meeting is that you aren’t sure what to work on. Do you go back into focus mode or do you try to complete some small tasks so you can set yourself up to get focused later on?

A pre-meeting meeting can help you establish this. Take a few minutes before the meeting to jot down—either in an app or on a Post-It note—precisely what you’ll work on after the meeting. These few minutes of thought will help you organize which tasks are most important, and this means you'll be better equipped to navigate that difficult post-meeting transition.

2. Channel the rest of your day’s focus by tapping into what science tells us about team size and productivity.


Notice how as teams get larger than 5 or 6 people, the sheer number of tasks the team completes doesn't grow? 

Research shows diminishing returns of working in a team larger than 5 or 6. Smaller teams typically mean greater focus and less chance for distraction. In short, going from a meeting directly into focused work as part of small team can be a great way to reclaim post-meeting focus.

If you’re working on a collaborative team project after a meeting, find a way to break a larger team into groups of 5-6 people (or smaller), and designate which part of the project each team should focus on. This decision to break your team up could help each member stay focused on the task at hand.

3. Be the change by making your post-meeting focus a habit.

In Edgar Schein’s book, Organizational Culture and Leadership, he writes:

...if a basic assumption comes to be strongly held in a group, members will find behavior based on any other premise inconceivable.”

In other words, focus needs to become such a part of your team’s culture that the premise of not-focusing is inconceivable.

Elements of a team’s culture (good, bad, or otherwise) are difficult to break when they’ve been exhibited so many times that they reach what Schein refers to as a “basic assumption.”

How to make that happen? Be the change. The best way you can let the important ripple of focus spread throughout your company is to exhibit it. Don’t just say how important it is to you, show it. And show it on a regular basis.

Here's how. Before your next meeting, and in addition to #1 above, figure out which colleagues outside of your immediate team would benefit from knowing your post-meeting plans. Pull them aside, briefly, and let them know what you plan to work on immediately after the meeting. 

Even something like:

Hey Jenn, just a heads up that I'm going into focus mode for a few hours after our meeting today. I really want to wrap up the Q1 marketing report by end-of-day. I'll be available around 3 if you need me."

This will give your colleague the heads up and you the pocket of uninterrupted work time you need.

This small act can go a long way to making focus part of your team’s culture.

Focusing as an individual outside of work is one thing, but getting focused when you’re part of a team in the workplace can be quite another. Once you’ve made getting focused at work a personal commitment, the next step is communicating this commitment with your team.

Need a way to kickstart that conversation? Sharing this article could do the trick.

***

-Lead illustration: Bully

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How High-Performance Marketing Teams Work Together https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-high-performance-marketing-teams-work-together Wed, 14 Sep 2016 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/how-high-performance-marketing-teams-work-together

These days, it can seem like the term “marketing teams” is somewhat of a misnomer. After all, most advice about marketing strategy tends to come from just a handful of marketing rockstars.

And get this: Most of those marketing rockstars aren’t actually part of teams. They are their own brand, and they’ve mastered the art of marketing themselves as marketers.

It’s a beautiful craft, really.

One that leads us to subscribe to their email list, buy their books, and wouldn’t you know it… guess who will be top-of-mind if ever we even entertain the idea of hiring a marketing consultant?

So here many of us are, then, often trying to improve our humble little marketing teams through learning from someone who doesn’t work as part of a marketing team (and actually may never have… or much has changed since they did).

Sure, some of their advice may have immense application for our marketing teams, but I find this advice is nearly always missing an important perspective: The realities of daily work as part of a modern marketing team.

They’ll teach us all about how to use the greatest new digital marketing tools (that they may or may not be getting paid to endorse) and they’ll show us, you know, 5 Crazy Fast Ways to Fill Your Marketing Funnel.

But what about all the crucial factors of communication, commitment, and collaboration it takes to be a high-performance team? What about this truth?:

A group of individuals who all know the crazy fast ways do not make a tight-knit marketing team.

I won’t mention any names—as their headshots are already buried in our brains and their newsletter is likely awaiting us in our inbox—but it’s an important distinction I want to make:

Why are the same handful of people our go-to source regardless of if we want to learn how to market ourselves as individuals or become a high-performance marketing team?

The former makes total sense, the latter not so much.

A brief history of high-performance teams

The concept of high-performance teams is widely thought to have originated in 1949, when Eric Trist of the Tavistock Institute visited a coal mine in north central England.

What he saw, according to Mark Hanlan, author of High Performance Teams: How To Make Them Work, was:

...self-regulating teams working throughout the mine—the result of cooperation with the workers, managers, and union leaders.”

Trist noted incredible levels of worker satisfaction and productivity, a combination at the time that went against the grain of traditional wisdom. It was thought that productivity and high-output could only be achieved at the expense of employee satisfaction.

From this point forward, new fields of research began to emerge (much of it led by Tavistock) that questioned the prevailing paradigm. In addition to studying what high-performance teams were doing, researchers now looked at how they were doing it.

This helped bend the conversation about workplace productivity from certain mechanics (like shaving seconds off the completion of a given task or even how to use financial incentives to drive more output) to humanistics (like how to create a team culture that embraces participative leadership and has the capacity to manage its own conflicts).

In the 1980’s, when companies like Boeing and General Electric began to take an interest in it, the concept of high-performance teams took off.

Today, the term “high-performance team” is often defined as a team that made a quantum leap in key performance indicators in less than a year.

Vague, I know, but it’s a definition worth holding close. That “in less than a year” timeframe is one many of us think about, especially those of us on a marketing team for a startup.

One year is a timeframe that feels within our grasp; it at once encourages us to believe that our action right now matters, while being far enough away that we can work toward results in quarters rather than days or weeks.

So what are the fundamentals your marketing department should have if it wants to go from good to great? I’m glad you asked!

Here are the threads of commonality that run through high-performance marketing teams. Dive in, and then check out our SlideShare at the end of this article to see what the marketing leaders at HubSpot, Bitly, and Grado Labs had to say.

They place a premium on empathy

High-performance marketing teams place a premium on empathy. They know empathy’s importance as it relates to each other, to their current customers, and to their potential customers. Let me briefly break each of those down:

A high-performance team must care about each other, and I don’t just mean about each other’s performance. A talented group of individuals can grow into a good team, but a great marketing team can’t be built unless the individuals care about each other.

This doesn’t necessarily mean they must all be best friends, but it does mean they occasionally share insights into their lives outside of work. Creating this level of connection can make it far easier to address conflicts as they arise (they will) because teammates, in having built the capacity to care, will be more likely to see their teammate as a complex person rather than as the results they produce.

Additionally, empathy also means each teammate, to the greatest extent possible, will be able to understand the nature of one another’s work. This can ensure that they defer to their teammates when necessary (and regardless of the hierarchy of job titles within the marketing department), and that each individual has a level of respect for the work of each of their teammates, which in turn can play a pivotal role in conflict prevention.

In regards to empathy for current customers, for starters, high-performance marketing teams know a relationship doesn’t end simply because a “lead” becomes a customer. In having empathy for their existing customers, marketing teams can take more pride in the work they create, develop better solutions to their customer’s questions, and feel the larger picture—which can be difficult in this digital age where connections are often many but shallow—of how the work they’re doing has impact on real people.

Lastly, empathy for potential customers, I believe, is the only way to truly provide any content of value. This is especially important if, as has been echoed by many of the marketing rockstars, content marketing is the only marketing left. With hundreds of thousands of articles being posted each day, it’s only in developing a deep understanding of your potential customer’s needs and struggles that you can create anything worth their precious time.

They measure what matters

If you’re reading this, you’ve felt the tug to measure (or at least look at) vanity metrics. The specifics of vanity metrics, of course, depend on what the marketing department's goals are, but their allure to make the team feel false progress is universal.

High-performance marketing teams cut through this, and before they measure anything they first create a plan for what actually needs to be measured.

This sounds obvious, but many marketing teams, upon establishing the larger goal, move immediately to lining up all the steps they’ll need to take to reach that goal.

It makes sense, but what so often gets lost in that process is this: What, in the steps we’ve all agreed will lead us to our goal, must be measured?

“Must be” can come from a variety of reasons (such as the company’s CEO specifically requested it), but, in general, when high-performance marketing teams measure something it’s because they will take immediate action based on what those measurements show.

This is easier said than done, and is often a continuous process of trial and error, but it’s what the best marketing teams strive for.

They are at once self-directed and committed to the company mission

Much of what the Tavistock research found had to do with the effectiveness of self-directed teams. That is, teams that had a level of autonomy to make decisions without being micromanaged.

For this to work, all members of the marketing team must be fully committed to the larger company mission. If they aren’t aligned—whether it’s because the mission statement isn’t carved out, the company isn’t doing work that aligns with the employee’s values, or the employee simply doesn’t feel their work matters—productivity will drop.

Also key to success of the self-directed team is that they have some basic knowledge of project management methodologies. This doesn’t mean they are project management experts, or even that they strictly use a particular methodology, but it does mean they have a simple project management system worked out for how they complete tasks and projects.

As Robin Kwong, Special Projects Manager at the Financial Timestold us, the key for his team is project clarity right from the beginning: 

I find that if I had clearly set out from the beginning why we are doing this project, how we are doing it and what we are doing (and have the team’s agreement on it), then not a lot more has to be done during the course of the project to make sure we stay on track.”

A high-performance team will have this and more, including frequent progress updates and a schedule of the anticipated times each part of a project should be completed.

Lastly, the best marketing teams are able to work as a tight-knit group without overly siphoning themselves off from the larger team they are part of. Again, it’s a matter of balancing team vision alongside overall company mission.


They maintain efficient lines of communication

As any marketing team will tell you, their work is often tightly integrated with various departments and even freelancers. A content creator may hand off the work to the design team, only to find out that the design team received and has been working on a previous draft.

Or, as the marketing team grows, confusion arises over who now makes the final decision regarding certain projects. As Cyrus Molavi wrote in his piece, What's the Optimal Team Size for Workplace Productivity?, the most productive teams have between 5 and 7 members.

High-performance teams are cognizant of how growth can impact decision making, and when they realize their team’s size is beginning to impact performance, they find a way to split it up.

Efficiency of communication also means marketing teams communicate their efforts (including wins and challenges) with the larger company. When marketing teams have minor wins—like the making of a strategic connection or how an influencer shared their work—they often don’t communicate it with the company.

These are key moments worth sharing, as they not only can boost company morale but they also provide a glimpse under the hood of the often immeasurable but still important aspects of marketing.

They have at least one teammate tasked with seeing the future

I get it. Small and scrappy marketing teams rarely have the time to pull their head out of the weeds to see the larger picture. But here’s the deal, they have to. Or at least one member of the team does.

As Patti Sanchez, Chief Strategy Officer at Duarte Inc., told us:

If you’re feeding the fire, you’re not seeing the future. The easiest way to feel productive is to feed the fire—to address all of the stuff you see piling up right in front of your face—but that comes with a cost. And it’s a kind of cost that money can’t take care of.”

In other words, if your marketing team hasn’t designated someone (and this also means granting them the time) to see the future, it’s going to be awfully difficult to make the “quantum leap” it takes to become a high-performance team.

By “seeing the future” I mean not just positing what the marketing team’s goals are, but actually having the distance away from the daily work towards them to see how best they are reached and what may lie beyond them.

Whoever on the marketing team is tasked with seeing the future can, occasionally, embrace this concept from Andrew Wilkinson’s Lazy Leadership:

...it’s about taking a step back, leaning on your team, and becoming an observer instead of an active participant…”

They respect each other’s focus habits

If this is the first article you've read here at Flow, welcome. If not, you likely know by this point that we believe focus—in this age of increasing distractions—is the future.

As such, we believe focus isn’t just what happens in the “flow state,” it’s actually something you need to create team processes for.

If your goal is to become a high-performance marketing team, creating pockets of time to get focused and stay focused is crucial.

As is respecting every teammate’s need to do this.

We recommend creating focus schedules. This can be something as simple as the marketing leader telling his/her team:

Don’t message Jan on Wednesdays. That’s her day to focus on outreach and nurture relationships with those who respond."

Or it could be developing shared calendars based on which segments of time each teammate will be in focus mode (and therefore should not be asked to do this or that).

The foundational components, of course, are that each member of your marketing team a) knows their focus needs, b) feels in a safe enough space to share those needs, and c) is part of a team that grants those requests when possible.

They foster each other’s learning and growth

This is something all high-performance teams have in common: They all help each other rise as individuals.

Each teammate has a strength, and in not just exhibiting but sharing that strength each teammate can better the other (and often grow their team relationships as a result).

This may mean the marketing team leader tasked with seeing the future can develop the copywriting skills that could lead to them crafting the perfect company mission statement as a result.

It means the teammate who writes content for the blog can learn how to set URL parameters from the teammate with more experience in digital marketing strategy.

This can happen through one teammate simply saying “Hey, can you jump on a call and share your screen so I can see how you did that?”, or it can even happen through a company culture where teammates are always sharing with each other interesting articles they’ve been reading.

Regardless of how it happens, when every teammate helps each other rise, and when they genuinely enjoy the process of doing so, the overall team will rise.


They know this: What fires together, wires together

Now we’re taking a page from neuroscience, where this phrase is often used to describe synaptic transmission—how neurons that repeatedly fire together, through our practices or habits, eventually learn to do so more efficiently.

As much as a high-performance team is one that, within a year, makes a quantum leap, the best teams need time to fire together so they can wire together.

Over time, great marketing teams streamline their communication processes, whatever project management strategies they’re using, their individual and team focus habits, and so many other factors. As they do this, their work begins to sing better together.

They intuitively know what the other wants, and where the other will be. It’s how the sushi chef no longer has to look when his assistant of 40 years hands him a piece of fish, or how a basketball player throws a no-look pass and her teammate is the only one who knows where the ball went.

This kind of mastery isn’t just reserved for individuals; good teams can build a level of team mastery over time. The more a marketing team effectively fires together, the more their efforts will efficiently wire together.

Take these threads of commonality with you, along with the realization that not all marketing teams are created equal, and not all rise to an elite level in similar ways.

In embracing these, in whole or in part, you’re setting your marketing team (and not just the individual rockstars within) on a path to be better. For ease of sharing, here they are:

High-performance marketing teams:

  • Place a premium on empathy
  • Measure what matters
  • Are at once self-directed and committed to the company mission
  • Maintain efficient lines of communication
  • Have at least one teammate tasked with seeing the future
  • Respect each other’s focus habits
  • Foster each other’s learning and growth
  • Know what fires together, wires together

And here's our SlideShare packed with insights from Meghan Keaney Anderson, VP of Marketing at HubSpot; Andrew Dumont, VP of Marketing at Bitly; and Jonathan Grado, VP of Marketing at Grado Labs:

***

Illustrations: Bully

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Catch Up Faster In Flow https://www.getflow.com/blog/catch-up-faster-in-flow Tue, 13 Sep 2016 17:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/catch-up-faster-in-flow

We’ve killed the Dashboard, and replaced it with Catch Up. It’s an all new way of reviewing notifications, designed to get you up to speed as quickly as possible and back to the work that matters to you.

The old Flow Dashboard—like many of the dashboards and feeds in our internet lives—was an endless fire hose of information. We tend to come to our dashboards to get ‘caught up’—but how do we really know when we’re caught up and ready to go to work? None of our feeds tell us, that’s for sure. They just show us more.

Catch Up—which you’ll find where your Dashboard used to be—aims to change that trend, showing you your notifications one-by-one (sometimes helpfully grouped together), and telling you straight-up when there’s nothing left. Its sole purpose is to get you back to work—not to create more for you.

Head there now, and you’ll notice a split between Catch Up and Review:


Whenever you have a new notification in Flow, you’ll see a new card in Catch Up.

Catch Up is a great place to start your day in the morning, but it’s also ideal for when you’ve gone off the grid for a couple of hours and want to see what you’ve missed.


The first thing you’ll notice is the new card style for notifications, which helpfully groups together information for you to review. These cards make it easier to go through updates one-by-one, rather than just scanning through a torrent of information.

When you’ve reviewed a card to your satisfaction, hover over it, and you’ll see a checkmark in the top right. Hit that, and the card will move to ‘Review’ (viewing the task or clicking the notification in your Task Activity dropdown will also do this). The next card will slide up for your inspection.


Your Review tab looks a little like your old dashboard—it’s a historical view of your notifications, which you can check any time you’d like (and quick note: your classic Dashboard can still be found in the Favorites menu as ‘All Activity’). You can even move Review cards back to Catch Up, if you want to put a task back on your radar for a while.

The goal of Catch Up, though, is to get you to this:


When you’ve caught up on everything, you get… well, nothing! A clean slate. You no longer need to worry about what you’ve missed while you were away, or what else there is to see. You’re caught up. No, really. You can get to the work you had planned for the day, or pick a new task and focus.

We hope that Catch Up helps you focus on the work you love, and makes your workday a little easier.

Please be sure to send us your feedback. We’d love to hear it all—good and bad.

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The Art of Startup Leadership: How the Best Projects Come From Empowered Teams https://www.getflow.com/blog/crickets-crumbs-the-art-of-startup-team-leadership Tue, 30 Aug 2016 15:09:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/crickets-crumbs-the-art-of-startup-team-leadership


You saw the need for a meeting, and you scheduled the meeting. You also determined the time of the meeting and who should attend. All of those decisions showed elements of team leadership.

But not the ones we revere.

No, to be a real leader, we’re told, you need to own that meeting. This means driving the conversation, maybe even immediately steering it toward the idea you’ve been mulling over for the past few days.

You need to listen, sure, but not in some passive way that shows your weakness. The business world is dog eat dog, and the internal hierarchy of job titles isn’t enough to defend you from usurpation.

So you must take center stage, be way out in front so others follow. You must lead with brilliance and boldness like those who have changed the way we see the world, people like Nelson Mandela.

I always remember the regent’s axiom: a leader, he said, is like a shepherd. He stays behind the flock, letting the most nimble go out ahead, whereupon the others follow, not realizing that all along they are being directed from behind.”

—Nelson Mandela

Wait, what?

While many see this as a condescending simile (yes, I see your reasoning), the concept of leading from behind is one worth thinking about how to do—especially in the context of startup team leadership.

Let's say your startup is growing up fast, and as the leader navigating this crucial period of growth you've helped free your team from the facade that a flat organizational structure can work. But this bold step forward often means an erroneous step back into the horrendous aforementioned advice churned out from those superpower publishers of the traditional business world.

It doesn't have to be that way.

Leading from behind is talked about but not often painted, and it's a concept pretty much ignored in the startup world. It’s a great idea, but what does it look like? How can leaders leverage the concept into something real that benefits their growing company and allow teams to produce the best projects?

And then there are the larger questions, questions that cast a critical eye toward ingrained assumptions:

-What if the conventional representations of team leadership have been way off?

-What if the language and imagery we typically associate with leading—being dominant and out in front while rallying others to catch up—isn’t the best way?

-Might the pressure to always be out in front make it impossible to stop and consider alternative ways of leading your team?


Where it comes from

Paying homage to Mandela, Linda A. Hill, a professor at Harvard Business School, helped put the idea of leading from behind into the minds of business leaders.

For now and into [the] coming decade or so,” she wrote in 2010, “the most effective leaders will lead from behind, not from the front.”

She went on to say, “It’s a concept whose time has come.”

For Hill, and indeed for those who have long embraced the concept, the realities of modern business have made this happen. She breaks these realities into three primary categories:

1. “The psychological contract between companies and employees is changing.”

People are seeking more meaningful work, and they’ll increasingly sacrifice pay or other perks in order to feel fulfilled and valued. This is especially true in the realm of startups, where company culture tends to be more progressive (unlimited vacation, remote work, etc.) and the company mission often places a great priority on its ability to make positive social impact.

2. “Innovation—not simply incremental but continual breakthrough innovation—will be a key driver of competitiveness.”

As much as society highlights the lone solitary genius, most discoveries are a result of collaborative, team-oriented processes. If Hill is right, and continual breakthrough innovation becomes the key driver of competitiveness, modern team leadership must evolve accordingly. This means startups who stay competitive will be those who replace the top-down patriarchal approach with a process more akin to workshop facilitation circle processes—where each participant feels valued, equal, and not just safe but actually empowered to share their best ideas. 

3. “Leaders can encourage breakthrough ideas not by cultivating followers who can execute but building communities that can innovate.”

Original thinking is created, not executed. The traditional model of team leadership by setting the course must therefore be transformed into leading by building communities of creators. As a startup, it can be easy to remain in "go mode" all the time. To "feed the fire" as Patti Sanchez put it. But in doing so the big picture of fostering long-term innovation for your team—a process that demands a form of team leadership built with equal parts patience, vision, and empathy—falls by the wayside.

Hill’s final lines are just as important now as they were six years ago:

Those who are exceptional at leading from behind are likely to be different than those who excelled at leading from the front. And this raises the question: are we identifying and developing the leaders who can tap the power of collective genius?”

Using crickets and crumbs

Jim Everingham, Head of Engineering at Instagram, recently wrote about how the observer effect impacts team management. In essence, in a hierarchical relationship, a leader’s very presence (and certainly their presentation of ideas) changes how the team shares, discusses, and ultimately decides on which ideas to pursue.

This is expected, and can certainly be a good thing. But for Everingham, it makes the most sense to use your power to empower your team so that it can produce the absolute best project result. Through being hyper-sensitive to the way his role of “head of engineering” can impact the process, he leads through a blend of Socrates-style questioning and empathic listening.

To apply this form of team leadership, let’s head back to our original example of setting up a meeting. You did all the work to set it up, but you also realize this:

Meetings are not opportunities to handpick the audience you want to watch you shine.

So how do you take a step back and lead from behind?

You take time before the meeting, even just 10 minutes, to think about the crumbs you’ll drop when a question you ask related to the overall goal is met with crickets (silence).

If your goal, for example, is to decide which position you most need to hire for, you could open the meeting not by laying out that idea you’ve been mulling over for all to see, but by asking something like:

Where do you think we have the most need? Why?”

Then, as Everingham, puts it:

If no one has any immediate ideas and all you’re hearing is crickets, you have the option to open the box very slowly and carefully. You can drop a breadcrumb to lead the team to a next conclusion they can use as a jumping off point — a hint that doesn’t give away what you think they should do. But the more breadcrumbs you drop, the narrower their thinking will become, so you have to be careful and thoughtful about what you reveal.”

This flips the traditional model. In many cases, a leader may ask the initial question not so much because they really care but because they want their team to think they really care.

As the question hangs and the crickets chirp, the traditional team leader then bypasses the crumb stage altogether and leaps right in, dropping their own idea:

Well, here’s what I think we should do.”

Boom.

This is what produces the best project results, be it hiring, engineering or otherwise. It’s at that pivotal moment where what Hill refers to as a team’s “collective genius” is buried under the rubble of roles. In this situation, the leader thinks they are leading, but in reality they’ve simply pulled ahead by pushing their team down.

A better solution is to drop crumbs that, through specificity, can lead the conversation to its next level:

Okay, well let’s break down each department’s need. First up: marketing. Throw out a few challenges we’re having here.”

This “crickets and crumbs” approach to leading from behind can work regardless of which industry you’re in or how fast you’re growing. But to make it work you must tap into your own leadership skills while simultaneously allowing your team’s ideas—which are likely better ideas than you have—to shine.

To give it a go, remember it in these three steps:


***

See also:

Listen Like a Lion

An Ocean of Ideas, a Team Without Nets

-Illustrations: Bully

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The Two Reasons Why We Lose Focus During Project Management Crunch Time https://www.getflow.com/blog/two-ways-we-lose-focus-at-work Mon, 22 Aug 2016 21:42:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/two-ways-we-lose-focus-at-work lose-focus.png#asset:969

You have lots to do, so you’ve carved out the time to do it. You wake up early, you eat your breakfast. You sip your coffee and dress like someone who has stuff to do. You’re doing everything a productive person should.

But when you sit down, you spend the day flitting around the internet, and accomplish only a miniscule amount of what you set out to do. Why can’t you just sit down and start banging out tasks? Or maybe you even have just one thing to do, and you can’t bring yourself to do it. Just what is the matter with you, you lazy no-goodnik?

Well, what happened is that concentration—the oldest and dearest friend of good, honest creative work—has suddenly turned against you.

Before you panic, remember that not all lapses in concentration are created equal. There are two distinct ways we lose focus trying to manage our projects and it’s important to know the difference. Decide which one of these you’re going up against, and act accordingly.


Task Focus

Sometimes while working on our project, we're losing focus in the moment, at the task level. This is when we’ve decided exactly what we’re going to work on, but we just can’t bring ourselves to get it done. This is a loss of task focus.

We often blame ourselves for losing task focus, and in most cases, we are completely correct. It’s also somewhat easy to combat: we figure out a way to improve our concentration or motivate ourselves, and we return to the task.

Within task focus, there are two types of attention that you need to be aware of. There’s top-down attention (or, if you’re all science-y, overt orienting), which is goal-oriented—and likely what you’re diving into when you pick your task, or studying, or picking up your pen to write. It’s also known as voluntary focus.

Top-down attention’s archenemy is the other type of attention, known as bottom-up attention (science-y: covert orienting). This type of attention is kicked into gear by your cat scratching you unexpectedly, or a loud car-horn outside of your window. It’s what kills task focus.

When viewed this way, task focus’s enemy is quite simple (uh, and endlessly complex): the distractions of covert orienting. Slay the distraction(s), and get task focus.

The other type of focus, though, is much more insidious, and doesn’t have quite as clear of an enemy—so you need to be more tactical to keep it sharp.


Project Focus

If lost task focus is the inability to hunker down and complete a task, lost project focus is the inability to even pick that task. This is the major project management killer. It’s you getting to work in the morning, sitting at your desk, and clicking around between the emails you need to answer, your to-dos you need to do, and your ongoing discussions that you need to push forward... and not being able to make a judgment on what most needs your time.

Good project focus is being able to take stock of all the potential paths you could go down at any given time, and selecting the single most important or pressing task without hesitation.

When project focus wanders, it quickly becomes a blocker, since we need some semblance of project focus before we can even consider task focus. If we can’t decide what to do, how can we overt-orient our way to getting anything done?

In a way, keeping project focus and staying on top of project management is like writing a novel: it’s not a single act of concentration, but several of them working in concert. It’s weaving together all the plotlines and characters of our worklife into something with forward momentum, and using that momentum to make smart decisions about what we do next. And by the way, writing a novel is hard. David Foster Wallace, one of the titans of modern literature, said in 1997 of his future plans: “I will probably write an hour a day, and spend eight hours a day biting my knuckle and worrying about not writing.”

If losing task focus permits us to blame a singular distraction, then bad project focus gives us free reign to blame everyone and everything around us. It creates real worry. And while most of us aren’t writing 1,000 page novels, we can all relate, because we all know the feeling of having an expansive task list but a sudden inability to move forward.

When we lose project focus, we need to be smart about what we do to ensure that whatever project we happen to be managing at the time (which might be a novel!) has its conclusion. For those moments when we’re stopped dead in our tracks and unsure how to return to project focus (paving the path to the glory of task focus), here’s what we can do.

1. Stop analyzing and start planning

What you’re really feeling right now is a bastardized form of analysis paralysis. In this case, you’re waiting for the single most important task to come out and bonk you on the head, so you can dig into task focus. Sadly, that won’t happen. Very sadly.

The only way to defeat analysis paralysis is to be truly decisive, and you can start by mapping out all the different courses your attention could potentially take. When everything you need to do within a project is plotted out and not just floating around in browsers and apps, you may find that the next step is more obvious than you originally thought.

Most importantly, though, you’ll have stopped the analytical cycle of worry, and reoriented back towards getting to work.

2. Knock down the easiest tasks

GTD enthusiasts will recognize David Allen’s two-minute rule: if you can do it in two minutes, do it now. As James Clear writes:

It’s surprising how many things we put off that we could get done in two minutes or less. For example, washing your dishes immediately after your meal, tossing the laundry in the washing machine, taking out the garbage, cleaning up clutter, sending that email, and so on.”

When you start your planning to get your project focus back, you might notice there are a lot of tasks piled up that you can knock off quickly, like easy emails, or some mechanical work that’s been assigned to you (i.e., something that doesn’t require a ton of thought). Do these immediately, and you can quickly reduce the sheer number of things on your list—and your list is reduced to stuff that actually requires task focus.  

Remember, when it comes to project management and focus, your biggest enemy right now is task overload; your goal is to get your “stuff I’ve gotta do in this project” number to as close to one as possible. It’s only when your list is small that you can get back to the beauty of task focus.

3. Start working on anything

One of the many culprits of lost project focus could be a simple fear that the next step forward in the project might be the wrong one—and ultimately, the only way to determine that is get to work.

Much like the only way to cure writer’s block is by writing, the best way to regain project focus could be to just pick the most obvious-seeming task. Choose the work on your plate that excites you most or sparks the most ideas.

The worst-case scenario is that you spend a little time working on the wrong thing—but at the very least, you’ve broken out of your Han Solo-frozen-in-carbonite working state. And the best-case scenario is that you can get some task focus out of it.

4. If all else fails, ask for clearer priorities

Losing project focus is frustrating on a personal level (nobody likes to waste time), but you certainly shouldn’t assume it’s your fault that you don’t know which step to take next. If a project’s next steps aren’t clear, don’t suffer in silence.

However, asking for help has a certain stigma attached to it. Writer Jennifer Winter quipped that during her corporate career, she started to believe that “help” was one of the nasty four-letter words—not the nice warm and comforting word it ought to be.

Realistically, though, a loss of project focus is very likely to be a project management issue. Maybe the project goals aren’t as clear as they could be, and the finish line is blurred. Maybe the team hasn’t gotten a good update on the progress of the project in a while. Especially in cases where a project manager isn’t present, the important high-level details of a project can easily fall by the wayside (by the way—this is why we built Project Notes), leaving everyone to wonder how they can best contribute right in that moment.

So swallow your pride, and ask straight-up for clearer priorities. If things aren’t feeling clear to you, odds are they’re foggy to everyone else, too.

This is all a reminder to say: Having lots of work to do is great, but there’s work that goes into work.

There’s maintaining your concentration on a single task with task focus. And to keep those tasks coming in steadily and dependably, you need project focus.

It takes work to keep both types of focus sharp, but when you do, you’ll have more time to devote to the stuff you do best.

***

-Illustrations: Bully

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Why Office Layout Matters When Improving Your Company's Teamwork and Focus https://www.getflow.com/blog/improving-your-teams-focus Tue, 16 Aug 2016 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/improving-your-teams-focus

improving-team-focus-1.png#asset:921

I hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the door of my 5th floor hotel room, turned off the television, silenced my phone, closed the windows, shut the curtains, settled into the work desk and turned on my laptop. With fresh coffee by my side, I took a few deep breaths and opened a document to begin writing the article you are now reading.

That’s when three men strapped into harnesses and standing on a platform began pounding on the windows.

In full and intense conversation, they began inspecting the windows and taking notes. Then they pulled out their tools and began to clean the windows. One ate an apple (I could hear every bite as he was just a foot away) while the other two stripped off the sealant and applied a fresh layer.

This is the way it so often goes. We take steps to control our environment, to bend it towards creating the pockets of focus we need to do our best work, but distractions break through the bubble we’ve tried to create. Our teamwork suffers and we have to once again center our focus to be able to get things done.

The environment doesn’t care what we do, and all bubbles eventually pop, so we’re in a constant cycle of creating new ones. We pick up productivity hacks from websites with click-bait headlines and video advertisement pop-ups, we buy noise-cancelling headphones, and some of us even take the writer’s route and retreat to a cabin in the woods.

But in our world of increasing distractions—where we check our phones 46 times a day and many of us do our most important work on the same machine that can also be our largest source of distraction, the ability to focus is an increasingly crucial habit to form.

Indeed, if technological mavens are propelling the future of what our work will look like, focus mavens will propel the future of how we’ll actually get it done—and who gets a chance to do it.

Take the rise of the gig economy, for example. In the next 30 years, it’s projected to serve up opportunities for those who can quickly master new skills. How to stay afloat? Quickly master the ability to achieve the deep states of focus necessary to pick up those skills.

It might sound old school, but focus is the future.

Cal Newport’s terrific book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, drives this point home better than any book I’ve read on the topic. According to Newport, focus isn’t merely an episode, it’s a habit. And most of us have formed some pretty bad habits.

Or, if we’ve created some good individual habits, we haven’t figured out how best to apply them at work.

Enter: Offices of Mass Distraction

Let’s talk about office layout for a moment, particularly the infamous office cubicle. It’s become synonymous with dull desk job, but the inventor, Robert Propst, who referred to it as the “Action Office,” designed them in the 1960’s to optimize teamwork and focus. 

Forget the dreary gray felt and forget any soul-sucking days you may have spent enclosed in them. Propst, who worked for the office furniture firm Herman Miller, developed cubicles in response to what existed at the time and what many, in the name of radical transparency and coolness, have worked hard to return to: the open office layout. 

Here’s a glimpse into Miller’s Action Office Series 2, which likely looks familiar to you:

improving-team-focus-4.jpg#asset:922

The separation allows for focus, and updated versions have a mix of open layout collaborative spaces for teamwork and focus, standing desks, and areas designed for individual focus.

While sleek open office layouts may seem new, they’re actually just a throwback to the 60’s. And most of them are environments (as Propst knew) almost perfectly built for distraction—you can see what everybody is doing at any moment, who just went to the bathroom, and who seems to be, for the love of all things holy, entirely unable to stop scratching their head.

Such layouts—while there are of course inherent positives such as the feeling of connectedness—can also become breeding grounds for collaboration collapse, where teammates dismantle all silos and place unnecessary reliance on collaboration as the ultimate, and sometimes only, path to productivity.

There’s a better way.


Building Team Focus

Shutting yourself up in a 5th floor hotel room, or even in some remote cabin, can be the way to go for the deep periods of focus we all need as individuals. But most of us are part of complex teams, even teams within teams, and this kind of team focus can only be achieved through a collective commitment.

Here are 4 ways, regardless of the size of your team, that you can work to build teamwork and focus:

1. Team Focus Demands Effective Project Communication. As with improving anything, awareness of the challenge first has to be recognized before it can be addressed. This means carving out time to think about how your team gets things done. What’s the underlying process? Has the same challenge stalled your work on more than one occasion?

When core teams communicate remotely, for example, it can be easy to lose sight of certain project details and deliverables. If everybody isn’t on the same page in terms of when a project is due, and who is working on which part of it, all sorts of problems can arise.

For some, a bi-weekly sprint thrown into a Google doc may be the solution, others may need a project management tool to streamline everything. Either way, the resulting transparency will likely increase team focus by creating a better system for completing projects.

2. Think Critically About Your Environment. Dreary cubicles may not be the aesthetic of the future, but the importance of their function remains. If you’re working in a cubicle, think about if the parts of it are aligned optimally. So often we get stuck in a habit—of walking over to a colleague’s desk many times each day, for example—when the better solution might be to break the habit, even if temporarily, by rearranging where we're seated for a given project.

If you work in more of an open office, create a conversation with your team about how it could be optimized. Would some colleagues prefer to do pockets of work in an individual pod, while a small team within the larger team would like a space just for them? There are inexpensive ways, such as using curtains, to build both. But the change can’t happen without an open conversation.

3. Make Deep Work a Team Commitment. Every member of your team has to be on board with how important it is to have periods of time for both individual and small team focus. To get started, I’d recommended picking up copies of Deep Work, and having team discussions about it to see what insights can be applied to your current day-to-day routines.

A crucial part of this process is to go beyond the realization that teamwork and focus is important, and into a pattern of actually committing to it. Find a way to ensure that all members of the team have a way of knowing when a colleague is in deep work and should not be interrupted. In an age of increasingly annoying app notifications, I’ve heard of some teams simply putting headphones on—it was their way of saying “I’m in the zone right now. I’m all yours as soon as I take them off.”

4. Experiment to Find What Works. One study from Draugiem Group found that the top 10% most productive employees didn’t work longer hours, they took more breaks. For every 52 minutes of work, they took, on average, a 17-minute break. It’s likely that the breaks allowed the employees to detach and recharge.

Similarly, Switzerland is the most productive country in the world and, having just recently been beat out by Denmark, they are the 2nd happiest as well. What’s the deal? Part of the reason could be the work culture, which offers 28 mandatory vacation days, and embraces relaxing 60-minute lunch breaks where, “If it's summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour” and “If you eat a sandwich at your desk [as many Americans do], people will scold you.”

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If you’re able, play around to see what kind of routine works best for you. Some prefer brief bouts of focus with many breaks, while others prefer long bouts of focus with just one long break in between.

Lastly, don’t be afraid to share with your team what helps you do your best work. Everyone in the office probably wants the same thing, to be able to get more things done through effective teamwork and improved focus. If the office layout is destroying your focus, for example, ask what can be done to change the situation. I’ve formed some bad habits over the years (I was one of those phone checkers), but what helped me break through that habit was listening to how my teammates had formed their own good habits.

Sure, you’ll falter, and at some point you’ll get stuck in this middle ground where it would be SO much easier to distract yourself than go deep.

But if you’re going to do work, get focused and do your best work. You deserve the free time, and your team deserves the results.

***

See Also:

The Science of Productivity

How to Be More Productive as a Tech Team

-Illustrations: Bully

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Take Control of Your Notifications Like Never Before https://www.getflow.com/blog/focus-mode Fri, 08 Jul 2016 07:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/focus-mode Focus on your tasks, or collaborate with your team? With our all-new notifications upgrades, the power is totally in your hands.

We understand that most of the time, you need to closely follow your team’s updates. At other times, though, you just need to focus on your work and tune out notifications. Our goal with this big, big update is simple: we want to give you more control over how much you’re bothered by Flow while you’re trying to do your work.

If you want to receive more notifications, you can. If you want to receive fewer or none (get ready for the magic of Focus Mode), you now have that option. These new changes give you ideal flexibility both ways.

There’s lots to cover, so let’s get into it. Here’s what’s new:

Focus Mode

These days, we’re overloaded with notifications—to the point where it’s a daily struggle just to do our jobs. When we’re always being digitally nudged and prodded, where do we go to actually get stuff done and focus on a single task?

That’s the centrepiece of this big notifications update: an amazing new feature called Focus Mode, which lets you mute all incoming Flow notifications for a chosen amount of time.

Consider Focus Mode a break from the distractions that come with working alongside a busy team. It’s a polite way of saying, “I need to go and get some stuff done right now, so please don’t bother me.” And best of all, it’s incredibly easy to use. Hit the switch, select an amount of time to focus, and get to work. That’s it.


While you’re in Focus Mode, we’ll save up your Flow notifications for you, and you’ll receive them when you come back.

Your status will change while you’re in Focus Mode to this…

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…and if someone still tries to contact you in Chat while you’re focusing, they’ll get a friendly message telling them that you’re busy right now, and that you’ll be back soon:

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For anyone who has felt the sting of having a mountain of tasks and no place to get them done, Focus Mode is a life saver.

All new desktop and email notification preferences

At the top level, we wanted to give you more granular notifications over what you’re notified about while you’re trying to focus on your work. So behold: your new notifications preferences screen, accessed by clicking the bell (where you read your notifications), and then hitting the gear icon.

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Here, you can exercise serious control over what you’re notified about on your desktop and via email. You can even choose to be notified of nothing, if you want. That, my friend, is up to you.

Updated iOS notification settings

Since you’re exercising such rigorous control over your notifications on the web, it only makes sense that we’d give you the same control over push notifications on your phone, too.

In both the Tasks and Chat apps, you can now control the types of push notifications you’ll receive on your device. And of course, Focus Mode can be turned on from both apps.

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Smarter bell notifications

Here’s a big point of frustration that we were very happy to fix.

Let’s say you had two new notifications to review.

Previously, the moment you clicked that bell, the badge would disappear… before you’d had a chance to review each notification individually. Flow would figure you’d just seen them all, and didn’t need to remember what was new or not. That wasn’t very helpful at all.

                      SMART BELL GIF

Now, you’ll be able to carefully review each of your notifications—and your badge count will only be reduced when you click the notification and check out what’s new.

Conversely, if you just want to give them a quick scan and clear the notifications, click “Clear all” and you’ll be home free.

Chat room settings

If your team’s Chat is anything like ours, there’s a constant stream of activity in the ‘Cats’ chat room, and an equally steady (but more relevant to work) stream in the ‘Product’ chat room. Well, if you wanted to mute the ‘Cats’ out of your life for a while, you can. You can also increase or decrease the amount of notifications—email or desktop—you’ll receive from that chat room.

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You’ve told your dear co-workers who are flooding your notifications with cats to take a hike for the last time. Rejoice!

A new ‘split badge’ in the chat sidebar

Chat rooms now have a nifty split badge. It’s a badge cut right down the middle, which you’ll see only when you’ve chosen to be notified of ‘All chat activity’ in a chat room.

On one side of the split badge, you’ll see the total number of messages to get caught up on; on the other, you’ll see the number of mentions that need your attention:

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Mentions on the left, total number of new messages on the right. It’s a smart way of knowing not just which chat rooms are the highest traffic, but which really, really require your attention first.

Reducing push notifications

Previously, the amount of push notifications we were sending was a little overwhelming. You used to get them for everything, but now we fine-tuned them so that you’ll only receive notifications for the most important stuff.

Reducing email notifications

Many of you receive notifications about your tasks and chats via email. But much like with push notifications, this could very quickly become overwhelming—especially with a busy team.

The problem? Flow would send you those email notifications immediately, regardless of whether you were offline in Flow or not. Now, email notifications will only be sent when you’re idle or offline in Flow. And better still, they’ll be grouped together to reduce the sheer number of emails that we’re sending your way.

Like notifications!

You’ll get a notification when someone likes one of your comments! Because really, who doesn’t enjoy seeing that their comment was worthy of a like?


Well, there you have it. This suite of updates to how you control notifications in Flow should make it easier to manage the sheer amount of information coming at you in Flow. Now, you can see more notifications when you want to collaborate with your team—and when you’re ready to dig in, you can switch on Focus Mode and focus intently on a specific task.

Focus on your tasks, or work with your team: it’s always been up to you, but now, it’s 100% under your control.

Enjoy!

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Organize All Your Project’s Details with Project Notes https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-notes Tue, 07 Jun 2016 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-notes Your projects in Flow are way more than just places to go and dump tasks: they’re what keeps your team organized and focused. And probably, to some extent, they’re what keeps your team sane.

To really make the most of your projects, though, you’ve gotta rally everyone around an idea, and make sure that everyone understands the driving force behind the work. Once you do that, it’s crucial to gather all those important, central details of the project and keep them visible. Otherwise, we might wander off track.

Whether you’re giving your team a heartfelt motivational speech to kick off your project, or just giving them clear instructions which can be referred to (and changed!) later, you can do it now using Project Notes.

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Project Notes live right in your project’s header, and help everyone immediately understand what’s important and essential to a project. A note can include files, or it can just be a plain ol’ written description. And since a project’s objectives and goals can often change midway through, you can update a project note at any time.

What you put in your project note right off the bat is totally up to you. You can paint a grand vision, and let people figure out the direction…

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…Or your can deliver all the details straight-up, and people can get to work right away.


When used this way, the Project Note can serve as a project hub: a single place that holds all the vital details of any project.

Whatever you decide, Project Notes are an important part of starting things off right, and making sure your team doesn’t lose focus throughout a potentially long and winding project.

We hope it’s another step towards giving your team even more direction and clarity around their work.

Project Notes are live on web, iOS, and Android right now! Go try it out.

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Finding Project Insight by Asking the Right Questions https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-clarity Fri, 03 Jun 2016 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-clarity project-clarity.png#asset:676

Project insight is not easy to achieve due to the fact that not all projects are created equal. Some offer us a crystal clear path to completion, while others take hours of bushwhacking before we can even see some semblance of a path. In all cases, and as most great project managers will attest, getting off on the right foot is crucial—even if it takes a ton of work before that first step can be made.

It’s all too easy to rush that first step, or to otherwise lose sight of its importance as you’ve got your eyes set on what that shiny final project will look like. Once you’ve got the project idea, and your team is in majority agreement that it’s the right idea to pursue, what should your first step be as a project manager? What’s the best way to begin building out a plan so the pursuit of that idea can get off to a strong start?

My first step is always to write out the answer to the question ‘What’s it for?’” began Robin Kwong, Special Projects Editor at the Financial Times. “This is often a harder question to answer than you might expect—especially if you try to distill it down to a few short sentences that can be easily understood and agreed on by the team.”

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For Kwong, maintaining productivity in one of the world’s preeminent business and economic newsrooms demands maximum project insight from the outset. This simple but challenging practice of answering “What’s it for?” helps get his team off to a good start. As he put it:

This generally becomes the basis for setting out the goals of the project, which then allows me to start building a plan with concrete steps to achieve those goals. It also helps make clear who this project or product is for, and therefore whose worldview and mindset I have to really empathize with in order to make the project a success.”

But even once you’ve made it that far, there’s still the work of keeping project goals clear and keeping your team on the right track.

As Kwong made clear in his piece, Why newsrooms need project managers, there is perhaps no better place than newsrooms—places typically filled with antiquated management templates yet trying to modernize at breakneck speeds—to see the importance of project management in action. While many project managers view it as maintaining project insight throughout, Kwong sees it as staying true to the roots the team first rallied behind:

I find that if I had clearly set out from the beginning why we are doing this project, how we are doing it and what we are doing (and have the team’s agreement on it), then not a lot more has to be done during the course of the project to make sure we stay on track.”

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It comes back to writing down the answer to that original question. For Kwong, having this answer written down gets the idea out of his head and in a place where his team can see it. This helps him drive projects forward. “You can easily refer team members to a document or a post-it note or an email,” he says. “You can’t refer them back to thoughts you had several weeks ago.”

Still, new ideas and challenges are bound to pop up along the way. Will pursuing a new idea take you down a rabbit hole slightly different from any channel within your original project plan? Is a challenge worth overcoming, or is it a red flag alerting you to change course?

For Kwong, getting closer to project insight through new ideas and challenges should be met with two simple questions:

   -Does it change the original goal?

   -Does it affect the constraints you are doing the project under?

Assuming you thought deeply and clearly about your goals from the outset,” he says, “it will generally be the latter case.”

In either case—whether deadlines have been moved up or there’s a resource constraint because a team member has fallen ill—Kwong recommends keeping project goals clear by taking these three steps:

1) List out what resources and assets you have at your disposal. Have you ignored or underutilized some because of the assumptions or the frame you operated under? (so, for example, instead of “I can’t meet these new deadlines,” try thinking “I can meet these new deadlines, if….”)

2) Ignore sunk costs. The situation has changed and the only thing that matters is how you can reach your goal from here. Assess the work done so far to see whether they actually are an asset or have now become irrelevant.

3) Figure out the key dependences. In particular, separate out what is important vs. what is urgent. This is a lot easier to do if you have clear goals and a clear idea of what the project is for.

Lost productivity cannot be reclaimed, but it can serve up lessons that help us carve out a better path for the next project we pursue. The process of learning from such lessons is, in part, how Kwong has achieved such success in leading projects at the Financial Times.

We’re all pursuing different projects and doing so in different environments, but if there’s a thread running through all of our work it’s this: Starting with clear goals provides the architecture and reference point all projects need to maintain project insight, clarity, and ultimately stay on a path to success.

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The Gig Economy is a Rigged Economy https://www.getflow.com/blog/gig-economy-rigged-economy Tue, 31 May 2016 18:10:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/gig-economy-rigged-economy gig-economy.png#asset:625

I’ve worked remotely for 7 years. Truth be told, since graduate school and except for a 6-month stint, I have only worked remotely.

I wasn’t trying to be part of some movement, and I wasn’t forecasting where things were headed. I just needed a decent job, and couldn’t for the life of me find one near where I lived.

So, in a desperate 2-week scramble that left my nerves and nails frayed, I finally landed a gig teaching an online Shakespeare class for a university in Kansas—a state I’d never been to and a school I’d never heard about.

The work was better than nothing. I made about $2500 per class, but the university typically could only give me one class per semester (including summer session). I could work anywhere, but insurance wasn’t offered. It felt great to help students and to have a job in my field, but at the end of each semester I was scared because I rarely knew if they’d give me a class for the following semester.

So the scramble continued, and since I still couldn’t find something decent in the area, I picked up two additional gigs—one teaching two sections of online English composition for a university in Florida, and another teaching an online creative nonfiction class for talented high school students all throughout the country.

With three gigs that now amounted to full-time work (I had about 100 students at every point throughout the year, including summers), you’d think I’d be rolling, or at least stable. But I was still left in the scramble. I was making about $20k each year, and none of the programs offered health insurance or any stability from semester to semester.

I found myself searching for other gigs while I should have been focusing on my students. And what this cool concept of “work from anywhere” really meant was that I mostly lived at coffee shops or libraries while contemplating moving back in with my parents.

But I marched on, and picked up two other gigs—as a freelance writer for several publications, and as a public speaker. Juggling 6 or 7 gigs at any one time, I’d boosted my yearly revenue to about $30k, but felt plagued by the multi-tasker’s mind; I never felt like I could give any gig my full focus and therefore my best work.

Plus, after rent, health insurance, the car payment, a consolidated student loan payment, a phone bill, and groceries, I was barely keeping my head above water. When a car problem arose, for example, I’d pay with my credit card, and only be able to make $30 payments each month on it. It was always almost maxed out, and I always felt on the brink.

By working for everybody I was working for nobody. I was just spinning the wheels, and wasn’t able to develop a core specialty other than my growing ability to not have a specialty. The companies I worked for didn’t seem to care about me as an individual, and why would they? I wasn’t a long-term asset, and others in the gig economy queue were ready to take my spot if I didn’t want to keep on spinning. The more I spun in this frenetic, desperate way the more I realized millions of other people were doing the same.

The Digital Nomad Coin

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On one side of the coin, the side of the coin most often shown, we have the prevailing bright and promising narrative. It’s the one that posits now as the greatest time to work remotely and travel the world, that everybody, especially millennials, increasingly have the ability to choose and be empowered by their work, and the notion put forth by some economists that this rapidly growing gig economy (PDF here) can shore up income inequality because it grants those with lower incomes a greater ability to find work.

As the first of my friends to enter this ‘future of work’ gig economy, I found myself, as the modern digital nomad movement does now—playing up the coolness and potential of this side of the coin (not having to dress up for work, make a commute, etc.).

And, for me, the true coolness finally did open up a bit. In the past few years, and while regularly filing anywhere from six to ten W-2 forms come tax season, I’ve worked in and traveled throughout 15 countries — without actually working for any organizations within those countries. I’d spend time diving into some part of a country’s culture I was fascinated by — sumo wrestling in Japan or Buddhism in Laos, for example — and then find some wifi, get a big ol’ mug of tea, and grade papers or edit articles or work on my next book.

On the other side of the coin, we have compelling research, some of which is presented here at The Wall Street Journal, pointing to how the gig economy likely benefits higher-earning Americans just as much if not more than everybody else. We have brutally honest reporting, such as The gig economy is coming. You probably won’t like it. over at The Boston Globe, which projects a likely scenario: the end of salaries, the end of health insurance, the end of pensions.

In other words, the end of many of the benefits that generations of labor activists have fought for and are still dying for, and that many millennials haven’t been around long enough to understand or really give a shit about.

And it’s all moving so fast that methods to capture snapshots of a nation’s economic health are quickly becoming antiquated. Take this piece, published a few weeks ago by Patrick Gillespie and Sara Ashley O'Brien, which shows how the gig economy is inflating traditional economic indicators:

The U.S. economy in recent months isn't adding a healthy number of jobs. However, the unemployment rate is at a robust 5.1%, almost half of the 10% it was at during the aftermath of the financial crisis.”

In other words, the gig economy is still part and parcel of the larger rigged economy—where huge swaths of the U.S. middle class have remained economically stagnant for 20 years, union membership has been declining for decades, income inequality has reached a 30-year high, and the percentage of Americans making $25 million or more has grown 73% since 2008.

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So while the gig economy may give rise to incredible stories like How to Travel to 20+ Countries While Building a Massive Business in the Process, and make certain economic figures glisten in a way that hides their deeper truths, it’s important that we all at once embrace this gig economy and figure out how to make the best of it. And for starters this means we refuse to become complacent, refuse to believe that access to hundreds of short-term gigs is good enough for people.

I often highlighted the cool factor as a newb in this gig economy, but the secret story was that I was often miserable in the moment and always terrified of what the future held. For years I was working so hard to grade papers that each night before bed I’d dip my fingers for 30 minutes in plastic food storage containers filled with ice water to reduce inflammation so I could do it all again the next day.

To be clear, that is a ridiculously minor complaint compared to the crushing conditions labor movements of years past (and even still today) fought to address, but I do think the thousands of similar stories and the quiet financial desperation faced by many freelance workers highlight a need to be cautious of the loud and cool becoming a smokescreen for the dismantling of knowledge worker labor conditions.

The Future of the Future of Work

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Intuit’s 2020 Report paints a clear picture of what the next decade is going to look like. Contingent workers will likely hit that 60 million mark and only grow from there, full-time jobs with benefits will be harder to find, startups and companies of all sizes will gain access to the best talent available while minimizing fixed labor costs, and employees will increasingly have the world as their oyster and their mind on the next gig.

The gig economy will keep rolling, and with it I believe these three strategies will help ensure that both employers and employees can roll with it rather than get rolled over by it:

1. Employers should strive to hire freelancers on a multiple-project basis, and strive to hire under a retainer fee (and assist with insurance) when possible. This will allow the employer to think about the future just as much as the immediate work that needs to be completed, which will save them the time and hassle of having to vet, hire and onboard another freelancer for the next project. In addition, it gives the employee some peace of mind and even brand engagement because they’ll know that they’re locked in for a reasonable period of time.

2. Traditional labor unions need to get with the program. Their work has been the only voice for the middle and lower class physical labor workers for decades, and perhaps nobody both should and is more equipped to carry the lessons they’ve learned into the future of work. Stay true to your machinists and aerospace workers, IAMAW, but know it’s a crucial part of your job to keep tabs on the future and to not be afraid to create massive partnerships with increasingly powerful nonprofit groups like the 300,000-strong Freelancers Union.

3. Employees should—and I know from experience how hard this is to do—strive to take on better (not just more) gigs. If the gig economy is the future of work, focus in this age of mass distraction is the future of how we’ll work. Take it from me: You’re far better off to stay patient and take one or two solid gigs where you can focus, feel a sense of loyalty, and maybe even get some benefits, than you are taking seven gigs that will leave you in an endless scramble. Lastly, join up with local union chapters, join up with the Freelancers Union, and remember that you’re not alone in this.

If in thinking about the future of work we forget to carry with us the lessons of the past, we’re setting the stage for a brutal knowledge worker revolution.

It’s one where tech savvy knowledge will be viewed as little more than the hammer and shovel of yesteryear, where traditional forms of organized labor strikes and protests will have to merge with their digital equivalents, where most have part-time gigs but a relative handful have insurance (let alone a pension) or any security for even the near-term future, and where perks like “work from anywhere!” become the bullfighter’s muleta—the stick and cloth we run towards again and again and again all throughout our lives, completely oblivious to what it all obscures: the sword.

***

See Also:

What Does the Gig Economy Mean for Workers? (PDF)

OnLabor’s Gig Economy section

Working Remotely Isn’t Always a Dream

Radically Remote: Building Workplace Culture When “Place” Is An Idea

-Art: Bully

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In Startup Land, Sexism & The Man Card Still Rule https://www.getflow.com/blog/startup-land-sexism Fri, 13 May 2016 21:36:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/startup-land-sexism

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It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially for those of us raised on a steady diet of the bootstrap myth. You know the one: that your own individual effort is all it takes to lift you up the social or economic ladder. The myth is perpetuated in all societies, or pockets thereof, that prize individualism above community, and it’s the primary theme in most movies and books where a central character (usually a man) overcomes, well, pretty much anything.

The myth took root in the 1890s, when the novels of Horatio Alger portrayed impoverished teenaged boys pulling themselves out of poverty and into middle class stability through hard work and determination. At that point, their ability to reach the next level was limited only by their motivation to do so.

Well over a hundred years later, we keep this concept close because it gives us hope for what we can achieve. We hold onto it because it makes us feels safe, and makes us believe that although the world is a wild place so often out of our control, at least everybody has a fair shot if they’re willing to work for it.

And do you know who holds onto this myth especially tight, who contributes most to perpetuating it and trying to get other people to buy into it? Men, like me, who benefit from it the most.

Men, especially white men, have believed in this myth for years. We’ve sprinkled it on our cereal each morning and on our pillow each night. Now, would you just look at our success? How can you deny it? We worked hard and we’re on top of the world, and thanks to the bootstrapping myth we can point to how we did it all by ourselves and, by god, so can you, if you buy our book and subscribe to our newsletter.

It’s the perfect validation, further reinforced when we all praise yet another wealthy, highly-educated man’s inspiring ability to throw caution to the wind and put all of his money into an idea—even to the point of, gasp!, having to borrow money from his wealthy friends just to make rent.

It’s a validation then reinforced in multiples when these wealthy, highly-educated men humble brag all over the place after their company booms, and when we amplify their humble bragging by holding the surface of their courageous and inspiring stories up on platinum pedestals.

But what are we praising, exactly? What are we praising when, as every study tells us is the norm, those born at the top of the economic ladder… stay there? In some ways it’s like we’re wishing them a happy birthday by instead saying “congratulations.” We’re basically praising an expected outcome as though it were unlikely, as though it came from an Alger novel.


To be fair, privilege—and we all have it to varying degrees—has helped give rise to modern civilization and to so many of the technological advances that are an integral part of our lives. If we hadn’t figured out ways to produce more grain, and then store those grains, for example, we wouldn’t have had the privilege of time to think about doing other things—such as establishing schools. Jared Diamond’s brilliant book, Guns, Germs, and Steel, recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, is essentially an historical mapping of how one people’s breakthrough and resulting privilege led to the next.

But, according to Kai Peter Stabell, Principal at Consortium for Conversational Conflict Resolution, who has spent seven years working with the United Nations Development Programme, except for some brief stints throughout history, men, typically through immense violence, have held the lion’s share of this privilege.

As men we must recognize our privilege,” Stabell said at his keynote speech for Arcadia University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution master’s program a few weeks ago. “And once we recognize the built-in advantages society grants to us, it’s important that we find ways to break it down and be an ally for the genuine empowerment of women. Otherwise we’re just continuing this ancient cycle, and none of us, men or women, will reach our full potential.”

Stabell’s talk was preceded by a panel of three women peacebuilders: Charlotte DiBartolomeo, CEO and co-founder of the Red Kite Project; Sharon Katz, activist-musician and founder of The Peace Train; and Jessica McKinney, a women’s health specialist and co-founder of Marathon Physical Therapy.

As three incredibly successful women in a variety of fields, DiBartolomeo, Katz, and McKinney shared some of the challenges they’ve faced based on their gender. Just so that’s clear: three successful leaders, women who have started incredible companies in both the private and public sectors, have faced certain challenges simply because they are women.

A story from DiBartolomeo was especially poignant:

When I bring up an idea during a meeting, the men in the room often attribute the idea to one of my sons or to another man in the room. Sometimes it will happen during the meeting, or sometimes a few weeks later. I’m not here to complain about it, but I think it’s important to point out that these are the kind of micro-challenges women face even when we’re in positions of leadership.”

DiBartolomeo’s point is an important one. When we hear “sexism” we tend to think of the worst and most grimy forms of it—cat-calling, misogynistic sleazeballs who make known their thoughts about how women are somehow inferior. Her story illuminates the kind of everyday sexism (here’s an amazing site for more examples) that even men who are trying to be allies still commit.

Likewise, many of us, men and women, tend to think of sexism as only and maybe still being prevalent in the old guard traditional businesses that have been around for decades and that have been handed off from one old white dude to the next. There’s no way that startups, with their finger on the pulse of all things hip—in-house yoga studios and espresso bars—would let that nonsense be part of their culture.

Right?

And yet, though this Catalyst study shows that women make up about 50% of all managers in the total workforce, this Kauffman Foundation study shows that “women-owned businesses account for just 28 percent of all businesses and only 16 percent of all employer-owned businesses.” And the odds only seem to get more stacked in Startup Land, where:

–Companies headed by male executives receive 98% of all venture investments ($1.88 billion)

–VC industry partners are 89% male (and 76% white male)

–Women entrepreneurs only receive about 19% of all angel funding (PDF here)

These are, of course, countered with all types of arguments, as is typical from the majority when that majority reigns over and benefits from such disparities. Some arguments, though, are far better than others.

One of the better ones is mentioned in a study at Berkeley’s Fung Institute (PDF here), where researchers rightly gave a nod to a previous study which concluded “that this low level of funding was at least partially caused by the relatively small number of women employed in the venture capital industry” before asserting the likelihood that women “may face more covert forms of discrimination” including “structural barriers, particularly in their attempts to raise external equity.”

Ahh, but even heaping helpings of statistics and personal stories of sexism in Silicon Valley aren’t enough to break through the ol’ bootstrapping myth. Take, for example, this question on Quora:

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Such questions, usually by someone so steeped in their privilege that they're blind to any of the structural and systemic barriers women face, then give rise to notions that women, by their nature, lack “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Oh yes. We admire startup founders more than ever before, so much so that everything they do, every move they make, every shitty blog post they write shines like a beacon in the night. As Gabriella Rockoff put it, we’re in an age that could be called the cult of the entrepreneur.

And from those platinum pedestals, the elites yell down: Entrepreneurs are born, not made!

Us mere mortals can only hear the echoes of their beautiful words, but the effect is exactly what they want: to create an even deeper chasm between their success and our chance of achieving anything close to it. It all propels this absurd notion that entrepreneurs are born, not made. Even Gary Vee bought into this, comparing entrepreneurial success to success in the NBA—both are a result of work ethic and, as Gary put it, require people “from a certain breed” that have “entrepreneurial DNA.”

Turns out Gary has a point, but it’s not the one he made. If indeed the best way to be a startup leader isn’t to get your MBA or link up with the most innovative minds in your sector, if indeed it’s not about buckling down and studying the history of startups or even seeing an opening for a product and then going all-in on it, it’s this: choose your parents. And you better choose white, wealthy parents. And those white, wealthy parents you chose better have a boy. And that boy better be you.

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Now before you think I’m crazy enough to call out a legend, I want you to relax because indeed I am. Gary is awesome, an absolute badass, he hustles and I’ve learned much from him. But he’s benefitted so immensely from his privilege (yes, yes, I know he’s from Belarus, but he goes by Gary and… just look at him) in ways say, a minority woman simply never could.

Consider for a moment this passage from MIT professor Fiona Murray in The Boston Globe:

With colleagues at Harvard Business School and The Wharton School, I recently conducted a study that involved video pitches for new companies that used slides, an identical script, and a voice-over from either a male or female ‘founder.’ It turned out that companies pitched by men were about 40 percent more likely to receive funding than those led by women.”

And these type of ingrained biases are in addition to the million microaggressions women would have faced just to get to the point of pitching, to how they’ve likely had credit taken away from them at various points in their career trajectory, to how they may have been looked down on in an interview based on how they answered, “Well, are you planning on having a kid?” and how, once they made it through all that, they still face the uphill battle of getting access to capital, and then even when they beat the odds and get that capital there will likely come a time where they are seen as a “bitch” or far worse just for embracing the same qualities that make men “strong, tough leaders.”

So, no, there’s isn’t a “special gene” for entrepreneurial risk-taking that men seem to possess more often than women. It’s sexism and access to capital that’s stacking the cards. It’s patriarchy and being born a wealthy man and having this access that opens up the ability to take such risks. When basic needs aren’t met, it’s awfully easy to take the terrible but maybe stable job so you can survive than it is to be creative and take risks. This intersection of creativity and reckless risk-taking is often the segregated (intentionally or not) playground where the already-wealthy men get to play.

How to solve such a complex challenge?

It’s both easy and important to point the finger and say modern entrepreneurship is the ultimate example of white male privilege, because it is. But it’s also important to find ways to address the problem. As Stabell said, “none of us, men or women, will reach our full potential” unless we break this ancient cycle.

For starters, the progressive team at Lean Startup Co, who we featured here, admittedly struggled with the same problem. The speakers at their annual conference, as Sarah Milstein wrote in her article for Harvard Business Review titled, Putting an End to Conferences Dominated By White Men, “were almost all white men.” When she was brought in to help, (she actually served as CEO of Lean Startup Productions), she took a few steps that I think are applicable to a variety of teams. Her #1 point is a crucial one:

As a leader, commit yourself to improving your selection process. Studies show that bringing in decision-makers from under-represented groups will help your organization attract more similar people. While doing so will likely improve your team and undoubtedly sends a positive signal, it’s not a magic bullet.”

In her second point, she says instead of simply writing that you “welcome people from groups under-represented in your community,” go further, totally transparent and vulnerable and authentic, to the point of actually saying, “you’ve contributed to the problem in the past (or if your event is new, showing your understanding of how imbalances arise), and concrete things you’re doing to make change.”

Milstein, offers 7 other suggestions, and I suggest you go check them out to see how/if they apply to how you’re building out your team.

Last but not least is this piece from Stanford professor Shelley Correll and research director Caroline Simard suggesting that it’s vague feedback that stops women from rising through the executive ranks and leading/starting companies:

Our research suggests these trends [of men receiving specific, actionable feedback about how to improve, and women receiving vague comments] may result from unconscious bias. Stereotypes about women’s capabilities mean that reviewers are less likely to connect women’s contributions to business outcomes or to acknowledge their technical expertise. Stereotypes about women’s care-giving abilities may cause reviewers to more frequently attribute women’s accomplishments to teamwork rather than team leadership.”

And what about when a woman is pushing the boundaries, and standing up as a leader? She’s likely pushed back down and into place. The researchers found that “76% of references to being ‘too aggressive’ happened in women’s reviews, versus 24% in men’s.”

If your startup is focused on disrupting an industry, and you’re adhering like glue to the status quo of gender inequity, you’re not disrupting anything; you’re just kicking a new can down an old and broken road.

And chances are you’re not reaching your full potential, either, because you’re certainly not understanding the deep ways that sexism and patriarchy influence decisions at all levels. As leaders, it behooves us to know about our own privilege, to support and understand the importance of organizations like the Women’s Debate Institute, Women 2.0, and Ladies Learning Code.

As men, we must serve as allies. We must know that sometimes this means shutting up and simply listening. It means knowing what the Bechdel test is seeking to address, reading without judgment something from Michael Kimmel, and developing to the point where we cringe when a white and born-wealthy male politician calls out a more qualified female candidate for having nothing except her ability to play the “woman’s card.”

It means knowing, somewhere deep inside ourselves, that sexism is still pervasive, and that the “man’s card” is still so dominant that it doesn’t even have to be played to dominate.

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Images: Bully

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We’re Way Too Nice At Work https://www.getflow.com/blog/too-nice-at-work Thu, 05 May 2016 13:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/too-nice-at-work

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In an April 2016 piece in The New York Times, Dan Lyons pulled back the curtain on HubSpot’s occasionally strange and puerile corporate practices. In particular, he targeted the company’s firing process, which he found, uh, weird:

…when you got fired, it was called 'graduation.' We all would get a cheery email from the boss saying, 'Team, just letting you know that X has graduated and we’re all excited to see how she uses her superpowers in her next big adventure.' One day this happened to a friend of mine. She was 35, had been with the company for four years, and was told without explanation by her 28-year-old manager that she had two weeks to get out. On her last day, that manager organized a farewell party for her."

What’s most noteworthy to me — and there’s a lot to note — is that she was dismissed “without explanation.” This is someone who had spent four critical years of her career at HubSpot, only to be dismissed with no feedback. What’s to stop her from making the same mechanical mistakes at her next job? Isn’t she owed an explanation?

As is briefly described in the essay, HubSpot likely reached the decision to fire her using VORP, which MLB statheads will recognize as Value Above Replacement Player — a statistic used to accurately justify whether or not a player belongs in the major leagues. Understandably and intelligently, HubSpot has found it effective in weeding out underperforming employees, and replacing them with better ones.

It’s a great system — but it only considers the value of the replacement, not the outgoing employee.

Think of it this way: when a major league pitcher gets demoted to the minor leagues, he knows what went wrong — because his coaches tell him. It’s their job to give him the honest truth so that he can improve for the good of the team. Maybe his fastball lost velocity. Or his breaking ball isn’t breaking, or he’s getting lit up during day games. And so they send him from Fenway to Pawtucket, AT&T Park to Sacramento, and he works doggedly on his mechanics. He works with coaches to improve. His team needs him to be better. His fans need him to be better. Everyone needs him to be better.

But in the case of Lyons’s friend at HubSpot, we get a window into one of the primary paradoxical contrasts at startups. On one hand, there’s the draconian, stat-driven, baseballish decision making, wherein if you aren’t producing, you don’t deserve your spot on the team; on the other, your work rarely holds you accountable for your failures (aside from firing you — or, sorry, “graduating” you).

In the end, we’re typically okay firing someone with cause, but we have big hangups about telling them why. The startup as we know it is, after all, built around being a ‘nice’ place to work. Feelings matter now more than ever. We’ve collectively made a point of not hiring ‘assholes,’ and we’ve eschewed harsh lighting and OfficeMax runs for bespoke designer furniture and cozy Quiet Spaces.

Right now, at all levels in the org chart, we’re obsessed with being nice, and terrified of seeming mean. But if we’re too nice as our company grows, are we doing anyone any good?

Narrative Play and The Perfect Storm of Niceness

Unfortunately, this tendency towards extreme niceness — towards avoiding the awful truth — is something that has followed many of us around for our whole lives. In fact, it’s not uncommon for many of us to have spent our early emotional lives in a similar state of shelter.

In Pamela Druckerman’s study of French parenting, Bringing Up Bébé, she introduces the idea of “narrative play,” a pervasive parenting style mainly among upper-middle class Americans.

In narrative play, a parent follows their child around the playground, telling them exactly what they’re doing — a sort of narrator, if that wasn’t obvious. Druckerman describes it as a “nonstop monologue” of the child’s activities. It’s an act of deep affection, but also incredibly excessive concern for their child’s moment-to-moment happiness:

When the boy wanders over to the gate to stare out at the lawn, the mother evidently decides this isn’t stimulating enough. She rushes over and holds him upside down. 'You’re upside down!' she shouts. Moments later, she lifts up her shirt to offer the boy a nip of milk. 'We came to the park! We came to the park!' she chirps while he’s drinking."

The subconscious intent? To speed up the child’s development by protecting them from ‘new’ experiences. Rather than let our children feel new things in contemplative — and perhaps frustrated — silence, parents feel the need to explain the activity and the joy that it should provide. In the hot pursuit of a precocious child who grows into a millionaire adult, there’s no time to waste in the frustration of discovery.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and when we join the workforce, many of us are unaccustomed to serious frustration, and much more sensitive to criticism and the failure it implies. And being nice to everyone fits into this mindset perfectly, because it summarily avoids all those nasty things.

Luckily for us — or maybe unluckily — we happen to be joining the workplace at a time when it’s suddenly concerned with being a much nicer place. It’s a perfect storm of niceness: a generation fixated on the avoidance of stress, in an endlessly encouraging, almost coddling environment.

Indeed, employers are more desperate than ever to keep their people happy, and a core part of this has been making the workplace kinder and friendlier. The office is bending towards what makes people comfortable, and that’s a womb-like bubble — an adult playground where our feelings will be protected at all costs.

This is observed very grotesquely in Dan Lyons’s essay: we’re even finding ways to be nice about firing people. Clearly, the average person is still being protected from the unsavory parts of our personal development — disappointment, fear, frustration, failure — and it’s impacting our ability to not only be functioning members of the workforce at large, but regular, complex humans, too.

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What this perfect storm of niceness is really doing, though, is keeping us in that playground, blinded to the new experiences or personal knowledge that might help us get better. Most of us are eager to explore and grow, but we’re kept stationary by the near-impossibility of having our feelings hurt at work. We evade criticizing or being criticized, and the result is total mediocrity — or worse.

A Window Into The Average Too-Nice Workplace

The appeal of being nice is obvious: it feels great. You smile, and other people smile. Everyone’s happy. It’s partly the conditioning I described above — avoiding frustration and conflict is a quite literally whole way of life — but it’s also something even more deeply rooted.

There are certainly everyday aspects of our work life — far from the absurdity of HubSpot — when this overwhelming need to be nice takes over. Whether it’s at the playground with our child or in the boardroom with professional adults, the risks of not being nice are often unthinkably high.

In Michael Fertik’s HBR piece The Problem With Being Too Nice, he takes a positive stance on niceness — as everyone should, really — but only when it’s coupled with an ability to make difficult and sometimes brutal choices. His most chilling example involves what he refers to as ‘polite deception’ — or letting someone who clearly isn’t correct believe that they are:

You’ve been in these brainstorming meetings — everyone is trying to hack a particular problem, and someone with power raises a ridiculous idea. Instead of people addressing it honestly, brows furrow, heads nod like puppets on strings, and noncommittal murmurs go around. No one feels empowered to gently suggest why that particular idea won’t work."

Rather than risk hurting someone’s feelings and ‘being the asshole’ — or having our criticism be misconstrued as cruelty — we bury our challenges and disagreements, knowing full well that we’re about to go down the wrong path. We’re sensitive, but we’re not blind.

Of course, we don’t forget this irritation. Instead, everyone in the meeting looks to everyone else — anyone else — to be the voice of reason. We wait for the one person who intuitively understands the collective disagreement to call out the ridiculous idea, and rescue us from a terrible decision.

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Unfortunately, everyone has their reason to stand pat. Challenging your boss feels bad because they might fire you. Challenging your lowest-ranking employee feels bad because they might quit. Challenging your equal might leave you in decreased standing with your closest allies. In the end, nobody has a good reason to challenge: we all fear the frustration and hostility that await us on the other side. We’re all more comfortable playing nice.

But when these allowances begin to pile up and enough bad ideas have persevered, everyone on the team starts to take note. As Fertik tells us, you might end up with a culture of sustained irritation and mediocrity:

…you create a fertile atmosphere for contempt to spread. Imagine the reactions of your most talented, focused, and motivated employees as they watch lackluster coworkers get pass after pass. Anger and resentment take root, morale plummets, and turnover starts to go up, up, up."

A group that plays the game of niceness and doesn’t challenge openly may feel fair and harmonious — but does it really feel like the communication of a high-performing team? Are we actually helping one another by being nice all the time? It may be time to consider that while people might want a comfortable, uber-friendly workplace, it might not always be what they need to be great at their job.

And unfortunately, getting away from a bad idea sometimes requires being a little mean, and putting aside your innate desire to be the nicest person on the planet. It means dropping an “Actually, I think that’s the wrong idea,” or maybe a “You’re not thinking about this in the right way.”

After all, good, progressive communication is full of what we might deem ‘unpleasant’ interactions. Debates, raised voices, outright disagreements: these are all important stations on the vast spectrum of communication. But when avoiding confrontation and frustration matters just as much to us as being nice, how are we supposed to stomach being meaner?

What It Means To Be Mean

Being mean has its terrible implications. Nobody wants to be the office loner who ruthlessly claws his way into captain’s chair of every meeting, and wantonly criticizes his coworkers at every turn.

But the reality is that the moment you’re not nice at work, you — and your coworkers — may feel that you’re being mean (this risk is doubly worse for women, but that’s another story). It’s an unfortunate embedded binary system in our offices: you’re either nice and encouraging, or mean and a challenging asshole.

It probably doesn’t help that characteristics like openness, extraversion, and self-esteem are often what defines the true psychopath. While those might sound like regular, constructive, and even desirable traits, they’re increasingly perceived as being part of a “highly selfish social strategy.”

It’s not hopeless, though. We just need to get better at disagreeing, and stepping away from the endless compulsion to be nice — whether we need to brutally reveal why we’re firing someone, or be more diligent about turning bad ideas into good ones.

Being Mean, The Nice Way

In 2008, Paul Graham published How to Disagree, a now-legendary essay on respectful ways to disagree. He describes a “disagreement hierarchy,” and at the bottom of the hierarchy — the least effective disagreement tools — are personal attacks, such as name calling and ad hominem insults.

These bottom arguments are, I believe, what most frustration-prone and criticism-sensitive people choose to hear whenever they’re disagreed with. Even the most perfectly thought out argument has the feeling of a personal attack, and our reaction causes the criticizer to think twice before challenging us again. Not great communication.

As Graham moves up the hierarchy, the more practical types of disagreements begin to emerge. Incidentally, these are the ones that require real thought and contemplation — not just blatant disagreement. Take refutation, which comes near the top:

The most convincing form of disagreement is refutation. It’s also the rarest, because it’s the most work… You have to find a 'smoking gun,' a passage in whatever you disagree with that you feel is mistaken, and then explain why it’s mistaken."

The point that Graham hits on is critical: the best and most effective criticism is often the kind that takes the most work. After all, being thoughtfully mean is about more than just being gentle — it’s about persuasion, too, and coming up with a compelling and agreeable counterpoint to soften the blow.

And most importantly, when we take the time to structure an argument properly, the ‘mean’ elements are usually extracted, anyway. Refutation, in all its circumspect glory, makes critiques feel appropriately impersonal and unpolitical — something presented for the good of the group, rather than for the self-concerned, maybe-psychopathic individual.

Well thought-out, constructed arguments just have the verity that personal insults don’t. “You don’t have to be mean when you have a real point to make,” says Graham. “In fact, you don’t want to. If you have something real to say, being mean just gets in the way.”

When We’re Too Nice, We All Lose

Someone is fired and given no cause, and they get a party. A bad idea in a meeting gets a free pass. Or maybe we’re bold enough to make a counterargument against that bad idea, but don’t disagree in a respectful manner. Consider the lingering effects of these examples on every individual involved.

When we choose to be relentlessly nice at work, we’re doing a disservice to the hardworking, professional people around us — people who deserve, above all else, to have an opportunity to be great at their job. While being less nice might feel like it always equates to being mean, it really equates to finding a way to respectfully help people do their job best: for their own personal benefit, and for the collective gain of the group.

Maybe that means being brutal, and maybe that means hurting someone’s feelings. Maybe that’s the only way to build a team that completely fulfills their potential.

As leaders, it’s the responsibility that we owe to everyone on our team: to help them take their career and their abilities to amazing places. This means real feedback, and real challenges — and that’s not always going to be a party. Sorry, HubSpot.

And just like the major league pitcher who gets sent down to the minors specifically to work on his fastball that isn’t quite fast enough, we all need to put ourselves in a position to demand that criticism. It may feel unnatural, and any criticism of our work might seem uncalled for and offensive: but we need to know.

We all need to be okay with not being nice. Otherwise, we’ll be stuck in the minor leagues forever.

***

Images: Bully

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The Pivot Mindset: What It Is & How To Use It https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-pivot-mindset Thu, 28 Apr 2016 20:15:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/the-pivot-mindset you-need-budget.jpg#asset:949

Eric Ries, whose team at Lean Startup Company we featured last week, coined the term “pivot” with a blog post he wrote back in 2009. In the article, Pivot, don’t jump to a new vision, Ries makes a bold declaration:

The hardest part of entrepreneurship is to develop the judgment to know when it’s time to change direction and when it’s time to stay the course.”

To develop this judgment, one must have the sensitivity to distinguish between what is progress and what is wasted effort. One way to flex this muscle, Ries says, is through the concept of the pivot:

…the idea that successful startups change directions but stay grounded in what they’ve learned. They keep one foot in the past and place one foot in a new possible future.”

Rather than throw your hands up and altogether abandon your vision, you take your learning with you as you pivot to where feedback and market signals are telling you to go.

At some point in their trajectory, all successful startups will to some degree pivot — and pivoting is as much a mindset as it is a concept. The pivot mindset allows startups to dismantle the fear of objectively collecting feedback, because they’re able to realize this fear is based on the underlying fear of having to act on that feedback.

Acting on this feedback means doing the difficult work of admitting past mistakes, and it may mean relegating huge amounts of hard work to the scrap bin. But it always means having a frame of mind that views the hard work of the past not as something to cling to but as something to spring from.

In basketball, a pivot is where a player keeps one foot grounded and allows the other to move where they need it to go. When a player abandons their pivot foot, it means they are either up in the air (where they must make a decision before landing), or they’ve traveled — a violation of the rules that means the other team gets the ball.

Similarly, when a startup abandons its pivot foot, they enter dangerous terrain. As Ries put it:

…many unsuccessful startups simply jump outright from one vision to something completely different. These jumps are extremely risky, because they don’t leverage the validated learning about customers that came before.”

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The story of Instagram, formerly named Burbn, is often the go-to story of what it means for a company to pivot.

Kevin Systrom, CEO and co-founder of Instagram, wrote about the pivot from Burbn to Instagram over at Quora:

…we took a step back and looked at the product as it stood. By this time, we had built Burbn into a (private) really neat HTML5 mobile web app that let you: Check in to locations, Make plans (future check-ins), Earn points for hanging out with friends, post pictures, and much more.”

When Systrom and his team combed through the data, they found that Burbn users were posting pictures way more than they were using any other feature. So, while keeping one foot grounded in what they had already accomplished, they pivoted and began the process of going all-in on developing the best photo sharing experience on the market.

To make this kind of pivot, Systrom and his team had to view the data not merely as a glimpse into what they were doing wrong, but as a beacon pointing to where they needed to go. This demanded a mindset.

The pivot mindset: one that’s grounded by and confident in a vision, constantly learning from but not tethered to past work in pursuit of that vision, and open enough to let feedback forge what the vision becomes.

A relatively unheralded pivot, one that I think startups will increasingly turn to as perhaps a more practical example, comes from Jesse Mecham and his team at You Need a Budget.

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In February 2005, Mecham was tweaking some of his company sales copy. What he uncovered in the process would triple sales over the next six weeks, and set the company on a path to shake up a financial budgeting industry that typically catered to people who already had a ton of money.

As I was playing around with the words I realized a core part of YNAB was some rules I’d had in my head from the very beginning,” Mecham began. “I started framing our copy through these rules, and immediately noticed that this small move could give us a tremendous advantage from a marketing and competitive niche standpoint.”

YNAB (“why-nab”) started as a basic spreadsheet template that Mecham was using to help him and his wife (both university students at the time) establish some sense of control over their limited budget.

It was ugly as sin, but it allowed us to at least record what we were spending so we could have a bird’s eye view and from there try to make better financial decisions.”

Just six months earlier, in September 2004, Mecham was trying to sell this spreadsheet to anybody he possibly could. He was blanketing his apartment complex with fliers, and buying Google Adwords, but his efforts were only netting him a few hundred dollars a month.

When that breakthrough happened in 2005, it paved the way for so many others,” Mecham said. “I started teaching the rules, and pairing it with the spreadsheet, and people were finding this so much more valuable.”

By November 2006, when YNAB officially launched, they had completed the pivot. They’d carved out their four rules, and now had slick software rather than a sloppy spreadsheet. In a competitive new budgeting software industry, YNAB, through this pivot, had effectively created a point of separation between themselves and all other competitors.

This pivot is now completely intertwined with their company vision. Here’s their current homepage copy, followed by the rules:

YNAB combines a simple, effective methodology with award-winning software to turn you into a finance superhero. You can’t be a superhero without superpowers (obviously), and that’s where the rules come in":

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Mecham and YNAB have since been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Entrepreneur, and countless business publications. But the story behind these stories comes from Mecham’s embracing of the pivot mindset.

He could have put his head down, ignored the insight and kept chugging along. He could have embraced the insight but ignored the feedback he received once he started teaching the rules. He could have, as Ries put it, jumped into a new vision altogether. Or he could have even given up on the startup and tried to land a cushy job once he became a CPA.

He didn’t do any of those. He pivoted like so many successful startups have, and he did it in a way (pairing method with product) that modern teams everywhere should probably start thinking about.

***

For more information about YNAB, visit YouNeedABudget.com

-Photo: Instagram image/zenspa1

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Listen Like a Lion https://www.getflow.com/blog/listen-like-lion Fri, 22 Apr 2016 12:50:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/listen-like-lion lean-startup-company.jpeg#asset:630

If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read The Lean Startup (if not, please stop, go order the book, and come on back). Those who haven’t yet dug into it typically know the book’s major premise is efficiency.

But this isn’t some be cheap and fail fast nonsense. It’s what efficiency means at its core: accomplishing something with the least waste of time, effort, and/or money.

Lean is about wrapping a process and methodology around a vision so that you’re not entirely dependent on huge sums of money and many years just to test that vision.

It helps give entrepreneurs the agility to test quickly and the knowledge necessary to pivot accordingly. As Ries put it:

The ability to learn faster from customers is the essential competitive advantage that startups must possess.”

What’s at the heart of “learning from customers?” Listening. And it’s a major reason why Lean Startup Company, founded by Eric Ries, Heather McGough and Melissa Moore, came to be and why it’s continuing to grow its community of entrepreneurs and corporate innovators who believe innovation can be continuous and growth can be sustainable.

The book became a global phenomenon,” Heather McGough began. “The methodology has gone beyond the tech sector and beyond two people in a garage. It’s used by large complex companies, government agencies, scrappy nonprofits, educators and more. There’s great excitement; we’re feeling it and listening to it. People are hungry for ways to take the tactical and make it practical based on their circumstance, and we’re thrilled to be in a spot to help them do that.”

The importance of feeling and listening sunk into McGough’s bones during her seven year career in the nonprofit sector. Her experiences in AmeriCorps, where she worked on literacy campaigns, and with City of Dreams, where she worked with youth living in four of San Francisco's public housing communities, guide her own sense of what it means to be a lean startup.

I love listening to a person’s vision, then helping them use a measurable and iterative approach to validate and bring it to life,” says McGough, who leads the training program and product development initiatives at Lean Startup Company. “But my goal isn’t to grow this into some kind of 7 billion dollar business; it’s to help us support folks in the best way we can, and many times this means bringing Silicon Valley out of Silicon Valley.”

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This fall, McGough’s team will bring Lean Startup and modern management lessons to Detroit to help various urban renewal efforts, and they’ve got their eyes on several social missions in New Orleans as well. Still, to get Lean Startup Company off the ground demanded a ton of listening. Years, actually.

I worked with Eric for many years, and I found myself in a role that enabled me to listen and learn from the community. Through simply speaking to people and companies across the globe, I came to see they were thirsting for more knowledge to support the creation of their products and services,” McGough said. “For some, they were a community without a community, and over time it became clear what we had to do.”

When McGough said, “listen and learn,” I myself, for a moment, stopped listening so deeply. My mind flashed back to a memory years ago when I was at a Buddhist temple in Thailand. Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, leading the sitting meditation, guided us through a session on the importance of deep listening. At the conclusion, he said: “Maintain deep listening, but when you stand up please move with the slow, gentle, firm steps of a lion.”

Lean Startup Company, because they had listened rather than assumed, has quickly become the official place for people to learn more about Lean Startup methodology. They’re creating educational campaigns and soon online classes, they provide in-person training and coaching for larger, more complex organizations who seek to ingrain the startup mindset into their company culture, and they host an annual conference.

All this listening and learning,” McGough says, “applies to our own team as well. We practice Lean Startup methods; we’re a startup ourselves. We’re constantly screwing up and rerouting.”

Naturally, they also place a premium on learning fast about their colleagues. They listen to their wants, and move forward from there. If a particular employee is immensely talented and loves working on certain things, but absolutely despises some other part of their work, the team strives to find ways so that the dreaded work can be taken off the plate.

In other words, running an efficient startup is also a constant process of helping employees fuse their talents and passions. Chances of success are greater when each team member is aligned toward the common goal and loving their work.

You can grow and acquire as many companies as you want,” McGough says, “but that might not mean your company will automatically ‘operate like a startup.’ Smart companies know that practicing Lean Startup and modern management techniques give teams of all sizes in any sector the edge so crucial for innovation.”

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey asks an important question:

You spend years learning how to read and write, and years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training have you had that enables you to listen so you really, deeply understand another human being?”

For McGough, that training came during years in the nonprofit sector and continues to be an immensely important part of her work. It’s worth it for all of us to think about where ours came from, and about how we can better integrate listening like a lion into our everyday lives at home and at work.

After all, listening is the leanest way to learn.

***

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An Ocean of Ideas, a Team Without Nets https://www.getflow.com/blog/an-ocean-of-ideas-a-team-without-nets Fri, 15 Apr 2016 17:52:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/an-ocean-of-ideas-a-team-without-nets innovation.png#asset:881

Businesses are disappearing faster than ever before.”

That’s how researchers Reeves, Levin, and Ueda put it after investigating the longevity of 30,000 companies across a 50-year span. Conventional wisdom nudges us to dismiss our own role in this by casting blame on volatile market forces and the unique technological times we live in. But the researchers found something else:

Companies have increasingly shorter life spans not so much because of the forces or the times, but because of our failure to adapt to them.

In their piece titled, The Biology of Corporate Survival, they state that for companies to adapt “leaders must ensure that the company is sufficiently diverse along three dimensions: people, ideas, and endeavors.”

We’ve talked much about people. We’ve discussed why flat organizations eventually fail, why culture fit is the new form of discrimination, why women bear more of the burden when it comes to collaboration and, most recently, as Vikas Gupta told us, why “Hiring well is the most important aspect to a startup’s success.”

Likewise, we’ve highlighted the importance of aligning your vision with your endeavors through sharing insights from other modern teams, and peppering in a few of our own at Flow.

But… ideas? We’ve talked about creating the kind of workplace culture conducive to generating them, and we’ve even mentioned some great strategies to bring them to life, such as Sledgehammer Innovation, but we’ve not yet talked about a crucial stage: how to capture them.

First, a recap on what kills ideas:

Fear & Futility

Mark Twain once said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” Likewise, fear and futility are fatal to the entire continuum of ideation. So you take pride in having an “open-door policy?” Fear is the glass wall in front it. So you look forward to your energetic brainstorming sessions? Futility is why nothing impactful ever grows from them.

On Fear: There’s a misperception about leadership and fear, especially in the world of startups. Many young startup founders are working hard to lead their teams to success, but they’ve never felt what it was like to be an employee. They’ve never come to know the fear of having to walk past aisles of their colleagues to enter a boss’s lavish office, or how much easier it is to remain silent than to put forth an idea that stands in contrast to an idea from the person who writes their checks.

Fear need not come from an aggressive, no-nonsense boss. It can spread through a workplace culture of competition, or even through the lack of an ideation process.

On Futility: This is the “why bother” approach. Employees who have once or twice spoken up to share an idea, only to never see the team make any move on it whatsoever, will likely stop bringing up ideas—and may even lose the creativity of mind to come up with ideas in the first place.

While fear may seem the hands-down reason why teams cannot come up with or share new ideas, research from management professors James R. Detert and Ethan R. Burris found this:

In many organizations we’ve studied, the biggest reason for withholding ideas and concerns wasn’t fear but, rather, the belief that managers wouldn’t do anything about them anyway. At one Fortune 100 high-tech company, employees cited futility as a reason for reticence almost twice as often as fear.”

But, let’s assume for a moment that your team has cut through the fear and futility factors. Your team is creatively equipped, and touts its emphasis on design thinking as why you’re able to generate awesome ideas like everyday. Maybe you’ve even created the kind of culture that allows employees at all levels to share half-baked ideas without feeling the pressure of judgment.

And this is where we’ve been led astray.

The net you need to catch ideas is named Criticism

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“This business world is awash in ideas for new products, services, and business models,” says Roberto Verganti, professor of leadership and innovation at Politecnico di Milano. But, while he believes this is undoubtedly a good thing, the overwhelming mass of ideas has served to peel back the curtain to reveal a problem: teams typically don’t have a clue for how to sift through them all and capture the good ones.

At the surface level, researchers Detert and Burris found that:

Some leaders spend millions of dollars collecting ideas, but don’t allocate a single employee to read through them.”

Still, even if these leaders did allocate an employee or two, there’s the assumption that the employees (or someone else) would actually know how to extract the good stuff.

This is why Verganti’s research is so important: He didn’t just recognize the problem, he created a 4-step process to help teams solve it.

A few key principles must be addressed before we dive into the process. First, Verganti believes there are two levels of innovation: improvements and new directions. Improvements are solutions to those problems widely recognized in the marketplace. New directions are those kind of visionary reinterpretations that can help a company adapt and be prepared for the future.

Consider the difference between how Kodak and Fujifilm handled the way digital photography shook up their industry in the late 1990s.

While Kodak eventually declared bankruptcy in 2012, they essentially spent the first decade of the 21st century trying to hold on to existing models, believing their name as a pioneer in photography would carry them through—even as their target market shrank by 90% during this time.

Fujifilm, on the other hand, found new directions. According to Reeves, Levin, and Ueda, it went in quite radical new directions—investing in R&D, acquiring 40 firms, and even moving into the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries where it “could exploit its existing capabilities in chemistry and materials.”

To do this, Fujifilm couldn’t just rely on a treasure trove of ideas. They actually had to judge which ones stood up to scrutiny and should be pursued. In other words, they had to pick a few and go all-in. To simply improve their existing ways would have killed them.

The 4 steps to capturing ideas

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Criticism, Verganti makes sure to note, comes from the Greek word krino, which means “able to judge, value, interpret.” With this definition in mind, Verganti puts it this way:

Criticism need not be negative; in this context it involves surfacing different perspectives, highlighting their contrasts, and synthesizing them into a bold new vision.”

Here’s how he suggests baking a tried-and-true capturing technique into ideation:

Step 1: Individual Reflection. In this stage, employees from various positions are asked to reflect about potential new directions—this can be about the larger role of the company, or about the specifics of a product, but this dimension should be carved out at the forefront.

The employees are not asked to share their reflections in front of a group or even on a team (where competition and deep thought can be clouded), and they are also not asked to submit their reflections quickly, or base them purely on what customers are telling them. Instead, the employees are given one month, while maintaining their current jobs, to really reflect on and criticize their ideas. Some may use customer feedback or company data, while others may rely on gut. But one month seems to be a good timeframe for employees to come to terms with what might be ridiculously out-of-touch and what might actually stand up to the criticism inherent in the next steps.

Note: The time to sit with and criticize one’s own idea is a crucial component often left out of the idea generation process. Failing to incorporate this dimension results in everybody throwing their seemingly equally valid idea against a wall… that someone else is tasked with sifting through.

Step 2: Sparring Partners. As in boxing, sparring partners are there to test each other while keeping each other safe. Implicit in this relationship is a deep level of trust. It’s at this step where each person shares their new direction with a trusted peer.

Verganti suggests finding this sparring partner either through allowing a pair that has a proven track record to work together, or through a “speed-dating process whereby people with similar visions can find each other and agree to work together to polish their ideas.”

While Verganti states that this must be a “protected environment in which the person can dare to share a wild or half-baked hypothesis without being dismissed,” he’s quick to note that this is a time to really dig into the idea, find its gaps, tease them out, and talk about them.

Note: It’s here where a personally scrutinized idea is criticized through a new perspective. Ideas shared between friends tend to be supported and cheered on, but this sparring partner concept demands the kind of ruthless but empathic candor that is necessary preparation for Step 3.

Step 3: Radical Circles. This exercise, which can resemble a workshop model and be held over the course of weeks, opens up a discussion about the promising hypothesis to larger groups at the company (Verganti mentions 10 to 20 peers who have also been working on their own new directions).

These radical circles should strive for as much diversity as possible (in terms of background, personalities, perspective, etc). In addition to keeping the process positive and creative, Verganti suggests using this time to ask employees to focus on where they think the company should not go or on who their enemies are. For example, he mentions how Microsoft viewed Sony and its Playstation 2 console as why it was crucial for them to develop the Xbox.

The next step is to discuss these new directions while focusing on where they contrast and overlap. Maybe two employees have similar ideas, each filling in the gaps of the other. If the team agrees, this can be dissected and perhaps formed into its own, more polished idea.

Note: Typically this stage of opening the idea up to a larger group comes at the beginning, and without either the deep individual criticism or criticism from the sparring partner. As such, rather than a team having 100s of ideas to discuss at this stage, they’ll have fewer, but better, ones.

Step 4: Outsiders. Whereas many teams begin by soliciting feedback from outsiders (customers, auditors, etc.), Verganti believes this should actually be the final step of the process. He believes it’s the employees who typically have the great ideas, but the outsiders who can usually raise the great questions. He puts it like this:

Remember that, unlike open innovation, involving outsiders is not intended to generate new ideas. Rather, it’s meant to raise good questions—to challenge the innovative direction you propose in order to strengthen it.”

Again, diversity of outsiders is paramount. Choose a few from within your industry, but also well outside of it—including artists and people who know very little about your industry or product.

At this point, the ideas that began as individual 30-day reflections have now been put through a safe but rigorous process of criticism. This type of process isn’t typically part of a company’s ideation process, and is the reason why companies, after spending millions to create ideas, are still left wondering what to do with them (or how or if to use them).

Through these 4 steps, many ideas will have been weeded out, others refined, and a few just might be the ones that catapult your team above your competitors and in an entirely new direction.

That is, if you’re open to entering the ocean of ideas with the net of criticism.

***

Images: Bully

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To See the Future, Stop Feeding the Fire https://www.getflow.com/blog/stop-feeding-fire Mon, 11 Apr 2016 18:54:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/stop-feeding-fire leading-team.jpg#asset:884

If you’re feeding the fire, you’re not seeing the future. The easiest way to feel productive is to feed the fire—to address all of the stuff you see piling up right in front of your face—but that comes with a cost. And it’s a kind of cost that money can’t take care of,” Patti Sanchez began.

Sanchez is the Chief Strategy Officer at Duarte Inc., a visual storytelling company in Sunnyvale, California, that was founded by CEO Nancy Duarte back in 1988. Duarte Inc. fuses the foundational elements of storytelling with visual thinking to help clients craft the kind of persuasive, behavior-changing communications that can ignite movements.

Sounds cool, right? But it’s not just good company copy. Many consider Sanchez and her team at Duarte Inc. the best in the world at what they do.

Sanchez has helped teams at Nike, Cisco, and Compassion International shape their stories for maximum impact. And Nancy Duarte has worked in similar capacities for TED, Apple, and Google. Who did Harvard Business Review turn to when they needed the perfect author for their HBR Guide to Persuasive Presentations? Nancy.

Together, along with their 115-strong team, they’ve helped over half of the top 50 brands in the U.S. convey their stories. In short, if you’ve ever been moved in some capacity by a recognizable brand’s communication efforts, you’ve likely felt the influence of Duarte Inc.

I was especially interested in how the leadership at Duarte Inc. seemed to lead their team not by doing, but by seeing. When they saw everybody using Powerpoint slides to present their ideas, for example, they were able to see into the future enough to realize that many audiences would be better served through a hybrid slide/document.

Whereas Powerpoint could serve as a great visual aid for a presentation, nothing existed to help people blend the aesthetic capabilities inherent in a slide, with the important, more in-depth information contained in a document. They thought about the what ifs:

What if you needed to convey your message to a large audience but not through a presentation?

What if you wanted a more visually engaging style than what the typical drab document allows?

So they created Slidedocs, the middle way, a visual document, developed in presentation software, that is intended to be read and referenced instead of presented and projected:

Along with several other books on the topic of mastering the art of visual presentations, including slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations, and Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences, Duarte Inc. carved out their place as pioneers in this burgeoning new method of storytelling in business.

As an outsider looking in, I wanted to know how they repeatedly stayed one clip ahead in the communication industry—which is all it takes since they’ve built a team around them who is ready and able to transform that one clip ahead into what becomes the new norm.

Much of seeing into the future, what Nancy has done exceptionally well over the years, comes down to some of those basic quadrant rules from Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People,” Sanchez says.

At this point, she started talking about the difference between urgent work and important work, about how too few leaders carve out space to focus their time and energy on what Covey referred to as “Quadrant 2.” For those unfamiliar, here’s a glimpse into what Covey’s four quadrants are all about:

covey-quadrant.png#asset:953

As you can tell, seeing into the future isn’t urgent but it is important.

If you plot the activities of your days for a week or so, and you see a lot of your activities are in the urgent but not important quadrant [bottom left], you’re simply not going to spend time thinking about the future,” Sanchez says.

This is where the Duarte team disagrees a bit with traditional ideas of leadership. You know, the ones like this:

leadership-boss.jpg#asset:954

While they see it as important for leadership to spend time in the trenches, and certainly believe leaders should pull their load, it’s awfully difficult, perhaps impossible, to at once be in the trenches and have the perspective necessary to envision a long-term plan.

But check out the boss in that image. He looks angry as all get out, sure, but he’s also able to see from a different vantage point. The middle way, once again, is where Duarte Inc. shines. They believe leaders must consciously spend time at both levels in order to present an authentic, realistic vision of the future. Sanchez puts it like this:

Probably the hardest thing for leaders is deciding what they’ll have to say no to, how to hand off those urgent/non-important requests. Many times it’s easy not to, because you know what needs to be done and you know how to do it, but if that’s the case someone else on your team likely does as well. It comes down to the fundamental process of beginning and ending; if you’re going to make something new, you also have to let something go.”

For Nancy Duarte and Patti Sanchez, it’s especially important to carve out time in the schedule to step away from the activities in Quadrant 3, and constantly learn to delegate the urgent items from Quadrant 1. With competitors always nipping at their heels, and new startups forming each day, if they aren’t spending time thinking about the future they’re bound to be burned by the same fires they couldn’t stop feeding.

Patti Sanchez & Nancy Duarte

As much as seeing into the future is truly at the heart of their continued success, they simply couldn’t do it if they hadn’t hired rockstars, and worked to nurture and unite them at every step of the way.

Sanchez told me the most profound moment of her career wasn’t the writing of Illuminate, their latest book, or landing some major long-term deal, it’s what happens at an annual event held by Duarte Inc. called “Speak Up.”

Speak Up is a night of storytelling, in house. Eight employees speak, TED talk style, for 8-minutes. The event is kept private just for the employees and their families, and because of the profound stories shared and vulnerability shown, Speak Up has taken on an almost sacred nature. To prepare, Duarte Inc's senior writers help the employees build out their story, visualize and practice presenting it, and shine for those 8 minutes.

One result, of course, is that the employees get to feel the Duarte Inc. method at a deeper level because they’re actually practicing how to do it. But the primary result is the transformational experience that can happen when, surrounded by a team you trust, you share one of your life's most personally meaningful moments. A team, even one that has worked together for years, can unite and bond in brand new ways. The Speak Up presentations aren’t just about conveying, they’re about connecting.

What moves us as a team is our commitment to helping people move others. Our chosen medium is presentation and visuals, but it’s really about helping other people make their change in the world,” Sanchez told me.

The Duarte Inc. team sees visually presented stories not so much as “presentations” but as what they call “impassioned pleas.” When someone takes the stage, or otherwise stands with their story in front of others, the implicit message is this:

Come with me on this journey, and be open enough to be transformed by it.

The Duarte Inc. way is about harnessing the timeless power of stories to change others and build movements. And this is a process that demands seeing into the future, while knowing precisely how to persuade others to join you. It’s what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were able to do, and it’s what many value most about Steve Jobs.

"Everybody who wants to make a change in the world has to ask others to get involved, and we think this is a crucial part that’s often neglected,” Sanchez began.

A leader might grab all the attention for creating the movement, but the movement itself is then driven by the people. A movement takes immense trust and buy-in. And this is the reason we exist: To help people make their impassioned plea so eloquently that their ideas have a chance to take off in the world.”

The team at Duarte Inc. is fired about what they do and why they do it, but many other companies can say the same. What sets them apart, what allows them to stay at the forefront of their industry, is their radical commitment to letting some fires burn so they can gaze out into the future.

***

-For more information about Duarte Inc., visit Duarte.com.

-Image of Boss vs. Leader: Flickr/David Sanabria

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Don’t Just Start With Why, Lead With It https://www.getflow.com/blog/dont-just-start-with-why-lead-with-it Thu, 31 Mar 2016 11:50:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/dont-just-start-with-why-lead-with-it wonder-workshop.jpg#asset:633

Inspiration struck Vikas Gupta in 2012 when, after quitting his job as Head of Consumer Payments at Google to travel the world, he was hiking with his wife in the French Alps. With his 9-month-old daughter strapped to his back, the vast blue, white and green landscape before his eyes, and the freedom of not having to think about work, this simple truth washed over him:

The time I spend at work is time away from where I most love to spend it—with my family. So I came to see work hours as absolutely precious. If they were taking me from my family they had to be meaningful.”

So Gupta decided that his future work would be about making the world a better place for children.

In other words, he found the why of his reason for working before he could articulate the why for any future company he’d create. And it’s this mindset that he infuses into his role as CEO of Wonder Workshop, a company based in San Mateo that he co-founded in November 2012.

With only 25 people on their team, Wonder Workshop has garnered several major awards for their creation of Dash & Dot—robots that, through play, teach kids 5 and up how to code.

In addition to the honor they received from Good Housekeeping, Gupta’s team has won awards from Popular Mechanics, Scholastic Parent & Child, and FamilyFun Magazine. They were named one of Inc. Magazine’s most innovative startups of 2015, they’ve been adopted in over 1,000 elementary schools throughout the United States, and Melinda Gates recommended Dash (on the right in the photo above) as the best way for children to learn Computer Science.

And then there are the hard numbers. When Gupta first launched the project on Kickstarter, it quickly generated $1.4 million. The stream of money and interest didn’t end there. Since the company’s formal launch, they’ve raised over $17 million from Google Ventures and Madrona Venture Group, among others.

It’s the kind of startup success story that feels at once inspiring and entirely out of reach, so I caught up with Vikas to gain a deeper understanding of how that inspirational why helps him lead his team.

Starting with why, and how Gupta did it

wonder workshop 1

Left to right: Mikal Greaves: Co-Founder, VP of Product Development; Vikas Gupta: Co-Founder, CEO; Saurabh Gupta: Co-Founder, CTO


Born in Chandigarh, India, Gupta learned to program when he was 14. Learning to code was an experience that has stuck with him not only because it equipped him to enter the tech space, but because he legitimately enjoyed it.

I learned to program when my school purchased its first computer and hired a Computer Science teacher. Computer programming was fun for me from the very first moment; there was something magical about writing a set of instructions that the machine would run and produce an output,” Gupta says.

After immigrating to the U.S. in the 90s, Gupta attended graduate school and, shortly after graduation, moved into a position with Amazon, a 7-year experience that eventually led to him leading their payments and web services teams. “I had an incredible experience at Amazon,” Gupta began.

I benefited from the culture of end-to-end ownership, and loved how they believed in me and empowered me to innovate and take risks.”

When Gupta left Amazon to launch Jambool, a virtual monetization platform that enables developers to create and manage virtual currency (which he later sold to Google), it was partly because Amazon helped to nurture his ability to take risks.

When I then joined Google, I was blown away by the culture of openness. There were literally no walls when it came to information within the company,” Gupta told me.

But while Gupta was well on his way to carving out his place as an innovator, and racking up quite a resume in the process, he was primarily driven by his intellect and work ethic. He could masterfully handle the how and the what, but he didn’t really know why he was doing it all. Sure, he had the talent, often enjoyed the work, and it was a way he could support his family, but something felt missing.

When my first child was born, it just felt like the perfect time to take a break and figure out what I should do next,” he said.

Gupta didn’t set out to define his why, and he hadn’t read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why, a popular book (that grew from this massively successful TED Talk) encouraging leaders to place less emphasis on what they are doing and how they are doing it, and more on why they are doing it.

But Gupta did grant himself space away from day-to-day work, and there are many other success stories that follow a similar path.

Take, for example, the story of TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie. In its first six years, TOMS grew into a global company with $300 million in revenue. Mycoskie owned 100% of it, and for five consecutive years it had an annual growth rate of around 300%. So why then, in the fall of 2012, did he take a sabbatical?

As Mycoskie tells it in the January-February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review, he needed to have a “physical and psychological separation from the company to do some soul-searching.”

Like Gupta, Mycoskie’s time away made him realize why he wasn’t entirely fulfilled by his work anymore: He was bogged down in the daily grind of the what and the how. Unlike Gupta, this realization was sparked by Sinek’s book:

The more I thought about this idea, the more I realized that TOMS had veered away from its ‘why.’ In the early days we always led with our story: We weren’t selling shoes; we were selling the promise that each purchase would directly and tangibly benefit a child who needed shoes. But our desire to sustain the company’s hypergrowth had pushed us away from that mission and into competing on the ‘what’ and ‘how,’ just as every other shoe company does.”

The result? Mycoskie returned to TOMS with a newfound fire, and a new idea that, as he puts it, “reinspired the ‘why’ of TOMS”: he launched TOMS Roasting, a coffee venture which, for every bag sold, provides a week’s worth of clean drinking water to a person in need. The move has led to over 175,000 weeks of clean drinking water, and has ignited the TOMS customer base back to levels Mycoskie hasn’t seen since they were the new kid on the block.

Herein lies what many people miss about Sinek’s vision, especially those who have only watched his TED Talk: Starting with the why isn’t merely a way to improve your sales pitch or even carve out your company’s vision, it’s a way to help you question how you’re spending what Gupta calls those “absolutely precious” hours at work.

For Gupta, it’s not enough to “start with why.” He uses it as a way to lead his growing team.

Leading with why, and how it helped Gupta pivot

If you've made it this far, you deserve this glimpse into the what.

Why for Gupta begins with the overarching idea of making the world a better place for children. This idea became more real, however, when he was able to frame it like this: The potential for children to learn to code is great; the tools available to help them do this, however, are not.

"As I read and explored this topic, I came upon an article about Estonia mandating their first graders to learn programming. This took me by surprise—I felt first grade was far too young to learn programming,” Gupta began.

How were these kids learning? Could children learn to program at that age? As I read through the research on the subject, I learned that while on one hand kids have the cognitive ability to learn the Computer Science fundamentals at a young age, the existing tools don’t serve their needs. Educators have been trying to take products for older kids, or adults, and make them work for kids at a young age, and through no fault of their own they were failing in those attempts.”

Teaching kids to code through robots wasn’t Gupta’s initial idea, though. His team spent their first few months trying to figure out how they could get kids to actually build their own robot. “We eventually realized that we were making the same mistake others before us had made, and we needed a fresh approach,” Gupta said.

To overcome this challenge, Gupta brought his team out of the what and back to the why:

Why are we trying to help kids build a robot?

This questioning led them to:

Why don’t we instead teach them to code through a robot?

The pivot turned out to be a crucial one for all parties involved, and allowed Wonder Workshop to immediately get to work on solving their three most pressing questions:

1. Is the robot usable for a child as young as 5 or 6?

2. Is it fun from the moment the family opens the box?

3. Is it affordable?

“This was a pivotal moment for us. I’m not sure if we could have made it if we didn’t keep why at the forefront, and use it as a guide to ensure we created the best team we could,” Gupta began.

If I have any advice for growing startups out there it’s this: never lower your hiring bar. Hiring well is the most important aspect to a startup’s success. Bringing in the best talent, and investing early in the culture and their growth helps assimilate new employees better, and reduces bottlenecks as the company grows.”

Why keeps Wonder Workshop evolving, and having fun

wonder workshop 3

A screenshot from Path, an app that works with Dash.


If our why is about allowing kids to learn while having fun,” Gupta says, “then it makes sense that we keep fun a part of how we learn as well.”

Aside from how having fun robots zooming around the office can lighten the mood, there’s often a ping-pong or foosball game going on at Wonder Workshop as well. They run a flat organization, frequently share company metrics with each other, and embrace open seating—which means opportunities for their mechanical engineers, electronics team, software developers, marketers, and fulfillment operations team to brush shoulders, share ideas, and connect.

They are a team that realizes the importance of play, both in how it allows employees to clear their heads and how it can foster creativity.

“Let it be known,” Gupta told me, “We work hard and we take our work seriously, but we take play pretty seriously as well.”

Dash & Dot are often praised for their ability to evolve alongside the child’s capabilities. There are hundreds of challenges, and more in the works, and the team is often releasing new attachments that allows kids to program different movements. As Gupta put it:

We knew from the beginning that if a child does not engage with our robots for an extended period of time, we will not succeed in delivering on the why of our mission. Learning to code isn’t just a matter of mastering syntax—we’re trying to give children a new mental model for understanding the world around them, a new mental tool for solving problems. We wanted children to discover the joy of achievement, repeatedly.”

He also knew that for Wonder Workshop to succeed as a business, parents must recommend the robots to other parents—and sustained engagement of their kids was going to be key. If these were, like most toys, something kids could take out of the box and master within a few hours, their business would fall flat.

We kept our why, this mission to allow young kids to have fun while learning to code, front and center. This compelled us to focus on ensuring the experience with our robots stayed fresh for a long period of time,” Gupta said.

In an age where tech more often enables passive entertainment rather than active engagement, the team at Wonder Workshop has created a product capable of challenging kids over a long period of time.

When Gupta first learned to code back in India, he most remembers those exciting times when, after asking himself why a string of code produced a certain output, he was able to figure out the solution for himself. Now, he's trying to lead the computer programming revolution for kids by building the capacity for similar experiences into Dash & Dot.

Judging by the public’s reaction, he’s doing that quite well.

***

For more information, visit MakeWonder.com.

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The Trendy New Form of Discrimination https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-form-of-discrimination Thu, 24 Mar 2016 10:57:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/new-form-of-discrimination discrimination-work.png#asset:955

I’ve recently returned from Myanmar, where my job was to write about the systemic discrimination faced by some of the country’s ethnic and religious minorities. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been diving deep into the issue in an attempt to bring clarity to the sometimes blurry lines between prejudice, discrimination, and oppression.

I met people who weren’t allowed to sign an apartment lease because it read “No Muslims allowed” on the contract, and I spent time with others who were taken out of college classrooms and forced by gunpoint to live in what researchers at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum have referred to as concentration camps.

So on a train ride last week, when I was listening to the audiobook version of Originals by Adam Grant, I was ultra-sensitive when the book’s narrator read the following passage:

‘Cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination,’ Northwestern University sociologist Lauren Rivera finds.”

Whoa. Say what? I paused it, bookmarked the section, and pushed play. The next line:

Too often, it is a ‘catchall used to justify hiring people who are similar to decision makers and rejecting people who are not.’”

I paused it again, this time letting the words sink in for the remainder of the train ride.

This is when thoughts swirled. Was this some kind of elitist statement, the hijacking of a serious word and concept like discrimination for the sake of applying it to a relatively inconsequential matter? I thought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, how it sought to provide equal opportunity for employment by banning job discrimination in hiring, promoting, and firing on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, and national origin.

Then I thought about how such discrimination happens anyways, how in 2014 women were paid 79% what men were paid (PDF here on that), and how companies such as Chik-Fil-A, Southwest Airlines, Nike (not to mention nearly every tech company) frequently tout their cool company culture as the primary reason why employees should join their team.

Next station: reflection

I exited the train, and during the walk home I was still bothered by the “new discrimination” statement.

It didn’t seem to me that there was anything “new” about hiring people who think or act similar. Sure, it’s probably a shitty business move to primarily hire a candidate not because of their stellar track record or educational prowess, but because during the interview they seemed like someone you’d enjoy grabbing a beer with. But nothing about doing that felt particularly “new” and, based on my recent investigative journalism trip, this sure as hell didn't seem like a form of discrimination.

My thoughts flashed back to three hiring experiences I’d had.

(1) The local grocery store.

This was my first steady job, and I kept it for four years. But I went back to a memory I hadn’t thought about. There was a kiosk just outside of the produce department that allowed job seekers to submit their applications. Applicants were first encouraged to apply through that kiosk, and if there was an opening or interest a proper resume could be submitted.

I’d guess that 90% of the people who used the kiosk throughout the day were black. Yet, and because the passing of time has helped me cut through some of the ways my white privilege blinded me over a decade ago, when I look back I can only recall having one black co-worker.

When I applied through the kiosk, I was called back the next day, and officially hired the next week. Was the grocery store hiring for cultural fit — of the small-town, majority white, central Pennsylvania variety?

It’s likely.

(2) An online publication.

A few years ago I was in a position to make some hires to help expand our editorial coverage. I’d posted on social media that I was looking to hire, and a bunch of friends reached out. However, when it came down to it, and even though they were certainly qualified for the roles, I didn’t bring a single one on board.

The reason? When I looked back through what our growing team needed, I realized we had major gaps. We were writing about disability rights and LGBTQ issues, yet our team didn’t have people who could authentically write from those perspectives.

So, when applications came in from people who could, and their credentials were comparable to my friends who I knew I’d love to work with, it was a no-brainer. I hired not for cultural fit but for cultural contribution. I wanted people who could help develop our culture, not just reinforce the one we already had.

(3) When I joined Flow.

Let me be real here: I didn’t think I’d get the job. It was a relatively unstructured interview process, where I had three 1-to-1 interviews with different members of the marketing team. It was clear that each member had an incredible amount of experience working with tech companies. Indeed, as I’d later find out, most people in the company did.

During each interview I felt like a cultural outsider. I was coming from an educational and freelance journalism background, and didn’t have any idea what SaaS (software as a service) meant. Plus, even though I’d researched the company a ton, I couldn’t wrap my brain around what they actually did.

My first interview was a disaster because my WiFi was terrible. And add to this that, because they were willing to bring someone remote on board, it meant I was competing against hundreds of candidates from all over the world—including those who had likely worked for SaaS companies before. Despite all that, they hired me. And it wasn’t so much for cultural fit as it was because they thought I could bring a new perspective to the team. In other words, Flow hired for cultural contribution rather than fit.

Next station: research

At this point, I understood why Lauren Rivera at Northwestern referred to this as “new.” As we’ve written about here at TMT, company culture is more of a flag than anything tangible. It’s a way for a company to lure new prospects by saying Here’s what we value and here’s what our cool policies are—whether they follow those values or policies is almost another matter altogether.

Wave the flag, show you are hip, hire people who fit your culture, repeat.

No, it’s not “new” to hire people we will form an instant connection with. But it is a fairly new phenomenon that companies are increasingly promoting not their financial perks or the way they’re changing the world but their company cultures. I get it.

But the discrimination part? I still didn’t get it. This was where I had to dig into some research.

The quote from Rivera that appeared in Originals was actually part of the conclusion to a controversial piece titled, Guess Who Doesn’t Fit In at Work, that she wrote for The New York Times. Here it is:

Wanting to work with people like ourselves is not new. In the past, employers overtly restricted job opportunities based on sex, race and religion, which is now illegal. But cultural fit has become a new form of discrimination that keeps demographic and cultural diversity down, all in the name of employee enjoyment and fun.”

And herein lies the problem. Because this idea of “culture” has become so vague—it essentially means whatever the company or even the individual hiring manager wants it to mean—it can easily slip into what Katherine Reynolds Lewis over at Fortune referred to as a shield for discrimination.

Rivera’s research, and indeed much of her book Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs, is about how these vague notions of culture have in many ways come to be a new way to discriminate against race, gender, and various indicators of social status. Rivera’s research has revealed that when a company prides itself on hiring based on a vague notion of cultural fit—and consider that this study suggests “cultural fit” is the single most important indicator when making a hire—minorities are naturally at a disadvantage.

Katherine Klein, vice dean at the Wharton Social Impact Initiative, puts it this way:

It is an incredibly vague term, and it’s a vague term often based on gut instinct. The biggest problem is that while we invoke cultural fit as a reason to hire someone, it is far more common to use it to not hire someone. People can’t tell you what aspect of the culture they are worried about. It’s usually this sense that this person doesn’t seem ‘like us,’ like she or he won’t party well or play well. There are all sorts of biases that can—and do—creep in.”

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, discriminate means:

to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit.”

With that definition in mind, we see that Rivera’s research does point to how hiring for cultural fit can lead to discrimination. But there’s another matter in the mix that can break modern teams everywhere:

Hiring for cultural fit can lead to the creation of a toxic workplace where passive niceness becomes the company’s backbone.

Hiring for cultural fit can rot companies from the inside out

Ray Dalio leads the team at Bridgewater Associates, the world’s largest hedge fund, a company renowned for growing even when the 2008 global economic crisis was sinking its competitors. One of the most quoted lines from his book Principles (PDF here) is this:

Create an environment in which… no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it.”

For Dalio, this “speaking up about it” is what he often credits as the cornerstone for why his company thrives during difficult times. Can a team assembled based primarily on whether they’ll get along with each other, or be fun to hang out with, create this type of environment? It’s possible, but highly unlikely.

A few days later, when I was once again back on the train, I resumed Originals, this time paying particular attention to the spots where Grant interviewed and gathered insights from Dalio. In the context of cultural fit being the new form of discrimination, this passage stood out to me:

At Bridgewater, [employees are] evaluated on whether they speak up—and they can be fired for failing to challenge the status quo.

Strong cultures exist when employees are intensely committed to a shared set of values and norms, but the effects depend on what those values and norms are. If you’re going to build a strong culture, it’s paramount to make diversity one of your core values. This is what separates Bridgewater’s strong culture from a cult: The commitment is to promoting dissent. In hiring, instead of using similarity to gauge cultural fit, Bridgewater assesses cultural contribution.”

Once again, I shut the audiobook off and let it sink in. Then my mind drifted to a recent discussion among our Flow colleagues. For months we’ve struggled on how to word a certain part of our pricing model, but it finally seemed like a consensus was reached in changing it up and moving forward.

That is, until a colleague spoke up. She said she understands the situation, and the reasons why a decision must soon be made. But she made it known that she fundamentally and ethically disagreed with the consensus that was forming. As a result of her statement, several others felt comfortable speaking up as well, and soon the ship was headed in a different direction.

The next morning, the first message posted in the team chatroom was from a member of our leadership team. He applauded her for speaking up, especially because it sparked discussions on so many other important issues. He said this kind of questioning of the default and challenging of the status quo “needs to be part of Flow’s DNA.”

This sure aligns with the culture Dalio has built into Bridgewater, Grant’s assessment on why that type of culture is important, and my own reflections on why Flow hired me to begin with.

It also reinforced that while hiring for cultural fit has quite likely become the new form of discrimination, it’s also a bad business move. In hiring to build a team that stands around you like mirrors, you’re building a team perfectly suited to shatter when it most needs to evolve.

***

-Lead Painting: A Murder of Crows by Nancy Farmer

Artist Statement:

"My art is a confection of fantasy and reality, my compositions peopled with characters drawn from my observation of the everyday and the mundane, but coloured by my love of stories and fairytales."

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Why We Suck At Work-Life Balance, And How We Can Suck Less https://www.getflow.com/blog/why-we-suck-at-work-life-balance Thu, 17 Mar 2016 13:04:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/why-we-suck-at-work-life-balance work-life-balance.png#asset:635

When it comes to work-life balance, we tech folk are a spoiled bunch. On paper, at least. 

We go to work every day at companies that champion work-life balance in revolutionary ways. Unlimited vacation policies have become widespread, with some companies even going so far as to enforce mandated vacation. Some particularly crazy companies even give their employees a time-off stipend, effectively gifting everyone a free getaway.

Beyond that, almost everyone has the freedom to work from home at least some of the time, should they choose to. We’re granted the freedom to pick up our kids from daycare, go wait in line at the passport office, or do whatever it is we need to do to make our pro-work lives that much more fulfilled.

And yet, despite all the touting of work-life balance in the industry, we don’t seem to have reclaimed much of our lives. A recent WorkplaceTrends.com study shows that half of us still bemoan our lack of personal time. Get this:

1 in 5 respondents spent over 20 hours per week at work during what should be their personal time.

So here we are, the most privileged group of professionals ever, and despite every advantage we still aren't getting any closer to the coveted work-life balance. What are we doing wrong?

Always working harder: It's the American way

Overwork is nothing new to the average American worker, although the current state is considerably less urgent than it was, say, a century ago, when our nicely appointed offices were literal hellholes in the ground.

Take the Coal Strike of 1902, which was preceded by many strikes, but helped lead the way for workers to gain rights that those before them could only dream about. Among other hugely significant outcomes, the coal worker’s workdays were reduced from ten hours to nine.

While that’s a far, far cry from today’s perks of catered lunches and on-site baristas, it’s an important reference point in the long line of constant battles to reclaim our lives, sanity, and health from our employers. We wouldn’t have our unlimited vacations or even be thinking about work-life balance if our great-great-grandfathers hadn’t fought for one day off per week.


The oligarchs who thought a 70-hour workweek was a reasonable expectation of their workers have long been eradicated, but they were replaced by a nifty efficiency technique called time-and-motion studies, which came into fashion in the 1950s. At its core, time-and-motion is “the direct and continuous observation of a task to record the time taken to accomplish a task,” and was used as a way of standardizing and planning work. In an age of increasingly powerful unions, it was a powerful way for management to reassert their strength and intensify the pace of production.

This new type of scientific management also encapsulated a strange type of cynicism about the average worker and their production, and subtly enforced the idea that an honest day’s work was not quite enough to keep your boss—and your co-workers—satisfied. Check out Frederick Winslow Taylor’s concept of “a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay,” wherein “if a worker didn't achieve enough in a day, he didn't deserve to be paid as much as another worker who was highly productive.”

Suddenly, being in direct competition with your co-workers became a vital part of work.

This concept has evolved in some frightening ways, including at a Miami company which required their employees to download an app that tracked their whereabouts 24 hours a day. According to a plaintiff in a pending lawsuit against the company, a manager joked that he knew how fast she was driving at all times. As absurd as that example sounds, here's another one:

One-third of us feel that we’re expected to check email and stay in touch when we’re not working.

In most cases, though, we’re not dealing with explicit duress like our forefathers. Instead, we’re dealing with the just-as-insidious idea that if we don’t continue pressing ourselves forward, we’re certain to miss out on an opportunity that might not even exist.

Without even realizing it, we’ve been pitted against our fellow employees, and left to constantly worry that we might not be good enough to stay afloat and earn our keep every day.

While we have some sense of the origins of this idea, each employee—and employer—ultimately has a multitude of reasons for overworking in the 21st century, and being robbed of their work-life balance birthright in the process. This HBR piece nicely outlines the psychology of overwork:

...we log too many hours because of a mix of inner drivers, like ambition, machismo, greed, anxiety, guilt, enjoyment, pride, the pull of short-term rewards, a desire to prove we’re important, or an overdeveloped sense of duty.”

Almost in perfect tandem with the ascent of the concept of ‘personal time,’ employers have gotten very good at using our natural competitive instincts to drive us harder during the precious time they’re owed.

So while we’ve made enormous policy strides in the last century to ensure that we can’t quite be worked to death, we’re easily convinced that we need to work harder. The drive to work hard—harder than we’re even expected to—is deep-rooted enough to persist even in the people-first nirvana of the 2016 office.

First, a fair possibility: We're just really bad at managing personal time

Let’s take some of the heat off of ‘the man’ for a second here, and talk about the half of us who bemoan our lack of personal time, per that aforementioned WorkplaceTrends.com study.

Regardless of how hard we’re worked during office hours, maximizing how we spend our personal lives is up to us, not our employers. If you punch out at 5:30 every day free and clear, only to spend your unencumbered nights and weekends watching LOST through for the third time with your spouse, complaints about your lack of personal time will fall on deaf ears. Sorry.

However, if your perceived expectations at work are heavily intruding on what should be your time off, there’s cause for concern. If nothing else, it’s clear to us today what is our personal time and what isn’t; we generally have a good idea of when we’re expected to clock in, check in, or head to the pub.

So for the 1/5th of survey respondents who spend 20 hours working during what they believe to be their personal time, how do we account for that? How do we account for those who don’t even take their two weeks of vacation per year, or those who go into work sick because they feel they can’t miss a day?

The key, I think, is to start taking our generous personal time policies much more seriously—at every level in the org chart.

A likely reality: Bad examples of work-life balance lead the way

Even if management is willing to give us a pass on the time off we need, we’re certainly not immune to the judgment of our fellow co-workers—especially in high-stress, competitive atmospheres.

In Why Some Men Pretend to Work 80-Hour Weeks, Erin Reid relays stories of how regular people were unfairly scrutinized for taking their permitted time off. Michael, for example, wanted to take 3 months—the full amount allowed by the FMLA—but was met with resistance by his co-workers and managers:

...Michael settled for just six weeks of unpaid leave. When he returned to the office following this leave, he also returned to the expected mode of working: he worked very long hours, traveling weekly, for the rest of the year. Yet, he found that 'people still talked like I was out three months.'”

Too often—indeed, almost as a rule—there’s a disconnect between management and employees. Even though the dynamic has shifted from the days of the coal mine to be much, much, much more employee-friendly, we still look above for approval, guidance, and standards—even apart from the ones set forth in our company’s policies. It’s a part of the work of work we’ve yet to shake off.

So rather than following the generous policies set forth by our companies, we follow what would look best to management. And if management is getting what they want, it’s increasingly hard for them to interject and tell you to start taking better care of yourself.

This concept of ‘looking good’ has taken hold at huge companies. In a scathing exposé last August in the New York Times, Amazon’s culture of backstabbery and annual culls came to light:

At Amazon, workers are encouraged to tear apart one another’s ideas in meetings, toil long and late (emails arrive past midnight, followed by text messages asking why they were not answered), and held to standards that the company boasts are 'unreasonably high.' The internal phone directory instructs colleagues on how to send secret feedback to one another’s bosses. Employees say it is frequently used to sabotage others.”

While Amazon’s management policies most explicitly take advantage of our innate and ruthless desire to get ahead, we should consider that most of us contribute to the problem in less pronounced ways.

For example, over at Yahoo!, Marissa Mayer announced not long ago that she’s pregnant with twins. Buried in the lede is a quick note about taking “limited time off,” and Mayer only took two weeks off after the birth of her first child. Yahoo currently offers new mothers up to 16 weeks PTO, and 8 weeks for new dads. Her reason for the shortened leave is that the pregnancy has been “healthy and uncomplicated,” and that it’s a “unique time in Yahoo’s transformation."

It’s hard not to notice the instrumental precedent being set by Mayer: that despite Yahoo’s generous policies, employees should only take advantage of them if they really need to. They’re a suggestion, not a standard.

Mark Zuckerberg followed close suit and announced that he was taking 2 months paternity leave following the birth of his daughter—a jump, but still only half of what Facebook employees are permitted.

This is often seen with unlimited vacation, too, but with a bit of a twist: when there’s a time-off policy, but one without strict rules, people are rarely sure how much time is appropriate to take off. When this happens—when a policy typically viewed as a guide suddenly shifts into a grey area—we’re apt to follow the leader (or the most obvious precedent), and keep a close eye on how much time our co-workers decide to take. We want to carefully ensure that we’re walking the line of fairness.

As always, in the absence of structure, one usually forms anyway, and it’s usually toxic. Perhaps worst of all, “excessive” time off creates an unspoken policy that, since you’re so relaxed, you’ll work harder and more productively when you’re on the job.

It’s far too tempting to think we can set-it-and-forget-it with our policies, and it’s rarely the truth: people are always watching, with their finger on the pulse, waiting to see what will vault them ahead and what might leave them in the dust. Just because someone can take parental leave for 4 months doesn’t mean they will: that’s a decision more likely to be influenced by you, Mr. Manager, who only took two. Or perhaps your firm is starting a big new project soon—or going through a ‘unique transformation.’ Whatever that means.

This mismatch of expectation and policy might seem easily brushed off when it's made by an entry or mid-level employee, but what about when it's someone like Marissa Mayer—a CEO whose every thought impacts the stock price? It’s important to realize that management influences workplace culture not only by setting the policies, but by how they follow them. After all, we read biographies, profiles, and rambling thinkpieces by people who are where we want to be because we’re looking for guidance through a dark subject.

To paraphrase author Jonathan Franzen: a leader, as represented by his character Andreas Wolf in Purity, often has the power to alter the geometry of a room. This is a power and influence that should not be taken lightly.

We're sorta still in the coal mine

So, why do we suck at work-life balance? Because even though the workplace is better for the employee than it’s ever been (uh, except for Amazon), we’re still playing the same old games. We have our incredible perks—our generous pat/mat leaves, our unlimited vacations—but we’re still living in fear of what we’re missing if we take advantage of them.

Will we fall behind?

Will our co-workers hate us?

Will we just lose our job?

The game is as it has always been: we're afraid to snag what’s rightfully ours because of what we might lose if we do.

And as managers, directors, and business owners, we make mincemeat of these policies for a litany of reasons we try to rationalize: We don’t need parental leave because we can afford extensive childcare; we take zero vacation days because nobody can steer the ship but us.

Despite all these perks on the table, they mostly exist to serve as a beacon for what we know we’re missing while we slog through a 60-hour workweek. And so there we are, surrounded by wonderful policies, yet feeling unbalanced, unhappy, and as far away from a work-life balance as ever.

We’re certainly not in the coal mine anymore, but sometimes it can sure feel like it. What's a practical way forward?

PTO: Predictable Time Off

What if we forced policies, rather than just suggesting them?

In an excellent Harvard Business Review study in 2009, Leslie A. Perlow and Jessica L. Porter discussed how Boston Consulting Group (BCG), an international company full of chronically overworked, “always on” professionals, could enforce time off.

The study was simple: take a company where nearly half the team works more than 65 hours a week—plus an informal expectation that they’ll respond to colleagues or clients within an hour—and give them predictable, heavily enforced time off, during which they’re absolutely not allowed to check voicemail or e-mail (this is 2009, pre-Slack).

There were two primary experiments: one in which employees were required to take a full day off each week, and another where participants were forced to take a predetermined night off per week. While the experiments were met with initial resistance, the anxiety gradually wore off and the work/life benefits shined through.

Of the reasons the experiment was ultimately a success for BCG, number one was the fact that it was not a suggestion to go enjoy all the fruits of life outside of work—it was an unquestionable demand. And not only that: it was a demand placed upon everyone, which reduced the potential feelings of ‘falling behind’:

...the feasibility of taking time off and the potential value of time off must first be recognized. Initially, everyone must take off the same type of time. Otherwise inequity (or the perception of it) can creep in. For example, is an hour in the morning the same as an hour at night? Is a Friday night off the same as a weeknight off? It quickly becomes quite complicated to assess the relative value of time off when it is freely selected… Team members will also be more attuned to protecting their own and their teammates’ time off.”

In this experiment, the natural competitive instincts that keep us obsessing over work—and in constant deference to our managers—suddenly came off the table. Even managers weren’t immune: their role was to be as transparent as possible about when they were taking personal time in order to foster better communication around when time off was acceptable.

‘It was helpful to know that the reason the partner missed a meeting was that he was taking his daughter on a college tour,' one consultant noted. ‘That helped me see that these issues are important to him.' Another consultant added that at a kickoff meeting, the senior partner said that work was very important to him but not the most important thing in his life, and he didn’t want to have to be embarrassed to say so. The consultant reported, ‘I had never heard a partner talk like that before. My work is really important to me, too, but it is not the most important thing in my life. [His openness] made me comfortable to admit that.'”

Imagine a workplace like this:

Rather than an office full of overworked employees united in their vague pursuit of some goal—a promotion, a raise, just not getting screamed at—every employee had balance and clarity in their lives. Nobody wondered or worried about how much vacation or personal time was reasonable, they just took exactly what was permitted and expected.

Having a kid? See you in three months, no questions asked. Going on vacation for one and a half weeks? Take two. And for the love of god, stop replying to emails after 6 PM.

Codified as a set of strict policies and not a competitive guessing game, just think of the mental energy freed up to focus on not only better work, but actually fulfilled personal time.

It could be what gives us the work-life balance we've been looking for.

***

-Lead image: Bully

-1902 Miner Punch: Today in Labor History

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Sledgehammer Innovation, And Why Aha Moments Mean Nothing https://www.getflow.com/blog/sledgehammer-innovation Thu, 25 Feb 2016 13:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/sledgehammer-innovation cree-led.png#asset:890

"For a big company, we can turn on a dime when we need to," says Mike Watson, Vice President of Product Strategy at Cree.

With that single line he cut right through the heart of a fear held by many startup founders. It's an entirely naturally fear, one that's often evident in the laws of objects and movement.

A gigantic ship typically lacks the agility of a small motor boat.

An NBA power forward typically lacks the agility of the team's point guard.

And a company that has doubled or tripled in size typically can't "turn on a dime" quite like it used to when it was a team of four or five.

So why was Cree, a multinational manufacturer of semiconductor light-emitting diode (LED) materials that was founded back in 1987, named by Fast Company as one of the world's top 50 most innovative companies in 2015?

"Truth is, innovation actually used to mean something," says Watson. He believes the term is so frequently thrown around as a buzzword that it's more often used as a "deceptive marketing condiment." Watson sees the term as a way of being, and he believes it's something far more sustainable and replicable than the flash-in-the-pan stroke of brilliance it's often known as:

Innovation begins with the nurturing of a workplace culture that values creativity and gives great ideas a chance to incubate. From there it's all about creating what a great idea needs the most: a talented, driven team who is granted the time and space to focus exclusively on the idea, and a larger multi-faceted strategy to ensure that the results of their focused work can see the light of day."

The problem

For Cree to foster innovation, they had to take a real problem that exists in the world—in their case, that traditional light bulbs are actually better at generating heat than they are at generating light—and then create small teams to take on the challenge.

"Our culture believes in spending all of its time, energy, resources, and actual budget money on things that matter," Watson began.

With such a mindset you realize that sometimes getting 6,000 people on board with a particular idea can get in the way of what matters most. It's not that the 6,000 people aren't vitally critical to your business success, but you have to bite-size those critical first steps and then take the large organization (or otherwise find a way) to reinforce those first steps through mass implementation."

Cree's willingness to do this is what compels employees like Watson to join them in Durham, North Carolina. "I saw their willingness to completely retool the company if it meant achieving a greater goal," he says. "That was when I knew I had to get on board."

The company was formed in 1987 when a small team of researchers at North Carolina State University, despite countless people telling them otherwise, believed that silicon carbide had immense potential as a commercially viable material. Through their singular focus they eventually made the discoveries that led to the forming of Cree, a company up until recently that was known only for providing the components that went inside other companies' LED products.

In this sense, the true problem for Cree wasn't how to get the large team to turn on a dime, and it wasn't even how to create a home consumer product when they had absolutely no experience doing so. It was how to build a better lightbulb that doesn't rely on 100-year-old technologies, and how to create a bulb radically better than what they were seeing as the flawed LED bulbs flooding the market.

The solution: sledgehammer innovation

sledgehammer-innovation.jpg#asset:891

For Cree, an aha moment means nothing unless it's supported by the culture and backed by a strategy to make something of it. "It's our belief that true innovation takes more than an aha moment, it takes a sledgehammer," he says.

Sledgehammer innovation is what happens when a brilliant idea is paired with the grit of hard labor. It's made of equal parts imagination and roll up your sleeves.

When there's a truly innovative idea at Cree, the leadership team immediately finds a way to create the environment that idea must have if it's ever to thrive. And that often means busting through barriers, or at the very least breaking out of whatever functional fixedness is standing in the way.

A core component of sledgehammer innovation is breaking up a large team into a smaller team (or teams), and Watson has given us here at TMT a glimpse into a few of the concrete details your team can probably implement right now.

It comes back to bite-sizing, really breaking the larger team up into handpicked smaller teams who can focus all of their attention on solving a specific problem. But we've found that the ideal team size is about four to five people."

Watson's comment on team size aligns with what Cyrus Molavi, Product Manager at Flow, discovered in his research on team size and productivity, but Cree paired this with another insight to help them develop America's best-selling LED bulb.

In addition to carefully selecting a core team consisting of LED scientists and some of our best systems designers, we also made sure they had an environment where they could focus."

This meant uprooting these employees from their existing teams, or whatever project they were working on, and putting them in a separate location. Watson says it would have been difficult, probably impossible, for Cree to have accomplished its end goal if these employees remained in their old desks. They would have had to deal with too many distractions.

"There's something about starting a new project in a new location," Watson says. So the core team worked in a different building and they worked... in secret.

Nobody knew what they were working on. At times they would even work at night so that nobody saw what they were doing. Cree's decision to separate these core employees taps into the curtain effect, a study by Harvard researcher Ethan Bernstein that proves how separation can increase productivity.

This level of separation allowed for maximum focus, another word Watson believes must be taken more seriously by those striving for innovation.

Science continues to prove the negative impact of multitasking. If you're splitting your focus between multiple things it means you're likely doing multiple things poorly. It's like... if you hire an employee with great talent, and ask them to be great at two or three things, you've just turned their greatness into mediocrity. Cree has understood the link between innovation and focus since it started back in 1987. Our new LED bulb is only the most recent example."

Cree's ability to turn on a dime is a direct result of embracing their roots. They grew, as most companies do, through a singular vision that was built through the dogged work of a small team. Rather than simply looking back on those days as that time when, they've found ways to spread those roots upward and into the culture of their growing team.

There are countless benefits to growing your team, but increased agility won't be one of them until you make it (or break it) so.

***

Has your company found success through some aspect of sledgehammer innovation? How does your team move from aha moment to idea development? 

-For information about the Cree® LED Bulb, visit CreeBulb.com

-Sledgehammer photo: Carbon Arc

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Radically Remote: Building Workplace Culture When "Place" Is An Idea https://www.getflow.com/blog/radically-remote-building-workplace-culture Thu, 18 Feb 2016 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/radically-remote-building-workplace-culture remote-work.png#asset:892

Regional depression. That's the term used to describe what happened in Youngstown, Ohio back in the 1970s. For much of the 20th century, Youngstown's roaring steel industry had catapulted it into "American Dream" status. It was the kind of place where, if you were willing to roll up your sleeves and put the work in, you could receive the kind of steady income that allowed you to own a nice home and raise a family.

But after World War II, manufacturing started to shift abroad and the nature of work began to change. This resulted in economic powerhouses like Youngstown, Ohio collapsing. In just five years they lost 50,000 jobs and $1.3 billion in annual manufacturing wages. Such a collapse of course made it all but impossible to pivot toward something else, and many regions throughout the United States (such as where I'm from in Pennsylvania) are still searching for ways to pull themselves out.

Restaurant chains and grocery stories are occasionally hiring, but outside of that it's tough going. Even the retail shops that I used to go to as a kid have either closed or are in deep decline as companies like Amazon offer an easier and often cheaper way to shop. And if there's a university in the area, such regions typically see a mass exodus every May as graduating students—including those who want to stay—are forced to leave in search of work.

In his piece for The Atlantic titled, A World Without Work, Derek Thompson writes about how as work in Youngstown collapsed, so too did the culture of Youngstown. An area of hope was now essentially helpless as rates of crime and depression skyrocketed. But beyond this observation, Thompson positions the rise of technology in terms of what it may mean for the future:

Agricultural technology birthed the farming industry, the industrial revolution moved people into factories, and then globalization and automation moved them back out, giving rise to a nation of services. But throughout these reshufflings, the total number of jobs has always increased. What may be looming is something different: an era of technological unemployment, in which computer scientists and software engineers essentially invent us out of work, and the total number of jobs declines steadily and permanently."

A point missing here, and certainly not some new gem I've created, is that the "total number of jobs" is no longer so dependent on place. A cashier may certainly lose their job as a machine takes over, but so long as that cashier is given the chance to retool, the world is now open to them. In this case, place becomes not just physical location but a limitless idea. As Toni Morrison said when she delivered Princeton University's 250th anniversary convocation address:

The idea of the place is visionary, is change, throbs with life and leans toward the edge."

...is visionary

FlexJobs is the leading job search site specializing in professional telecommuting, part-time, freelance, and flexible jobs. However, they continue to garner positive national attention from media outlets like CNN and Forbes, in large part, because their staff of over 60 is living and breathing the remote work lifestyle as they help others navigate their own way into it.

If the future of work continues to demand that we step outside our geographical constraints, and it sure seems to be, then it makes sense to pay attention to those who aren't just championing the cause but who are living it as well.

"The culture is your company’s compass, and it's ultimately about operating with integrity and communicating on a very real level," says Carol Cochran, Director of People & Culture at FlexJobs.

For sure, workplace culture used to be tied to place, to a particular geographical location. But while that may be decreasing, we are seeing an increase in remote teams paying attention to how they're developing their culture—whether it's with colleagues in the same city or oceans away. For us, culture is part of everything we do. It's how we hire, how we onboard, how we communicate, and collaborate."

Cochran's team at FlexJobs is entirely remote. But while they embrace technology to help them stay connected—they use a desktop app to help them visualize each department and who is working where, for example—they make sure not to use tech as a crutch.

"Creating a great workplace culture doesn't demand all colleagues are working in the same place, but it does demand a team that values the fundamentals of good communication," Cochran says.

She believes it’s important to first see everyone you encounter as a holistic being rather than a worker with a set of skills. This means that family life and personal interests are shared openly in the workplace and embraced as part of creating a strong culture that values and respects the employee's life outside of work.

...is change

remote-work-flow.jpg?mtime=2016081022064

For Cochran and her team, change at the team and personal level is an integral part of how FlexJobs develops their workplace culture. "Over the years we've done all kinds of interesting team activities, but it's important to let them go when or if the team isn't engaged with it anymore," Cochran says.

Each December, FlexJobs employees used to have a secret drawing where they'd select a colleague and then send homemade cookies as a gift. When it started, everybody loved the activity. It was a fun way to stay connected across the distance, but eventually it started to feel like a burden for too many team members. FlexJobs didn't fight to keep it, they scrapped it.

"Right now we do group yoga, we have a trivia night, and we've even started belly dancing classes. They're led by members we hired who happened to have these skills and an interest in sharing them via video classes for our team. The yoga class has been especially great so far because it's a form of 'desk yoga' where our instructor helps us to open up areas that often get tight while sitting at a computer," Cochran says. "Still, we're always open to changing or trying something new if the team isn't enjoying it."

On a personal level, she shared an experience where she had been unintentionally embarrassing a colleague. But because FlexJobs had created a workplace culture that valued open channels of communication, she was able to ask her colleague, "Do you have trouble accepting praise?" This question grew because Cochran saw her colleague as a rockstar, but noticed when she praised her publicly that the colleague became reserved.

"I do," the colleague said. And this was the entry point for the conversation that helped Cochran see that she should make sure to praise this colleague in private. "These may seem like small changes," Cochran says, "but they actually build over time to develop an environment where everybody feels comfortable and each teammate feels like they're able to communicate when they don't feel comfortable."

...throbs with life

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Creating a great workplace culture on an entirely remote team goes far beyond effective communication. It's also about empathic communication, an ability to take great interest in the lives of your colleagues, not forcing them to open up but creating the space for them to do so if they want to.

"It's really about creating a company culture of caring," Cochran says. She spoke of how she's formed deep relationships with her colleagues, watched virtually as a husband prepared for military deployment and as a colleague went through cancer treatments.

For Cochran and her team, a thread that connects their workplace culture is their shared interest in some of the lives of those who they're able to help find jobs. When someone cancels their subscription on FlexJobs, they're asked to share the reason why they decided to cancel. While of course some responses are simply, "I found a job and no longer need your service," Cochran often hears some incredibly inspiring stories as well.

There's a particular story, from when Cochran joined FlexJobs four years ago, that still sticks with her:

There was a dad who had an autistic son. The family had so many doctor's appointments and therapy treatments, and the dad had eventually blown through all of his vacation and personal time—with none left he had no idea what he was going to do in order to take care of his family. He eventually found a full-time position through FlexJobs that gave him health insurance, kept him at the salary he needed to provide for his family, and of course gave him the flexibility of schedule so that he could give his son everything he needed."

It's stories like these that have made the team at FlexJobs believe that everybody deserves the option of flexible work. "This is what fires us up, this is why we do what we do," Cochran says. "Every single day we hear stories from job seekers who are cancelling their subscription because they found a job, and so many of those stories are about how some level of job flexibility will radically change the course of a person's life for the better."

...leans toward the edge.

Those of us who have had the privilege to work remotely for years may feel like it's the norm, but it's still a labor movement very much in its infancy. A 2015 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (pdf here) found that 23% of employees did some or all of their work from home, and in a 2015 survey from AfterCollege, 68% of millennial job seekers reported that an option to work remotely would significantly increase their interest in an employer.

Fully remote companies are still leaning toward the edge of a new frontier. They are at once trying to hold onto what lessons they've found valuable from traditional brick-and-mortar work, while figuring out what works best in a work environment where place has an altogether different meaning than it used to.

The FlexJobs team is in a unique position on the frontlines of this movement. They have daily access to the narratives of their customers, and from the narratives of their own experiences. Though FlexJobs is leaning into the future of work—where place is a physical location but also an idea—the next line of Toni Morrison's speech may be what guides them to whatever is next:

The idea of the place is burrowing into the heart of a theory, of a concept, casting its gaze toward the limitlessness of the universe, not merely moving toward the future but in certain instances driving it."

Does your team embrace remote work or have insights to share about how you've developed your remote team's workplace culture?

***

-For information about FlexJobs, visit FlexJobs.com

-work from home photo: Tony Alter

-work remotely photo: Tyler Ingram

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Easier Editing, Faster Tasking: Your Task View Just Got A Makeover https://www.getflow.com/blog/easier-editing-faster-tasking Wed, 10 Feb 2016 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/easier-editing-faster-tasking Tasks are truly living, breathing things. Due dates change, task owners change, subtasks get added: only in the most perfect of worlds can one set-and-forget a task.

We’ve always been conscious of this here at Flow, and that’s why you’re able to edit your tasks so thoroughly after they’re created. The problem, though, is that until today, many of those editing options were buried beneath a big ol’ edit button, and not easily accessible for quick, on-the-fly changes.

You might have seen that we added Task Notes, where you can organize all the important info related to your task. But we’ve added some other stuff to make editing important task details waaaay faster, through the magic of inline editing.

In fact, as of today, there are now 4 key edits that you can make right in the task view—without hopping into any kind of cumbersome edit mode:

Assigning and Reassigning

In this example, I was originally supposed to get the task done, but Michael doesn’t seem very busy right now. I’m swamped, so I’ll kick it his way. I can reassign very quickly, or even claim a task that’s unassigned—all without even going into an edit mode. Wow!

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Changing or setting a due date

Wait a sec. I just reassigned this, but then found out that Michael will have an extra day. Better change that. I can do that super quickly with the very handy inline date changer!

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Changing the project

And since this isn’t just for me anymore, I should really move this from my Private Tasks to the correct project.

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Adding subtasks

Last, but not least, I can quickly add some subtasks to make sure it’s obvious to Michael what needs to be done.

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And just like that, I was able to make a bunch of necessary changes to this task on-the-fly.

With these quick, small changes, Flow’s immediately faster and easier to use. Enjoy, and as always, let us know what you think!

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How Proper Task Flow Can Help You Avoid Collaboration Collapse https://www.getflow.com/blog/collaboration-collapse Thu, 04 Feb 2016 12:36:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/collaboration-collapse

Let it be known: I love collaboration. I've spent a ridiculous amount of time studying it, and I've written about it for Harvard Business Review, The Guardian, and Newsweek. I believe the future of work depends on it, and that collaboration is the heartbeat of social impact in our increasingly globalized economy.

These beliefs grew because I've had the privilege to travel all over the world to see different methods of task flow and collaboration at work in a variety of ways. I saw it happen among grassroots nonprofits in Ethiopia and international philanthropic consulting firms; among Oxford researchers and global health activists in Bangladesh; among union representatives and striking nurses in Pennsylvania; and, most recently, I saw how collaboration among community leaders in refugee camps throughout Myanmar is truly a matter of life or death.

But I didn’t just see and study collaboration, I’ve been part of it. Over the span of 9 years as an educator, I generally advocated for and participated in community, departmental, and student collaboration whenever I could—most fervently in the last few years, guided by the light of evidence suggesting that students today have 40% less empathy than those of a few generations ago (and our readers know how much I dig empathy).

While my studies, travels, and experiences have shown me much of collaboration's brilliance, they've also routinely exposed collaboration's most obvious flaw: too much of it is a pretty terrible thing.

And we're all guilty of doing it.

I believe that task flow in many organizations can be improved and many companies have reached collaboration collapse, a saturation point whereby our obsession to collaborate has blinded us in such a way that we’ll pursue it even if doing so is counterproductive. The rosy picture of collaboration we've bought into, that in modern business it's "next to godliness," has enabled us to cast aside the stark reality: collaboration is one crucial element for us to work better together. One of them.

Working in silos, concentrated periods of deep work in a vacuum by individuals or small teams, is another one of them.

So a company that culls all of its silos and stacks on the collaboration will eventually come crashing down, perhaps in unexpected ways.

Yet that’s precisely what so many companies are told to do.

A Google search for "eliminate silos" brings up 11,000 results, the top post being a Forbes article titled Breaking Down Silos, in which the author states:

Silos can occur in global corporations or start-up ventures with 15 employees. And no matter the size, they are detrimental to an organization’s ability to succeed in a rapidly changing world."

For perspective, "eliminate some silos" brings up 8 results; it's a perfect example of how bold and generalized truisms can become conventional wisdom, while more humble and nuanced thoughts barely light a spark.

Why collaboration collapse happens

Too much collaboration can arise either because a relationship began directly through collaboration (like when two companies merge to work on a project) and the involved parties don't know which tasks come next and what the flow of work should look like because internal pressures (a team’s relationship dynamics, for example) and external pressures (influential business leaders pushing persuasive messages in major publications, for example) led to its overuse.

Much of what I studied internationally had to do with collaboration across different organizations, but it’s easy to see how collaboration collapse can take root in a typical progressive startup.

When the company first began, collaboration likely played a major role in how the leadership team made decisions. When they were a team of three they kicked ideas back and forth on a regular basis, eventually ping-ponging toward a consensus. But what about when the team grows to 5 or 12, or 57? What does task flow look like at that size? What about when roles change and a relatively flat team now begins to develop structure?

The relationships formed in the early stage carry deep bonds, and the ways of working then can be perceived as how there can be success now

The problem of too much collaboration arises when each leader—now splintered off into their own role and with their own teams—can't cut those cords. Many decisions now rest on their shoulders, yet they spend precious resources trying to get one of the other leaders caught up on all that's going on (for the sake of ping-ponging to a consensus, like old times); and the task flow of all teams has been disrupted. This process can be a tremendous hit to individual and company productivity.

As Mark Nichols wrote in Hiring Friends Won't Destroy Your Business, But Terrible Communication Will, part of leading a startup is a mindset that you don't fully know what you're doing. Who does? Well, it's easy to turn to the wildly successful experts writing at publications like Forbes and Entrepreneur. As I alluded to above, there's a fairly clear consensus among most of the powerful sources of knowing out there: we should eliminate silos and pursue collaboration whenever we can.

The advice is often positioned as some epic battle of Good vs. Evil, that leaders in their metal mesh jackets should slay the dragon named Silos in order to collaborate. A recent article at Forbes puts it like this, and there are thousands of similar articles all pushing forth the same idea:

Silos stifle communication and prevent teams from working together to achieve organizational objectives. Chief marketing officers, with their focus on the customer, are ideally positioned to bust silos and promote the kind of collaboration that leads to a better customer experience and real growth."

But what can happen when silos are targeted and dismantled because... because?

Those that may have been incredibly productive, important parts of the overall team are lost, all for the sake of possibly productive collaboration—and all because the powers that be pushed the bold but generic message (and framed it as though a company must choose between the two or risk failing miserably).

Thankfully, scholars are increasingly studying how best to collaborate, and this involves questioning what has long went unquestioned. It also means they are researching workplace productivity both at the employee and company level.

In their article for Harvard Business Review titled Collaborative Overload, researchers Cross, Rebele and Grant open with:

"Collaboration is taking over the workplace. As business becomes increasingly global and cross-functional, silos are breaking down, connectivity is increasing, and teamwork is seen as a key to organizational success. According to data we have collected over the past two decades, the time spent by managers and employees in collaborative activities has ballooned by 50% or more.

Certainly, we find much to applaud in these developments. However, when consumption of a valuable resource spikes that dramatically, it should also give us pause. Consider a typical week in your own organization. How much time do people spend in meetings, on the phone, and responding to e-mails? At many companies the proportion hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own. Performance suffers as they are buried under an avalanche of requests for input or advice, access to resources, or attendance at a meeting. They take assignments home, and soon, according to a large body of evidence on stress, burnout and turnover become real risks."

The researchers at once acknowledge the importance of collaboration while questioning the relationship dynamics of having too much of it, all while lending scientific credence to the "critical work [employees] must complete on their own." The piece also addresses how collaborative work and task flow is often lopsided in companies because those more willing naturally take it on (and receive requests to do so), and how women (due to the caregiver stereotype) tend to bear more of the burden.

Signs of collaboration collapse to look for

As noted above, a workplace culture obsessed with collaboration might not be fully aware of how its environment has become unproductive. Here are a few signs to look for:

-Employees routinely turn to each other when they don't need to

-Meetings are mandatory, routinely drag on, and rarely end with (or result in) something actionable

-Employees routinely find themselves in meetings that are barely or in no way related to their personal or company-wide productivity

-Employees routinely feel guilty when they say no, or when they otherwise want to set boundaries in order to maximize their focus

Notice the key word here? Routinely. As great as collaboration can be, we do our company and our colleagues a major disservice if we don't question why we're doing it, if we default to collaboration based on routine rather than need.

The Collaborative Overload authors paint the particularly burdened employee's perspective like this:

We find that what starts as a virtuous cycle soon turns vicious. Soon helpful employees become institutional bottlenecks: Work doesn’t progress until they’ve weighed in. Worse, they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective. And more often than not, the volume and diversity of work they do to benefit others goes unnoticed, because the requests are coming from other units, varied offices, or even multiple companies."

A (middle) way forward

It's not a bold and generic truism, but here's what I found to be true:

Company leaders must foster a workplace culture that values and continually optimizes both its silos and its collaborations.

This can be achieved through a variety of measures—from leadership that routinely questions the effectiveness of both, to office design that provides a mix of open and closed spaces.

A natural outcome of not embracing this middle way is that the company may be forced into one of two unproductive polarities. Either they will go all-in on collaboration and lose those crucial periods of intense concentration that productive knowledge workers need, or the company will drift toward the kind of uncommunicative and ultimately inefficient ways of working that can happen when organizational silos are allowed to metastasize.

The praises for collaboration have been sung, and someone is singing them now. Good. But let's not forget to praise the silo, the existence of which allows us "...to filter out irrelevant information and highlight what’s important."

After all, if deep work really is the killer app in our knowledge economy, the time is now to reevaluate how we've come to see and use our silos.

Has your team suffered from collaboration collapse? How did you know it was happening? Likewise, have you found value in silos?

***

-Lead Artist: Os Gêmeos, photo by paperpariah

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Canoos: What Would You Actually Use? Build That. https://www.getflow.com/blog/canoos Thu, 28 Jan 2016 23:21:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/canoos Canoos.jpg#asset:639

When I talked to Matt Freedman, founder of Canoos, he was in Orlando gearing up for what might be his small team’s best chance to grow.

They call this event the ‘Major of Golf Business,’” he begins, “so much about the future of our company will be based on the connections we form here, on what we’re able to learn from the whole experience.”

Freedman was referring to the 2016 PGA Merchandise Show, an annual event where pretty much everybody who sells golf merchandise must have a presence to be taken seriously in the industry. His team has recently grown from three full-time employees to ten, and received great attention when they came in at #2 on Inc.’s 14 Coolest Gifts for Golf Lovers list, but he sees this event as a pivotal moment for how, or if, his team will continue to grow.

Last year Freedman came to the event just to take notes on it, to survey who was successful and how they did it, and to ultimately gauge whether his team was ready to have a 10x20 booth among the industry’s biggest companies. “We’re fired up,” he told me. “This could lead to our product being sold in three additional shops or 50. Or, let’s be honest, maybe this leads to nothing at all.”

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Nothing at all. Freedman said those words not with a sense of desperation but with a sense of groundedness. And it wasn’t an attempt to be humble, either. After all, Canoos didn’t grow from some grand vision to be a company or even to meet a consumer need. It started from nothing at all, just one guy’s small attempt to solve a problem for himself. Though Canoos is one small booth among the masses at this event, they might just have the most interesting story of them all.

“I’m so comfortable right now, but I can’t swing.”

“My friend asked if I wanted to go golfing, and of course I did. I had my clubs in the trunk, but I didn’t have my golf shoes. I only had the traditional pair of boat shoes I was wearing.”

The country club wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of Freedman golfing without proper shoes, but they let him through. And he had the most comfortable and uncomfortable golfing experience of his life. He realized he had never felt more comfortable on the golf course, and it was all because of the shoes. But when it came time to perform, he was sliding all over the place.

There had been some rain earlier in the week, so the ground was soggy. At first I thought I was blaming the shoes for how bad I was playing, but really it was because I couldn’t dig in. When I got home that day every pair of boat shoes in my closet was at risk. I just started tearing them apart, and then went to Home Depot to grab various drill bit sizes to try to find the anchor and the pilot screws that would fit a traditional, replaceable golf spike. After a couple weeks of playing around, I found the right fit. I made a few pairs where I could use the boat shoe structure but screw the spikes in and out.”

This wasn’t Freedman’s way in the world. He wasn’t the kind of kid who tore things apart to see if he could put them back together again. He wasn’t some serial entrepreneur prying around for the next idea. He actually just wanted to build some shoes that he would use.

A few weeks later some friends had asked me if I could make them a pair, and then a few more friends asked, and it reached a point where I thought, Maybe I could do something with this.”

Without an educational background in business (he had some experience in college working for and eventually leading a marketing team), he didn’t know where to turn. “And they certainly don’t teach business innovation in high school, certainly not to a level where it can attract younger kids by letting them know they can start their own company, that they can make stuff and build things, and that they don’t have to know calculus to do it,” he said.

So he called the only connection he’d really made: the spike company he’d been ordering from. He told them he’d like to order a large quantity because he was going to start handmaking shoes. “They basically said ‘Great, so who is your manufacturer?’” Freedman said. He responded with “Well, I don’t have one. Might you have any recommendations?”

That simple question opened the door and led him to finding a manufacturer familiar with golf shoes. This stroke of luck would pave the way for Canoos, and less than three years of hard work and on-the-fly learning later, he’d have his first go-to-market prototype: a comfortable boat shoe with performance spikes. The fusion of leisure and sports performance.

The 4 Ingredients of Highly Successful People

The Canoos leadership team at the 2016 PGA Merchandise Show. From left to right: Josh Hannum, Matt Freedman, Kyle Manchin

Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, highlights how conventional business wisdom puts forth the message that highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. In other words, that the foundation for success is a mix of work ethic, talent and luck.

Talent: Freedman had an innate ability not only to recognize a problem, but to actually try to solve it. Couple this with how he had that stroke of innovation so few seem to have: Maybe I could do something with this.

Luck: Freedman admits that he put himself in good positions, but also that “I had much help and luck along the way.” That call to the spike supplier did two things: it served as a guiding light to his next step, lining up a manufacturer, and it connected him to the very manufacturers he most needed to (and didn’t know how to) connect with.

Work Ethic: “My dad and grandfather owned a day camp for kids, and I used to go with dad during the summers. My first business memory might just be watching him deal with the vendors coming in. Whether it was food for the kids or chemicals for the pool, I saw how my dad was able to go after something, and get it.” Freedman stayed the course for nearly three years, working relentlessly to perfect a niche product, golf shoes, that is already dominated by the biggest companies in all of sports.

But Grant points out a fourth ingredient of success, one he says is essential but rarely talked about, “Success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make. Do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying what we receive in return?”

He breaks this down into “Givers” and “Takers.” They aren’t separated based on how much they donate to charity or what their salary is. They just bring different attitudes into their workplace interactions. Takers give strategically, and when the outcome of helping exceeds the personal cost of doing so. But givers often give without expecting anything in return. Grant puts it this way:

If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them. It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. But being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice, it just involves a focus on acting on the interest of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.”

Outside of work, Grant says being a giver is quite common. We help our friends without expecting something in return. But in the workplace, few of us are this way.

Giving and Growing

The first Canoos shipment arrives, October 2014. “I couldn’t leave the warehouse,” Freedman said.

Matt Freedman seems to fit what it means to be a Giver. Sure, since launching Canoos he said he can’t shake the innovator mindset.

It’s like a sickness. I have a journal where I basically track seemingly insignificant things that could be made so much better with just a few tweaks. A basic tenet of innovation, for me, is this: What problem are you trying to solve, and would you actually use the solution to that problem? If so, build that.”

But while this sense of innovation fuels Freedman as an individual, the team has continued to move forward by its obsession with giving to each other (as friends do) and rallying around the team's mission.

Canoos, like all small teams undergoing a growth spurt, has tried to place a premium on maintaining the core culture that allowed them to grow. This was a culture of friends, and ultimately a culture of giving. But how have they been able to maintain that, especially when half of their team is now remote?

We’ve definitely had our challenges," Freedman says, “but giving is the connective tissue that keeps our remote team connected.”

In this sense, ‘giving’ refers to exposing each other to each other’s networks. It’s a mentality that embraces this idea of “a connection made by one has the potential to be a connection made by all.” In addition to maintaining clear and frequent lines of communication, and hiring based on company fit as much as track record, the Canoos team believes that this kind of giving allows them to be extensions of each other. As Freedman put it, “I’ve always enjoyed introducing my good friends to each other, so I’ve worked hard to maintain that in our workplace culture.”

While I liked the idea, and certainly felt it had capacity to help a remote team gel, I asked Freedman what he thinks has been the single most important factor in keeping the growing team aligned and connected. At this point, he went on a rant about Simon Sinek’s concept of the Golden Circle, and how this video (now at 25 million views and counting) helped him not so much find but articulate his passion and eventually the Canoos mission:


“Look, who are we if we’re just putting another shoe on the shelf? We invented the first patent-pending boat shoe for golf. Cool, but that's not something people are going to rally around. We had to figure out who we are and why we do what we do," Freedman began.

We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on why we love what we’re doing, why we’re so passionate about this, and it comes down to this: we want to be what you’re wearing when you’re doing what you love. This is why our core team left our cushy sales jobs to make this happen. This is why we’re passionate each day when we get to work. Once we really solidified that core mission by putting it into words, behaviors noticeably changed. Our marketing team started sending emails with more energy. Our team meetings felt more upbeat and productive. It’s really all about shoes and nothing at all about shoes.”

***

Does anything about the Canoos story resonate with your own experience? How do you keep your remote team feeling connected and engaged? What helped your team articulate its mission?

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Hiring Friends Won’t Destroy Your Business, But Terrible Communication Will https://www.getflow.com/blog/hiring-friends Thu, 21 Jan 2016 13:52:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/hiring-friends

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“There are no benefits to having close, personal relationships with co-workers. None.”

A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out my desk drawer and found that quote written on the first page of my old journal. It was dated March 20, 2012. I can remember writing it—a little bit wobbly from boilermakers, very late at night—but couldn’t exactly remember why I felt the need to get this down on paper as an urgent reminder to my future self.

At that point, I’d been at MetaLab for 4 years, and it felt more like an ever-expanding group of friends than a successful design agency. We all spent just as much time together outside the office, whether it was grabbing dinner or beers, seeing movies, or going on impromptu trips. We even had a Facebook group where we’d post about what we were up to that night, just in case anyone wanted to join.

But there’s an obvious inevitability when a company full of men and women in their early 20s work together: everyone grows up. They realize the world is a little bit bigger than what they’d initially perceived it to be, and that their skills could take their careers far beyond where they are now. If not to a better job, then at least to a better city, or to some new experience, somewhere. Basically, we start entertaining a frightening possibility: maybe I won’t work here forever.

Mercifully, as business owners, we have the loyal people who stay with us and are steady as they get older, accumulate debt, fall in love, start families, and think about buying a house. But there are the few who stray outside the lines—the friends who veer off the path. These are the work-friends who you need to yell at, but can’t; the one you need to fire, but have too much love for.

That’s where I like to imagine that sudden flash came from: it was starting to become obvious that, yes, we probably couldn’t all be friends forever. Maybe it was a dispute about money, or a dispute about management that got blown out of proportion because we also happened to be friends. But the prospect was there that this person might leave, and that I might get burned.

At a fresh company, we often feel like we don’t have the freedom to make mistakes, and that we’re perennially one bad move away from bankruptcy. We feel compelled to throw out the baby with the bathwater at every turn, and we often make sweeping, dogmatic statements that will give us enough peace of mind to move forward. We’re obliged to get pissed off and transform that frustration into a hard-earned Startup Lesson™ that keeps us inching towards startup nirvana.

When we find ourselves in situations like the one above, we say stuff like “Don’t ever work with friends. It’s not worth it,” and pass that knowledge along to the next generation of founders who seek our advice (so, around 6 months later). This, in time, becomes conventional wisdom.

What this does, though, is prevent us from considering that maybe we need to change something. Something important.

Working with friends is the best. No, really. I'm serious.

Honestly, I’m amazed when I hear people say “Don’t work with friends,” and I’m doubly amazed that I thought that, even if it was just for a hot second.

Working with friends is the most wonderful thing in the world. Any exceptional job I’ve ever had has been done alongside people I cared about—people who mattered to me as real humans, not just as assets. It’s no exaggeration to say that working with incredible people is what makes work worthwhile. It’s what makes great ideas flourish. It’s what makes you want to actually go to work in the morning.

Hiring and working with our friends is not easy, but it’s not impossible, either. It takes a refined communication strategy and a complete willingness to be honest.

And typically, we end up working with friends out of complete convenience, which isn’t the most ideal way to begin the hard work of working with friends. But all the same, it’s how I ended up at MetaLab, and it’s how you’ll probably end up with a 24-year-old VP who’s never worked anywhere else.

Why we hire trusted contributors

The story is usually pretty dependable: things start taking off, it seems like we’re doing everything right effortlessly, and we think that maybe we’ve got the magic touch. That we’re the one in a billion outlier who doesn’t need to install real process—and part of the fun of getting started is riding without any rules for as long as possible.

So rather than conducting an exhaustive job search, we look nearby. We look towards what David Frankel calls “Trusted Contributors”—people within extremely close reach who exhibit at least some of the skills that we’re looking for.

This is, in a lot of cases, people who we’re pretty sure won’t pull rank on us—but it’s also people who feel closer to our station. As Frankel puts it, “...if you can be CEO fresh out of college, why can’t they grow into the VP role?”

After all, part and parcel with being a newly-minted business maven is the underlying idea that maybe we’re not good enough—that if someone who really, truly knew what they were doing was in the mix, they’d be appalled. Anyone—and I mean anyone—who has run a business has felt the pang of impostor syndrome, and adding some familiar faces to the mix—people you feel truly know the real you—creates some much-needed levity from the possibility that your tenuous house of cards is about to come crashing down.

Our trusted contributors are often people whom we badly want to see succeed: friends and would-be professionals who seem to us to have enormous locked potential. We tell ourselves that they’re just people who need a chance; that if we can find a way to light the fuse, they’ll take off into the stratosphere. And for the first time in our lives, we have the resources to help people in a meaningful way—something beyond getting drunk and telling our creative-ish friend what a good designer they are.

And perhaps expectedly, it doesn’t always work out beautifully. Business rarely does.

How we react when things go sour

There are a million different things that go wrong when a business starts to take off. Each day can make you feel like it’s genuinely impossible to carry on—that surely this is the pocket of turbulence that sends the whole mess crashing into a mountain. And in a way, we’re spoiled by certain types of drama. Say, for example, you decided to forego your usual contract for a client project, and they refuse to pay. There’s an easy lesson to learn there—next time, get them to sign that damn contract.

But a sudden litany of ‘soft’ management issues can be confounding—particularly in the age of people analytics, where even when we don’t hire our friends, we expect data, personality tests, and other heuristics to make decisions for us. As Daniel Goleman details in his excellent piece How to Coach a Smart but Clueless Leader, an ineffective employee is difficult and time-consumptive to turn around under even the best of circumstances—but it’s certainly not impossible.

The problem, though, is how we choose to react when we see a friend we’ve hired struggling, or maybe even revealing themselves to be completely unsuited to a role. We’re left to deal with someone who matters to us maybe a little too much on a personal level; in a weird way, they’ve become a ward of ours, and we get soft. The tendency when dealing with friend-employees is to become paralyzed: to be incapable of acting on either improving their standing or taking the necessary steps to remove them.

It’s an unfortunate reality that instead of viewing employees on a wide spectrum with opposing poles and making objective decisions, we have a tendency to go easy on everyone by pushing them towards the middle.

Henry Ward, CEO of eShares, detailed this illusion in “How to Hire”:

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Ward is talking about generally ineffective employees, but I think it translates perfectly to what we’d prefer to tell ourselves about a friend who may no longer be an ideal fit or who needs a serious reprimand: rather than confront the difficult decision we may need to make, we tell ourselves lies in order to punt the whole ordeal forward just a little bit, and convince ourselves that things aren’t as bad (or as exceptional) as they seem. Ward goes on to list a few of these lies, some of which I’m sure you’ve heard yourself say before:

   -He is trying really hard.

   -She deserves another chance.

   -People really like her.

   -I feel bad for him.

   -He’s good at other things.

   -He has stuff going on in his personal life.

   -She is in the wrong role.

Consider this: if we’re that bad at disciplining ineffective people under normal circumstances, imagine what we’re going through emotionally when we need to bring down the hammer on a friend, someone we really deeply care about, and whose success feels to us like a personal investment? The fact that they’re a friend just becomes another excuse as to why we can forget about their transgression.

Even though we distance ourselves from the problem, we know that there is one, and in the case of friend-employees, their distinction sticks out like a sore thumb: they were hired and are currently at the company under very specific, very preferred circumstances.

We take stock of their fuck-ups and say, “This would be so much easier to deal with if we weren’t friends,” but we’re really just looking for the ripcord: the easy way out of doing the hard work of good, honest communication. We say that hiring friends doesn’t work, but we typically make Startup Lesson™ statements like that in the precise moment we’re wading through a frustrating, seemingly insurmountable swamp of crap. During these times, we don't seek truths; we're too desperate for a conclusion to even bother looking.

The immediate dividends of hiring a pal

Think about what you’re getting when you hire someone you’d consider a friend. Right off the bat, you have someone with whom you’re comfortably honest: as just friends, you’d tell them if they did something to hurt you. You’d tell them if you were going through a rough patch (and if you wouldn’t, maybe you aren’t as close as you thought you were).  

This type of relationship, while not necessarily easily transposed to a work environment, lays the extremely difficult groundwork of a trusted team—the lack of which stunts so many young companies.

Several years back, Lynda Gratton and Tamara J. Erickson studied the collaborative behavior of 55 large teams and published their findings in the Harvard Business Review. One of their findings was the importance of what they termed “heritage relationships”—a team of people familiar with one another, either as friends or as people who have previously collaborated.

In particular, they found that if a team started out as a group of strangers, they were forced to invest a significant amount of time in the work of just getting started: things like building trust, which can exist out of the box if you’re hiring a good friend.

However, it’s not when things are going well that we run into problems with working with friends: it’s down the line, past the honeymoon period of great honesty and trust. It’s then that we need to throw some shade, and lay down the law.

The important task then, and seemingly where most fail, becomes maintaining that initial trust and exceptional communication with your friend, extending it to all areas of your relationship with them, and ensuring that your once-friends-now-employees are being treated as equitably as possible. This demands that, for better or worse, you maintain the honesty that made you such close friends to begin with, but can also do what you need to do if things go south.

Care personally, challenge directly

In her phenomenal talk at First Round Capital’s CEO Summit last year, Kim Scott introduced a communication concept that quickly became a popular phrase in the startup world: Radical Candor.

As shown below, radical candor is the quadrant where honesty and personal relationships—those two absolute essentials of communication—are able to live together in blissful harmony.

radical-candor.jpg#asset:958

Given that the primary sub-complaint of working with friends is the seeming inability to give them the gears when you need to and risk ruining the friendship, a communication strategy that advocates honesty and compassion will be your best friend. And the beauty is that even before you start working together, you’ve already experienced Radical Candor with your friends. It’s the cornerstone of any good relationship, and it’s precisely why it’s such an unbelievably powerful management tool.

To understand how important something like radical candor can be to a working relationship with a friend (and any employee, really), all you need to do is look at the other end of the confrontational spectrum: ruinous empathy. According to Scott, it’s where the vast majority of management mistakes appear. This anecdote from Scott might sound familiar to anyone who’s worked with a friend:

“There was this guy who was working for me. We'll call him Bob. I really liked Bob. The problem was that Bob was absolutely terrible at his job,” she says. Whenever Bob would express worries about his performance, Scott would try to reassure him. But after nearly a year, she realized that Bob’s weak performance was impacting her whole team — and she was in danger of losing several top performers as a result. Trying to be 'nice' to Bob, she'd been unfair to the people who were doing great work. And things didn’t work out so well for Bob, either.

Having never criticized Bob for 10 months because I was trying to spare his feelings, I was now sitting in front of Bob firing him. Not so nice after all,” says Scott. When I told him, Bob pushed his chair back, looked at me, and said, ‘Why didn't you tell me? Why didn’t anyone tell me?’”

When we aren’t able to be honest with an employee—for the sake of their feelings, or our relationship with them—absolutely nobody wins. Scott’s employees lost confidence in her ability to run a tight ship. Scott, of course, had to fire someone who she’d spent months praising. And poor Bob lost nearly a year of his career doing something he wasn’t good at, and likely felt humiliated by the dismissal.

An important reality to recall is that while the friend you hire may owe you a debt of gratitude, you owe them, too. They’re entrusting you with their career, their future, their hopes and dreams. No matter what happens, they don’t deserve a career that stagnates because of your inaction. Saying “well, I guess you shouldn’t hire friends,” and letting that individual wallow is completely, unforgivably irresponsible. Everyone deserves complete honesty—especially your friends, if you still choose to call them that.

Scott recommends encouraging all of your employees to be radically candid, so that even if you have a hard time giving your friend the feedback they need, numerous other people on the team might not have an issue being so direct. And if it can become institutional, you might find yourself giving your friend the feedback they sorely need without even noticing.

The real problem: Communicating with everyone

Thinking back to that piece of paper from 2012, I can’t help but remember all the anxieties that were an undeniable part of every single workday. There were whole weeks when it seemed impossible to do anything right; that no matter how much effort we put into the business, the returns were tepid. Sometimes, the things that worked exceptionally well stopped working. Sometimes, the wild guesses were the biggest bullseyes.

When we’re starting out, and when we’re trying to scale, we so desperately crave axiomatic truths. They can sometimes seem like the only thing guiding us forward. But it's the pursuit of these truths that gives us stupid, misguided rules like “Don’t hire friends.”

Please, please, please don’t listen to stuff like this. You’ll risk missing out on an important opportunity to kickstart your company’s growth, the one described here by the great Gary Vaynerchuk:

When my brother AJ and I started VaynerMedia, we hired eight of AJ’s friends from college to get the ball rolling. After them, we hired a few more people to round out the organization, and continued to hire as we needed. Those initial eight people added something that I place a huge importance on: company culture. If you don’t care about your company’s culture, you will lose. We knew that these eight people would bring energy and attention to the company, that they would establish a fun, awesome culture right off the bat.”

And if you run into problems, recall that the problem isn’t communicating with the friends you work with; the problem is responsibly communicating with everyone you work with. If we aren’t shoring up communication issues early on and as we go, we’re really screwed, and nobody we hire will be able to fix the mess we made.

***

-Photo:  Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy, Sepia Charcoal on Paper, 1987, by Wasfi Akab

Laurel and Hardy's work and friendship, as told in Germ Magazine:

"Throughout their 30-year career, the magic that was Laurel and Hardy captured audiences and left them laughing long after the movie was over. But their off-screen friendship was special too as they both supported one another and remained a vital presence in each other’s lives."

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How That Vicious Inner Critic Can Be Your Closest Ally https://www.getflow.com/blog/inner-critic Thu, 07 Jan 2016 14:00:00 +0000 Ken Goldstein https://www.getflow.com/blog/inner-critic

inner-critic.jpg#asset:641

Editor's Note: Ken Goldstein has served as Chairman & CEO of SHOP.COM, Executive Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, and VP / Executive Publisher of Entertainment & Education for Broderbund Software. He is the author of This Is Rage: A Novel of Silicon Valley and Other Madness (2013) and Endless Encores (2015).

There's something about optimism. Nothing in business is quite as powerful in motivating people to believe in a mission as a leader who undoubtedly believes. The energy that radiates from a passionate entrepreneur is engaging, uplifting, and inspiring. When we hear someone tell us he or she is following their muse, boldly pursuing a personal dream, we want to root for them. We want to become a part of it. We want to hitch our cart to their wagon. We want to step out of the ordinary and get onboard the outrageous.

A leader who won't be deterred can bring purpose to a business enterprise.

A leader who rises above petty criticism and backstabbing naysayers can turn a hundred dollars into a hundred million dollars.

A leader who is "all-in" and won't be dissuaded from a cohesive, organic vision can literally change the world.

Over and over we hear the speechifying that tells us never to give up, that resilience is all that matters, that we should forget the critics and ignore the naysayers.

Already doing that? Great. But there’s a catch.

Walt Disney was told he was no good as an illustrator, that his characters would never be popular. Steve Jobs got fired from his own company for being difficult, and refusing to compromise his ambitions. They were never dissuaded. They were resilient and persevered. They could not have cared less what their critics were saying.

Walt and Steve are held up as classic examples of rejecting rejection. They maintained an uncompromised vision and carved their place in history because of it. Detractors who called out “their folly” could do them no sustained harm. Walt and Steve evidenced a form of courage that set a new high water mark for leading teams beyond the fog to unbridled innovation. They remain heroes to those who aspire to transcend the ordinary.

So what's the catch? You want to be That Leader, right? Or maybe you just want to sign on with That Leader? What's the missing element that is most likely to take you down?

Is it that the odds against a startup succeeding are enormous? Nope. Most entrepreneurs know this long before they quit their day jobs. Many are wacky, but few are stupid.

Is it that capital is very hard to raise, especially for a first time entrepreneur? Nope.

Most entrepreneurs discover this lesson the first time mom or dad says, "What!? Are you kidding me? You're not a CEO… you can barely manage to get matching socks on your feet!" They secretly know that mom and dad are just negotiating their share of the deal for the seed round.

Is it that it's nearly impossible to get super-talented people to work for deferred or limited pay for the long runway until a business is cash flow positive? Nope.

Most entrepreneurs are confident that if they articulate an exciting enough plan, the right people will get with the program no matter what, and the ones who said no just saved the entrepreneur the pain of having to fire them later for their mediocrity.

Then what is it? What is the Achilles Heel of the resilient? What is the repelling force that stands counter to the success of leaders brave enough to shake off a world that tells them No No No when all they hear in their heads is Yes Yes Yes?

Presume for a moment this entrepreneur is You. Get your highlighter ready. You'll want to make note of this for the rest of your career.

The problem might be YOU.

Don't highlight that. I haven't gotten to the important part yet. The part you need to highlight is this:

If you're not going to listen to the critics who will tell you every reason in the world why you are going to fail—and believe you absolutely must tune them out in order to be a renowned, world-class leader—you are going to have to be the hardest critic in the world on yourself.

Yes, in order to earn the privilege of ducking all the pessimists trying to steer you away from your dream, you must beat yourself up in ways they can't even imagine. There is no luxury in resilience. There is only a level of self-critique so necessary that the pain it will cause you as a lone wolf makes child's play of the third-party negativity you will never hear. What you hear in your head must be far more thundering—and far more impactful.

The real reason most startup leaders fail

It’s not because of a lack of devotion, or a lack of passion, or even because of a lack of talent.

They fail because of a lack of self-critique.

Does this apply to you? Have you actually established yourself as your own toughest critic? I don't mean a little tough. I mean vicious, brutal, send yourself into a tailspin tough. Sorry to break the news, but that's why Walt and Steve were often perceived as miserable. They were always very, very tough on themselves, an order of magnitude more thrashing than what any bleacher critic was or even could have been.

I have had the privilege to lead a handful of creative companies and I have had the privilege to be a published author. In all cases I was told innumerable times why I would not be successful. I didn't hear a word of it. I didn't need to hear a word of it. In all cases I was already way ahead of the peanut gallery, working and reworking the scenarios of why I wouldn't be successful.

I study product features like I study word choices. I might tell you that no one on the market has anything like this, but before you'll hear me utter those words, I have done the homework to assure myself this is worth defending. No one else can do that as stridently as I can. I say no to a sentence a hundred times before I let you see it. I edit it, erase it, rewrite it, rework it, change it, question it, then pick it apart word by word until I have exhausted all its failures. Same with a product. Same with a service.

I can only ignore the amateur naysayers because I am my own best professional naysayer.

Let's take it deeper, to a place you may not want to go. Here's another reason why startup leaders fail: they doggedly champion a product that is no good. It’s not because the naysayers are right. It’s because the startup leader doesn’t embrace the radical discipline to relentlessly question themselves and, by extension, their product.

If running out of time and money don't apply as explanations, most entrepreneurs fail for a very simple reason: their idea was not good enough to create a category defining product or service. Too often we dupe ourselves into believing the ordinary is extraordinary. We fall in love with an idea because we gave birth to it, and rather than beating that idea into something exceptional—or dumping it, learning from it, and finding the fortitude to reinvent it into something else—we tell ourselves we will not be dissuaded and we go to market with mediocrity. That's when we get walloped.

Once again, the tough love, get out the highlighter:

The only way you can defy the odds and ignore the critics is if you have a massive built-in crap filter. If you don't want someone else to tell you your product is crap, you better be willing to tell yourself it’s crap or you're going to blow a lot of time and money on nothing.

Artists and inventors have a crap filter no matter how successful they are. Walt did. So did Steve. Walt was told that audiences would never want to see a feature-length animated motion picture. He didn't hear it, because Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way to make it something people would never want to see.

Steve was told there would never be a market for something as intimidating as home computing. He didn't hear it, because the Apple 2 was already worked out in his head, after he had rejected every possible way that it would intimidate people.

Both of these visionaries agonized over perfection and were never satisfied. When they were starting out they were never satisfied. When they were at the bottom they were never satisfied. When they were at the top of their game they were never satisfied. The critics failed to resonate with them because they were lightweights in comparison to their own pounding criticism.

Are you embracing this burden of innovation?

Why do I need you to hear this? Why is this so desperately important to everyone who wants to make a difference and change the world? Because too many hopeful leaders are embracing the rhetoric of “going their own way” without embracing this burden of innovation. Every single day someone shows me a derivative app and begs me to believe in them. It's a minimum viable product, they tell me, they will build on it and make it great later.

Right, after customers have yawned.

You really think they'll give you another chance? So yours is 12% faster than your competition? So what? So yours addresses a tiny niche with a quirky set of differentiating features that matter mostly to you for pitching on demo day… So what? Get your eyes off the IPO listings and back on the shelf where the war for customers is lost or won. Don't be Happy. Be Grumpy.

Incrementality is toxic. Don't tell me how all your competitors have slightly weaker products than what you're proposing. Convince yourself you can blow my mind with something that leapfrogs the entire market if not in one product cycle then over a generation. If you don't want me to tell you that your app is crap then be sure you've asked yourself a hundred times before you ignore me. If you don't know that your app is crap because you aren't being honest with yourself then you haven't earned the right to ignore the naysayers.

That's the secret sauce—knowing when you are ready to play and when the cards you hold are not worth playing. Be that critic and you'll never need another. When you stand up onstage and tell your story of success, it will undoubtedly be preceded by the chapters of failure that led you to your day in the sun. I want to come to that speech and applaud. I want to see you do it again and again. I want to see you tell the naysayers to jump off a peer.

Are you ready to take on the responsibility of being your own toughest critic? Wield your inner critic in such a way that it allows you to do the best work of your life. Then yeah, tell us all to bugger off and let's get to work changing the world.

***

About the featured photo:

Fabio Napoleoni’s “Solid Declaration” is our feature painting this week. Many events influenced Fabio’s artwork but none more than the traumatic events that followed the birth of his second child. His daughter, born with major heart abnormalities, had to face several surgeries to correct issues that could prevent her from having a future. Through this experience, Fabio realized what was missing from his work: emotion.

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Some Light Holiday Reading From TMT https://www.getflow.com/blog/holiday-reading-2015 Tue, 22 Dec 2015 20:35:00 +0000 The Editors https://www.getflow.com/blog/holiday-reading-2015 holiday-good-read.jpg#asset:959


Ian, iOS Developer
The Cook and the Chef: Musk's Secret Sauce

"I got hooked on the meanderings of Wait But Why early in the year thanks to an ultra-long 2-part post about AI, and this 4-part post on Elon Musk is a must-read. Focusing on the personality quirks of an insanely talented person, Tim Urban breaks down the decision-making process of Elon Musk and turns it into a machine to be poked and prodded. I found myself saying 'I totally do that' and 'I’m glad I don’t do that' and 'I wish I could do that' while reading the article. It’s a great piece of writing that focuses on the self-reflection that we should all strive for, whether we’re ultra-successful entrepreneurs, or just a party-of-one trying to pay the bills."

Rose, Web Development Lead
Everything is Broken

"In the back of my mind, I always knew that computer security is a joke, but this article breaks it down point-by-point and illustrates just how vulnerable we all are. And I find it fascinating because our society has become so reliant on this very precariously perched system that can be exploited at any time, yet we all just collectively choose to ignore it and continue to do our banking and online shopping and storing of personal information without a second thought. It seems like only a matter of time before something really devastating happens that makes us all realize what a horrible mistake we've made."

Mark, Editorial Director
RECONSIDER

"David Heinemeier Hansson is tech’s voice of reason. Everything he writes has me nodding my head in complete agreement. In this post, he asks that most fundamental of questions: why do you startup? There are noble reasons to start a business, and much of tech is trending away from them in frightening fashion. When DHH talks, you listen."

Cyrus, Marketing Director
The Transparency Trap

"With all the talk of organizational openness, it’s easy to forget how privacy can drive innovation."

Jeremy, VP Business Development
10,000 Hours with Reid Hoffman: What I Learned

"In this post, Ben Casnocha outlines the 16 most useful takeaways he’s learned over 10,000 hours as Reid Hoffman's Chief of Staff. Though they vary in specificity and applicability, they have all either opened my eyes to a new perspective, or have expanded an existing concept I’ve struggled to eloquently summarize."

Cameron, Content Marketing Manager:
The Agency

"It’s the story that gave me a newfound respect and disrespect for Internet trolls. It’s the story that made me realize that not all trolls are created equal. I’ve always envisioned them as angry keyboard warriors fueled by an endless cocktail of equal parts ignorance and emotion. But as Adrian Chen wrote for The New York Times, '...the Internet Research Agency had industrialized the art of trolling.' He explored the real lives of professional trolls in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the dramatic way in which they disrupted small communities and even global news organizations."

***

-Photo: theslump.ru

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Mastery Is Not Magic: Insights on The Hard Way https://www.getflow.com/blog/mastery-is-not-magic Thu, 10 Dec 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/mastery-is-not-magic jiro.gif#asset:963

“I always felt that my preparation was decent. But I've since refined my technique. Back then, I would massage the octopus for about thirty minutes. Now, it is massaged for forty to fifty..."

—Jiro Ono, Jiro Dreams of Sushi

When it comes to dedication to his craft, no one surpasses Jiro Ono. Out of a small shop in an underground Tokyo subway station, he runs the most renowned sushi restaurant in the world.


jiro-sushi-den.png#asset:908Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro’s subterranean sushi den, Tokyo. Screenshot from Andie712b/Flickr

His path to the top came not through exposure, business model innovation, or riding trends. He became renowned, and is able to charge the fees that he does, through total dedication to excellence. His singular guiding principle is the quality of outcome for his customers—how good his sushi tastes, and the pleasure of the tasting experience.

In Jiro's mind, there are no shortcuts. There are no tricks. Mastery is reached the hard way—in such small increments that you don't realize it's happening.

For example, whereas many elite sushi chefs have a single supplier for everything they need at Tsukiji Fish Market, Jiro builds relationships with specialist suppliers who deal in only one of his ingredients. The result is that when Jiro gets an octopus, it's from a supplier who has spent a lifetime developing mastery over how to select the best octopus for sushi.

Whereas many elite sushi chefs bring in new recruits and put them through rigorous training, an apprenticeship under Jiro is a 10-year journey.

He’s a perfect exemplar of how doing things the hard way can help you rise to the top. 

But what is the hard way, really?

For starters, it's about taking the time to do every step properly. It’s about becoming an expert at what you do so you can create a better product for your clients. It’s an embodiment of “measure twice, cut once." By focusing on mastery of each step, we learn the repeatable patterns that can be improved upon with each iteration.

The "hard way" tends to get cast aside when one of its many forms is confused as its only form. It’s fair to be wary of work that comes with self-imposed challenges, arbitrary restrictions, or starting things from scratch. While making things more difficult for yourself in order to feel more reward can be admirable in recreation (e.g. “I’m going to swim solo across the Channel”) it’s not a valuable approach for a productive team.

It's obvious but worth stating: those who spend extra time doing things right end up producing a better end product. Take custom carpentry’s go-to joining technique, the dovetail, for example. It's considered a mark that a piece of furniture is well-built. And it's one example where quality arises from the hard way. Kerry O’Brien for Sweeten.com puts it like this:

Custom cabinetmakers will often use dovetail joints that interlock pieces of wood to distribute weight and stress more evenly, whereas stock nut, bolt, and nail methods isolate wear on a few points.”


dovetail.jpg#asset:909Dovetail Joint, Wikimedia Commons

Taking the hard way means laying out the steps. When you clear the cobwebs of an unknown process by learning from experts, you realize that mastery isn't magic or even luck as popular myths try to make us believe. An apprentice under Jiro, for example, doesn't just start learning to prepare the fish. They first have to develop mastery over how to welcome a customer into the restaurant. Then they graduate to developing mastery over how to create the perfect hot towel for a customer, then how to wash dishes, then how to prepare rice. It's often months or years before they can even touch a fish.

It may be an extreme example, but this kind of repetition of each step in the process can allow you to isolate areas for improvement. Only when every step is done methodically can you understand the effect each has on the outcome. The only way Jiro knew to try massaging the octopus for 15 minutes longer was that every other step was followed rigorously and consistently. And he can taste the difference because he's done it for years and because no other variables were changed.

Another popular example that dispels the "magic of mastery" myth is how Cristiano Ronaldo rose to the top. While he was developing his skills at Sporting Lisbon, he was seeded among a group of peers whose talents—according to the coaches—were on par with his own. But as Luis Lourenço, his compatriot, recalls in Sky Sports’ The Making of Cristiano Ronaldo:

When he had nothing to do he would secretly go to the gym at night. He started doing things that we only did when we were with the team and the coaches. He’d get ready on his own and sneak off to the gym. He’d do leg and body exercises and that’s when he started to stand out. While we went to the gym to work out ahead of the next game, he was already working out ahead of his future.”


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Cristiano Ronaldo. Rcuerda29/Flickr

Ronaldo’s rise to the top is often attributed to devotion to self-improvement through practice and effort; notably, his talent comes second in his story.

A nice bonus of a methodical process is that you can give your consumers a taste of the effort put into your product. When people know what went into something, even though the product itself hasn’t changed, they may value it more. We see this with studio footage from musicians, weekly updates from agencies, and donation requests on popular blogs.

While extra time and effort might not be worth it if the outcome doesn't budge, taking this kind of pride in your work can bring other benefits. For starters, it means that when the work is complete you’ll be more likely to feel a greater sense of accomplishment for achieving what you set out to do.

The biggest killer of quality

But the other benefit of taking pride in your work is that it serves to keep efficiency in check. Caring too much about efficiency can be detrimental. It's a powerful anxiety that can pressure us into producing mediocre work, and it's potentially harmful when we think in terms of diminishing returns. This popular concept suggests that for every additional unit of effort we put in, we will reap incrementally less benefit. So we persistently think we should find the point on this line where our effort is best matched up to the potential returns.

effort-return.png#asset:961

But what if that line was fundamentally wrong for our line of work?

Let’s think for a moment about whether our line should look something like this:

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I’d argue that for certain industries, this payoff chart is true. In these cases, the best-in-class enjoy asymmetric returns.

When to dig in

So when is it worth taking the hard way?

This is up for discussion (and I’d love to hear from you below), but I’m narrowing in on when you might want to consider investing in perfecting your product:

   -When your work lasts and is enjoyed for a long time,

   -When many people enjoy it, or

   -When it creates a memorable experience.

This broadly applies to creative or knowledge work, durable goods, or anything that can be produced once and then scale.

If your organization has been cutting corners for a while, it might be time to revisit your true goals and apply a little bit of grit to your process. This revisiting demands seeing the company from a new perspective, and big things can happen as a result. Steve Shea, a book publishing project manager, did this when he saw an opportunity for his business to gain an advantage in the marketplace.

Book publishers control the reading difficulty of their releases so that their books appeal to the right audience. Through some research, Shea uncovered that his competitors were using automated algorithms to control for reading difficulty that only simplified words, and not sentence structure. So he gained an edge for his small team by getting to the root of the challenge and solving it at a deeper level. The solution complicated the editing process and gave his company more work, but he and his team feel it has been worth it based on customer satisfaction and business results.

What holds us back?

Beyond the argument about diminishing returns, there are a few major factors holding us back from putting in extra effort.

(1) We're constantly under pressure to automate. In our world of rapid technological innovation, we’re afraid of doing things manually because they may get automated—which would make us feel pretty worthless. We’re scared of our process becoming a commodity.

But it’s important to remember that sometimes hard work only appears to be a commodity. When actually digging in and doing it yourself adds to the outcome, you're also accumulating knowledge that can’t be bought. In an interview with TIME magazine, University of North Carolina professor R. Keith Sawyer shared his thoughts on this, via the triumph of the Wright Brothers:

“On Dec. 8, 1903, Samuel Pierpont Langley, a leading government-funded scientist, launched with much fanfare his flying machine on the Potomac. It plummeted into the river. Nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright got the first plane off the ground. Why did these bicycle mechanics succeed when a famous scientist failed? Because Langley hired other people to execute his concept. Studying the Wrights' diaries, you see that insight and execution are inextricably woven together. Over years, as they solved problems like wing shape and wing warping, each adjustment involved a small spark of insight that led to others.”

Whatever you do, don’t spend more time creating automation than you would save by doing it yourself:

chart-productivity.png#asset:911

Is it worth the time? From xkcd.

(2) We associate "putting in the time" with "putting in extra effort." While they may be aligned, it's wrong to assume that they are one in the same. Cal Newport of Study Hacks shared a study of elite piano players showing that the players who were at the top of their peer group actually spent less time practicing. This had to do with their focus on the elements of their work that they most needed to improve, as opposed to a less efficient end-to-end practice routine.

(3) We aren’t aware of a better way. When we see excellent outcomes from others, we assume it came easy, or that there was an innate talent driving the process. The belief in talent is much too strong in the uninitiated. To make it worse, it’s common for experts to perpetuate this misconception by concealing their process in order to protect their advantage. Consider how Ronaldo didn't just go to the gym, he "would secretly go to the gym." Because of the talent myth, we skip steps in our own process.

So, how to take the hard way?

Always answer to excellence in outcome. You must be singularly focused on how you will measure improvement in the end result and then work to uncover what would help you achieve that.

You can do that, as mentioned, by breaking your existing process down into steps. Identify an expert and study their method on each particular step. Walk on their path to shorten your journey. Pick one point in their process that you do not currently do, or could improve upon with their insight, and focus on improving it without too much regard for the effort it takes. These improvements may not make sense at first, and may seem like a detour, but trust in the process and be willing to try it.

As you learn, keep newness in process to a minimum. In your recipe for success, heed Jiro's wisdom of changing only one thing at a time. This helps isolate areas for improvement, but it also balances improvement with productivity. Only diving deep on one step of the process means you can hum through the others and get through each cycle more quickly. Sometimes the most painful part is the act of learning the new skill and experimenting with it. 

But each repetition will be a bit easier, especially if you keep in mind that often what affects the outcome is not what you do but how you do it. Once you learn what to do, it’s time to focus on how you do it. Usually, that means dedication to process, repetition, and outcome.

In Jiro's case, it meant massaging an octopus for an extra 15 minutes.

What will it mean or what has it meant in your case? What is one aspect of your work that you'd like to improve upon? Share your thoughts in the comment section, and we'll try to rally our collective advice to help get you where you want to be.

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The Third Era of Management, And Why Empathy Means More Than Ever https://www.getflow.com/blog/management-empathy Thu, 03 Dec 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/management-empathy empathy-management.jpg#asset:912

"Empathy is the quintessential skill for the 21st century workplace."

—Roman Krznaric

***

Gray skies filled with the black noxious waves of smokestacks. Compact factory assembly lines of human and metal, of sweat and dust. The heartbeat and whistle of the steamboat. Textile machines whirring like hard rain on tin roofs. These are the images that shape our history textbooks. These are the sounds that fill our documentaries. This is the industrial revolution. Before this, we’re told, everything was made by hand. After this, we’re told, many things were made by machines.

But this didn’t paint a full picture then, and it doesn’t paint one now.

The industrial revolution, as we’ve come to know it, erupted during the late 18th century when people in England learned how to harness the power of rivers and streams in order to generate the power needed to mechanize the textile industry. It’s at this point that Samuel Slater, often referred to as “the industrial spy,” memorized all that he saw in the mills, boarded a ship, and in 1789 brought his knowledge to the U.S. where he would become known as the “father of the American factory system.” The U.S. would go on to mass produce not only textiles, but furniture and all sorts of household goods.

By the late 19th century, farmers were leaving their difficult jobs under the blue skies to find what would come to be perhaps even more difficult jobs inside the factories of American cities. Think standing in one place for 10 hours at an assembly line, think of lifelong farmers now needing to ask permission to piss, think feeling pressured to give your child opiates so they would sleep and you could work, think major increases in productivity but people (and children) often being seen as merely a means to the finished product.

So while the shift from agrarian to industrial certainly built the modern societies we’re now part of, it also broke certain habits of our empathy.

What empathy looks like

One way to understand empathy is to juxtapose it with sympathy—a word we often use as though it's synonymous. RSA put together this 3-minute animated film (based on a talk by research professor Brené Brown), to highlight how drastically different these words are:

As mentioned in the video, empathy is often described in the context of the four qualities found by nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman. She published an article in 2007 in which she described them as such: empathy as an incident, empathy as a way of knowing, empathy as a process, and empathy as a way of being. They’re frequently interpreted to mean:

(1) Perspective taking: a willingness and ability to try to see situations/experience as others may see them. “Stepping into another person’s shoes.”

(2) Bearing witness: to step into that situation/experience without judgement or otherwise dismissive behavior.

(3) Understanding feelings: this of course means we’ve spent time feeling our own feelings so that, in the moment, we can put them aside while being guided by what they taught us.

(4) Communicate accordingly: based on our “read” of those feelings, we’re able to go beyond recognition, and toward mindfully communicating our understanding.

The Machinery of Mind

What they told us stands true: many things were made by machines. These machines would lead to greater machines that would eventually lead to whatever machine you’re reading this on. These machines, of course, forever changed the way we work, and they promoted all sorts of positive human progress. But the part rarely told is how our fascination with them changed how we thought about work and how we treated each other at work. Our machine fascination meant that we learned to see immense stability as normal, and that we viewed workers as merely part of a machine that made a part of a machine.

Whereas we once depended on the land and felt an empathic connection to it, industrial work in factories often disconnected us with our environment. The result was that land (and our work on it) went from something that was carefully balanced to something "out there" that should be conquered and capitalized on. For many, the environment—that place and sense of place that shapes our stories and ways of being—was replaced by one entirely different. Holli Elliott, in her piece for the Accokeek Foundation, described the agrarian-industrial shift like this:

It divides not just two nearly opposite concepts of agriculture and land use, but also two nearly opposite ways of understanding our fellow creatures, our world, and ourselves."

This new way of working during the industrial revolution was jarring on a variety of fronts. Work moved from hand to machine; people accustomed to the close relationships formed in small communities felt trapped in chaotic cities; and a capitalistic system began to emerge that leveraged the intense work ethic of the farmer while layering in an obsession with scale. Elliott, again:

The agrarian sense of abundance comes from the experienced possibility of frugality and renewal within limits. This is exactly the opposite of the industrial idea that abundance comes from the violation of limits: by personal mobility, extractive machinery, long-distance transport, and scientific or technological breakthroughs. If we use up the good possibilities in this place, we will import goods from some other place, or we will go to some other place. If nature releases her wealth too slowly, we will take it by force. In the industrial society, if we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some specialized corporation will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey."  

This mindset shift, fueled by the new way of work, also meant that neighbors could go from people we have deep relationships with to people who simply live next door. The result was that empathy for those next door no longer had quite the same need to be. And when this was coupled by a new system of work (where days were determined not by sun but by someone else's idea of "done"), a new level of competition arose.

This competition was often posited as the only means for innovation and progress, and in many ways it rewarded the dog-eat-dog mentality. After all, with less empathy for our neighbors, the people around us could more likely become the less-cared-for "others." And so the impossibility of infinite economic growth, even if it meant harming countless others in the process, became the cherished ideology. It could at once be the carrot and the stick.

empathy-management-1.jpg#asset:913

As businesses scaled, and more workers poured into factories, huge industrial organizations formed in ways the world had never seen. To maintain it all and steer it toward productivity would be an immense challenge—the answer to that challenge would create the field that we now know as “management.”

The Three Eras of Management

In her piece at Harvard Business Review, Rita McGrath, a professor at Columbia Business School, refers to there being three eras of management, and this first era was all about execution. This included “mass production, and managerial solutions such as specialization of labor, standardized processes, quality control, workflow planning, and rudimentary accounting.”

This revolution was primarily top-down; those thinking about management were typically doing so in a way that didn’t take into account employee insights, even though they were coming up with ways to streamline employee labor for maximum productivity. Also growing during this period was a realization that the complexities of management deserved dedicated periods of study, not just learning on the fly. From that grew the first business school at a university.

The second era of management, according to McGrath, was all about expertise. By the late 20th century, the field of management was growing and even splintering off into sub-categories as new theories prevailed. Companies would claim their success was a result of one theory or the other, and books exploring various theories of management were being published in response to other books on the topic. The field of management had entered an enlightenment.

But there was one problem. As the ways we worked kept changing, the mindset and metaphors through which we came to understand management stayed the same. Our new machine mindset was now troubling for a variety of reasons, not least of which was because a new kind of work and worker was beginning to blossom.

Peter Drucker, a management guru of the expertise era, coined the term “knowledge work.” He saw there was something missing in the ways people were discussing the changing nature of work—nobody seemed to be charting the changing nature of workers. For Drucker, the stories we'd been telling ourselves about how best to produce goods weren't taking into account the value of a worker’s knowledge or their ability to use such knowledge.

Though Drucker’s thoughts were a glimpse into the future, an article at Knowledge@Wharton titled, Productivity in the Modern Office: A Matter of Impact, said this about our ability to implement them:

More than 50 years after management guru Peter Drucker first wrote about the difficulty of defining and measuring the productivity of knowledge workers, management experts say many companies still do a poor job of it. ‘In general, organizations have not truly come to grips with how to think about productivity in a knowledge economy, let alone how best to manage it,’ says Jordan Cohen, a productivity expert with PA Consulting Group.”

With economic inequality getting worse in so many parts of the world, with the new new “knowledge work” where change is the new normal, and with modern teams increasingly valuing employees holistically, it’s time to let go of our antiquated mindsets and metaphors. We’ve entered a new era. In McGrath’s words:

Today, we are in the midst of another fundamental rethinking of what organizations are and for what purpose they exist. If organizations existed in the execution era to create scale and in the expertise era to provide advanced services, today many are looking to organizations to create complete and meaningful experiences. I would argue that management has entered a new era of empathy.”

Management in the era of empathy

When I asked Roman Krznaric, author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It, his thoughts on the intersection of management and empathy, he said: 

Empathy in the modern workplace is not just being able to see things from another's perspective—it's the cornerstone of good teamwork, smart leadership and innovative design. With increasing automation, the real comparative advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships, both inside and outside firms—and that means empathy will count more than ever. Let's forget recruiting employees simply on the basis of their professional qualifications or their Myers-Briggs scores: give them an empathy test and fill your organization with emotional intelligence."

Krznaric's words got me thinking....

The history books during my time in school (may it not be so today!) taught the industrial revolution primarily through the lens of Henry Ford’s perceived genius and subsequent impact. But perhaps the truer story, the truer force of impact, is that while Mr. Ford certainly wielded tremendous influence, the millions of courageous workers who put their lives on the line to protest for safe working conditions and fair wages carved history far more than a single man ever could.

They fought and died for their own rights, but it was their collective buzz and wanting to better the conditions for future workers that makes me realize that empathy was their torch. It’s a torch I saw burning in the eyes of the protesting Bangladesh factory workers I met a few years ago, and it's a torch that should continue to guide management professionals whether they are professors teaching the next generation or are deep in the world of business.

In a variety of sectors, empathy is often viewed as a “soft skill"; it's perceived as that unnecessary attribute just as likely to be a weakness as a stength. But there is perhaps no greater attribute for a “third era of management” professional to have than empathy.

The alternative means stale imagery trying to make sense of new realities. It means companies failing to reach their goals because they didn’t tap their own or their employee’s empathic resources. It means damaged or underdeveloped employee relationships. It means talent walking out the door. It means accepting the status quo of not seeing our own privilege and therefore the full extent of inequality. In a recent article titled, Is empathy the hidden motor of human history, Krznaric put it this way:

...empathy and reason typically operate in conjunction to create the foundations of human rights and social justice. They are not polar opposites but are in fact the best of friends, a democratic double act. Like knife and fork, ball and socket, Fred and Ginger, they work best when they work together… The task we face is to create a generational shift, rebalancing the focus on individualist values with a greater emphasis on collective values.”

We can either be part of that shift, or get swept away by holding onto an unstable foundation from a bygone era.

Has management entered a new era of empathy? How does empathy play a role in your company’s management style or policies?

***

About the featured photo:

Michael Summers’ “Love Bots” is our feature painting this week. Artist statement: “Each painting hints at a story of self-realization and gently pokes fun at our pre-conceived notions of reality and the extraordinary. By taking everyday objects and imagery and putting them in a new context, I encourage people to take another look at the world around them... I can create art for myself, but it is simply incomplete until I can make someone else happy in the process. Please, feel welcome, and enjoy!”

-Carrot photo: Boardman Robinson [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

-Special thanks to Michael Doran for alerting me to the HBR article precisely when I needed it.

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What An Unlimited Vacation Policy Really Means https://www.getflow.com/blog/unlimited-vacation-policy Thu, 26 Nov 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/unlimited-vacation-policy unlimited-vacation.jpg#asset:646

VACATION: the number of days or hours per year for which an employer agrees to pay workers while they are not working.

***

We must begin there, because that's the vacation we're really talking about.

So I'm asking you to purge whatever feelings you've ascribed to "vacation." You know that endless beach that appears in your mind's eye? Turn it upside down and shake it like you would an Etch a Sketch. And that genuine feeling of serenity washing over you? Breathe it on out.

The idea of an unlimited vacation is one that takes the visions and feelings we've built up around vacations [cue Clark Griswold in National Lampoon's Vacation]:

...and knows what our first instinct will be... Yes, please!

But its name is one part "endless buffet" and one part PATRIOT ACT. You know how the former typically goes; you pay more because your stomach is growling and your first instinct causes you to believe that endless eating sounds... Yes, please!  But then you eat what you usually eat, you're stuffed, and that's enough. You just paid 30% more to eat 0% more. And the latter is the kind of political poetics that applies the pressure of language to influence your decision: What do you mean you're against the PATRIOT ACT? What kind of American are you?

What do you mean you're against an unlimited vacation? What kind of employee are you?

Consider This: Our modern idea of vacation—as a period of time away from work that emphasizes the virtue of leisure—has its roots in the middle of the 19th century, when people began to believe that businessmen were suffering from "brain fatigue." See NPR's The History Of The Vacation Examined at the end of this article.

Unlimited vacation isn't policy, it's a workplace culture flag

It goes by a variety of names—unlimited PTO, flexible vacation, and permissive time off, among others—but from a policy standpoint it doesn't carry the same across-the-board standards as something like "6-weeks paid vacation." When I put out a request on HARO to get opinions for this piece, I actually had two employees at the same company (which has an unlimited vacation policy) offer different definitions of what it meant to them.

This brought me to the conclusion that unlimited vacation doesn't mean anything, until it does. If a company embraces it, they are not embracing an agreed upon policy so much as they are waving their workplace culture flag. Companies touting their unlimited vacation policy are telling employees: We're a progressive company to work for. Join us. 

Here are a few tenets this flag has come to stand for:

   -employees know how much time off they require in order to maintain productivity

   -vacation time should not be dictated by seniority or other standards of hierarchy

   -time off work is rejuvenating and therefore leads to happier employees

   -the company values what you get done, not how long you've been clocked in

While such companies typically are progressive (they allow employees to work remotely either part or full-time, they pay fair wages, etc.), Megan McArdle, a columnist at Bloomberg View, offers this perspective:

But how much of a perk is this, really? There’s a reason that you tend to see this perk at places like Netflix, rather than places like Wal-Mart: they’re staffed with workaholics who probably don’t take much of their vacation anyway."

McArdle backs this point up with what she refers to as "superjobs," those kinds of jobs offered by companies (like Netflix) that tend to provide a host of other intangible benefits. But, a "superjob" requires what I'll call a "superworker," and she offers this description for such employees:

The people who do these jobs have a very high level of commitment to their work, partly because the people who do them tend to be hard-working, and partly because being a successful professional is such a deep part of their personal identity and ethos."

While McArdle's argument reeks of some kind of cultural bias—I've seen Wal-Mart employees who are every bit the workaholic, and whose identity and ethos are every bit as propelled by being a successful professional—I see where she's headed. Teasing the thread further, it becomes clear that (similar to the endless buffet) there's more to unlimited vacation than simply the magnificent altruism of the company offering it.

The financial upswing

Attracting great employees is certainly a financial benefit to the company, but the financial upswing for waving the unlimited vacation flag goes far deeper. For starters, there is the aforementioned "superjobs" culture whereby employees tend to take less time off anyways (Kickstarter got rid of its unlimited vacation policy because of this). However, a major benefit is that companies no longer have to pay out unused days. Jena McGregor over at The Washington Post put it this way:

Under a traditional vacation policy, employees either accrue vacation time over the course of the year, or start off the year with a bank of days that are owed to them. If they leave the company before they have used up all the time they accrued, employees are typically paid out their unused time. Not so at companies with unlimited vacation policies—they no longer have to carry any liability on their books for what goes unused."

What does that liability look in dollars and cents? In a report from Project: Time Off titled, The Hidden Costs of Unused Leave, Oxford Economics found that the average vacation liability per U.S. worker is about $1900. This means companies are strapped with 224 billion in vacation liabilities that they will have to pay out to employees when they retire or leave the company. However, the most startling statistic in the report is this: that vacation liability figure grew by 65 billion just in the last year.

In essence, modern employees (referred to in the report as "work martyrs" for their willingness to not use vacation days) under these traditional vacation policies are significantly costing the company by not taking their vacation days.

That's not a bill companies will have to pay out anytime soon, but it's so terrifying a prospect, according to the report, that it's leading many U.S. companies to actively encourage (and even incentivize) employees to take their vacation. This can come in the form of switching to a "use it or lose it" policy where unused days do not accrue (which is what about 25% of U.S. companies already do). Or, I'd argue, it can cause companies to abandon the increasingly expensive status quo and join the cool kids by pivoting toward some form of unlimited vacation.

When it works, and why

John Rampton, Founder and CEO of Due.com, told me that his employees love their unlimited vacation policy. And he does, too. He's had a 40% drop in employees leaving his team since offering the policy. The policy isn't just a flag for John and his team, it's actually become a policy that's working:

We’ve found that employees do take advantage of this and on average spend 21 days of vacation each year. Though they take more vacation days, on average they check their emails 3x a day in comparison to the 1x a day we had while we had a 2 week policy."

While critics of unlimited vacation would likely circle as hawks around that "3x a day" comment, as someone who has worked remotely for over 6 years I see it as a positive. While going unplugged and away from work is certainly important, I've also found value in the middle way—those occasional days of checking email but not being (or feeling pressured to be) either fully connected or disconnected from work.

In an article for Fast Company titled, We Offered Unlimited Vacation For One Year. Here's What We Learned., Nathan Christensen, CEO of Mammoth, shared a story similar to Rampton's. While his team took roughly the same amount of vacation time (21 days) as when they had a more traditional policy, after one year his employees ranked the unlimited vacation policy just below health insurance and their 401(k) in terms of employee benefits (beating out vision/dental insurance, and support for professional development). In trying to uncover why, Christensen said:

The answer may be that unlimited vacation is at least as valuable for what it says as for what it does."

From there, he posits "three hidden messages of unlimited vacation." And all three have little to do with actual policy, and a whole lot to do with the workplace culture:

1. "...offering unlimited vacation communicates that a company views its staff holistically."

2. "...unlimited vacation policies convey trust."

3. "...unlimited vacation treats employees as individuals."

I heard this "it works" mantra from countless other professionals and from a variety of different angles.

For Christopher Searles and his team at Searles Media, an unlimited vacation policy, "eliminates the stress and the overhead on both the company and the employee's part in tracking exactly how much time has been accrued and taken."

For Danielle Thompson and her team at ConsumerAffairs, an unlimited vacation policy "alleviates any fear generally associated with calling in sick or taking a vacation in a time period that would be considered probationary by most companies" while it "allows for employees to self regulate and show their company they are prudent time managers who take a highly organized approach to achieving their business goals."

Unlimited vacation is here, and here to stay

For important reasons both financial and cultural, what we're now referring to as "unlimited vacation" is here to stay. It may take on a name that better reflects what it actually is, but with companies increasingly feeling the burden of employees who won't take their vacation days, and employees increasingly wanting to work for progressive companies who view them holistically—the concept is just getting started.

For those who still prefer their 6-week vacation over what's to come, it's time to turn that preference upside down and shake it clean.

Do you like the direction vacation policies are headed? Is there a facet to the unlimited vacation conversation that wasn't covered here? Let us know in the comment section.

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About the featured photo:

Steve Barton's “Living in Paradise” is our feature painting this week. He is a world renowned artist known for his distinct loose impressionistic style. For decades Steve has been painting works from tropical scenes to still life and has been noted for his ability to capture his subjects in a distinct way through color and technique. For more information, check out Barton Studios.

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Flat Will Kill You, Eventually: Why Every Company Needs Structure https://www.getflow.com/blog/flat-will-kill-you Thu, 19 Nov 2015 01:10:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/flat-will-kill-you flat-organization-structure.jpg#asset:91

About a year ago at Flow, we had a big problem with how certain projects got done. Small projects were easy to handle: they’d come up, and then a small team would orbit around them, and get them done without much trouble. But whenever bigger, more complex projects would bubble up—projects that needed multiple opinions and specific requirements—progress would be unbelievably slow.

Sure, tasks would get doled out and properly assigned, but we'd miss deadlines, and requirements always seemed to be unclear. Even worse, nobody seemed particularly motivated to drive work home. And with nobody steering the ship, there was always a general sense of uncertainty about who should lead, and when. This resulted in things usually needing to float all the way to the top of the chain to get done.

Projects like this always seem to turn into an internal blame- or groan-a-thon. You’ll DM your co-workers complaining about… well, nothing. About how it’s really annoying that this project isn’t done yet. About how you feel helpless and stifled. About how things aren’t working like they used to. But there’s a lot of other stuff to do, so instead of looking closer and figuring it out, you’ll focus on your work, be irritated, and then complain that evening over a few beers.

This vicious cycle at Flow was borne from a lack of structure, and a tendency towards being a flat organization—where anyone could chip in when they felt like it, but nobody ran the show. If we didn’t do something, this was going to rot us from the inside out.

New best thing ever, or novelty?

There’s an impulse among companies these days to differentiate themselves with new and daring practices at the organizational level. There’s unlimited vacations, the rise of remote work, or most recently and most astonishingly, raising your minimum salary to $70,000 per year.

Practices like this are usually an attempt at culture, not authentic structural or organizational change. It’s hugely important to know the difference.

If it’s the former, we’re throwing complex systems into our companies as nothing more than competitive hiring advantages: things that sound great, but aren’t installed at our companies professionally or correctly, or with any thought to whether or not that program will scale. This is scary, because as we all know, things only get harder to change as a company grows.

The flat organization, which was just starting to seep in at Flow, is perhaps the most beautiful and shiny of all your differentiators. Everyone hates managers, right? What is this—the 50’s? Well, let’s get rid of those. We’ll have a bunch of smart people orbiting around whatever needs to get done, and without middle managers, we’ll get rid of bottlenecks. Oh, and with the added responsibilities, people will make big mistakes and learn quickly. We’ll have a team of creative geniuses and everyone will feel like they own a piece of the product. Screw it. Let’s ditch structure. Let’s have fun.

Nice try, but there's no such thing as no structure

While a structureless environment can succeed—people are indeed forced into a creative mindset in the absence of draconian middle management—the reality of human nature and the need for rules usually catches up with a flat organization. Chris Savage, whose company Wistia moved from a flat organization to one more traditionally structured, pointed out the following:

Early on, we were never super explicit about how we made decisions as a company, and that tended to work in our favor. It meant that everyone dabbled in every decision. Anyone could share their two cents on any project, and we were collectively on the lookout for opportunities to improve… This lack of clarity created an insane amount of chaos and allowed us to be more creative.

As your company gets bigger, responsibilities get chopped up into smaller pieces. The relationships between areas of ownership become exceedingly complex, which clouds the decision-making process. For us, it became hard to take risks—no one was clear on who was responsible for what. We moved more slowly, and it felt harder to learn and be creative."

While a 10-person team with a flat structure might just mean trotting over to someone else’s desk to ask them for something or to check on the progress of a small piece, a larger company might require the involvement of multiple individuals working on multiple projects, and the sheer volume of projects means that opportunities for creativity get less consideration.

That’s all without mentioning that structure has a curious way of imposing itself within an organization. While the flat organization attempts to keep restrictions at a minimum in the interest of cultivating creativity, the same old structures tend to rear their ugly ogrish heads. Chris Savage again:

While people on the team made smaller decisions about their parts of the business, I ultimately acted as a bottleneck for major decisions. We began to realize that by building a company with a flat org structure, we had done the exact opposite of what we had intended. We had centralized all the decision-making, and we were relying on a secret implicit structure to make progress.”

Those bottlenecks you got rid of when you ditched middle managers? They’re replaced by an even narrower one at the top of the ladder. Remember what I told you about those Flow projects? Yup.

But instead of having this top-down system defined or at least acknowledged, an implied structure develops: one which is much harder to change, and infinitely more frustrating for the people working within it. Confused, directionless employees create a sort of ad-hoc system of self-management, which is catastrophically non-communal and ultimately results in some Lord of the Flies-level chaos.

Brian Robertson, co-founder of HolacracyOne, describes this madness:

We have leaders whose implicit expectations rule – we learn to figure them out and align with them first and foremost, and we look to these leaders to resolve other conflicts. As leaders, with others trying so hard to align with our expectations, we learn to temper ourselves and hold back, so we don’t accidentally create pressure or contribute to a disempowered culture. And across our peers we learn to engage in the process of building consensus or buy-in – a sometime-insidious political game to align expectations using personal relationships and force of character.”

Rather than communally working under an explicit system which we can choose to either like or dislike, we (leaders included) opt to work in chaos and individually figure out our own ways of getting things done. Law of the office-jungle. Yikes.

Holacracy: close, but not quite

Holacracy is an interesting antidote to the issue of implied structures: it aims to maintain the openness and creativity-fostering of a flat organization, while giving each role an explicit structure and authority. It gives organizations a good mix of central governance and autocracy, as you see in this image from Holacracy.org:

holacracy.png#asset:917

In a holacracy, employees get their managerial-ish decision making authority, but within specific, defined boundaries. Holacracy.org also provides this helpful metaphor:

In football, you know to pass to the striker not because you’re friends with him, but because he’s in the best position to score. Even if you’re mad at the person playing the striker position, you’ll still pass the ball to that role because the strategy of the game suggests that you should. Similarly, in Holacracy, the roles are vested with authority, not the people.”

In essence, holacracy makes a noble stand against the politics of our normal workplaces, and stops power-hungry sharks from stealing everyone else’s chow—something which can easily plague both conventional and flat organizations.

While an important step forward from the complete chaos of flat, there’s something critical that seems unacknowledged in the structure of holacracy: the vulnerability of working in the open. My personal experience in working in a company without C- or middle-level management (as Flow was in the beginning) was that it created a certain kind of idea paralysis. Every decision felt too paramount because there were too many eyes on every move, and not enough direct management about who should (or even how they should) make those moves. 

Sometimes, we just need a curtain

In Ethan Bernstein’s excellent Harvard Business Review piece, The Transparency Trap, he puts forth the idea that for the average worker, the ability to work in private can be just as important for productivity as openness and transparency; that a too-large working group or an excess of authority can leave people feeling exposed and vulnerable.

In his research, he describes the case of a mobile phone factory in China, one of the world’s largest of its kind. It was a factory of 14,000 workers, but a paragon of openness—a massive floor, without walls or dividers. Everyone was able to observe everyone else: it was flat organization realized as a structure.

Interestingly, Bernstein observed that workers would often conceal better ways to work—from both their managers and their peers—because they felt it was “most efficient to hide it now and discuss it later. Everyone is happy: They see what they expect to see, and we meet our targets.”

Being part of a workplace with too few boundaries inhibited workers; the power to change everything for everyone was totally undesirable.

Bernstein asked the management to set up an experimental production line, and overheard an employee’s suggestion that their workstation be surrounded by a curtain. They tried it out, and to their amazement, productivity increased 15% around the curtained line. Here’s what Bernstein had to say:

By shielding employees from observation, the curtains supported local problem solving, experimentation, and focus. But within the curtains work became much more transparent. And over time the camaraderie within boundaries made the workers more likely to share—as a group—their privately worked-out solutions with other lines.”

The average worker at this factory was not interested in bringing forth changes too dramatic; but when it came to implementing ideas in their own enclosed team, enthusiasm jumped. Many of us, just like the workers in the factory, have anxiety about our ideas shaking things up just a little too much. We do better work in the womb-like confines of a small, trusted organization of a team, where we can observe and manipulate the change—ensuring that our idea will be properly understood.  

And sometimes we need yelling

Some of the best wisdom on running teams comes from kitchens, and recently, in Lucky Peach, chef Wylie Dufresne discussed his thoughts on running a great kitchen:

People don’t realize what they’re capable of; almost nobody realizes their potential. As coaches, we’re here to help you reach further than you thought you could—and sometimes, duress helps with that. It’s also part of life. People need boundaries; they need structure. Children need structure; grown-ups need structure. Do we need hitting or pot-throwing? No. Do we need yelling? Probably. Probably we do, at times."

I agree with Wylie wholeheartedly—and I think he nails the only fundamental rules we need to follow when we’re trying to impose some very necessary structure on our team.

First off, everyone needs structure. Just acknowledge that. It’s a basic requirement of any good, comfortable work; very few of us are such consummate artists that we can draw genius from the most bare of requirements. Structure is what lets us focus on our work, rather than navigating the best way to accomplish even the easiest tasks. The path from beginning to end needs to be well-tread and obvious. Your team should not battle a non-existent system.

And sometimes, we need yelling—or more accurately, we need someone pushing us from behind into actually getting our work done. Someone who gives a shit about our careers and our sanity and our company, all at once. We need someone in charge. If we don’t have it, things stagnate, and work doesn’t feel that important. You can’t have 15, 20, or 25 people working in their own silos, emerging only when they feel like chipping in.

Meet in the middle?

While the aggressively structureless and lawless world of flat organizations provides neither structure nor yelling, and the holacracy seems to provide too much responsibility and expectation for the average worker, it seems that Wylie’s happy medium must lie somewhere between the two: an ideal balance of structure and hierarchy of people.

Is the answer simple conventional management, which brings in distinct departments and managers who prevent you from having bottlenecks? It’s entirely possible, and extremely possible that such a simple system isn’t as outmoded as it might sound (P.S., that’s how we solved our stagnating problem at Flow).

What’s important, though, is that we look beyond neon-sign benefits of things like flat organization (“We don’t have bosses here!”) and look at how this system will impact the work we’re doing, and how it’ll influence the unique people who make up our team—how it will give people the structure they crave.

Sometimes, we just need to find the easy answers. Maybe your team’s solution isn’t radical organizational change; maybe it’s just putting up a curtain to give your team some space, or giving your team a few managers to help get rid of their bottlenecks. Maybe we don’t need to do the sexy thing. Maybe that sexy thing is what kills you.

What's your take on having a flat organizational structure? What structure has worked best for your team?

***

About the featured photo:

Fabio Napoleoni's "Welcome to the Unknown" is our feature painting this week. Many events influenced Fabio's artwork but none more than the traumatic events that followed the birth of his second child. His daughter, born with major heart abnormalities, had to face several surgeries to correct issues that could prevent her from having a future. Through this experience, Fabio realized what was missing from his work: emotion.

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Team Chat Apps and the Illusion of Communication https://www.getflow.com/blog/team-chat-apps Thu, 12 Nov 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/team-chat-apps team-chat-apps.jpg#asset:648

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

—George Bernard Shaw

***

I once had a leadership role at a content factory. We were a small remote team and we worked in the digital equivalent of what happens behind the counter at McDonald’s. Instead of standing in a line to blast Big Macs with special sauce, we logged online and blasted word docs into WordPress. Instead of racing to meet customer demand, we raced to be indexed higher in Google Land.

In the beginning, I saw us not like a McDonald’s assembly line (I once worked in one and perhaps tried to bury the memories) but like a bunch of talented chefs in a busy kitchen. Though we each had mastery over a certain part of the dish, we believed in everything we served. Our growing readership bolstered this belief.

But then Facebook changed its algorithm, and just like that a share on our page reached about 30% of what it used to reach.

And then we caught wind of how many articles other publishers were pumping out. Some remained at 20 per day. Others jumped to one article every 30 minutes. Still others had reached over 100 articles a day. “It’s as though quality content doesn’t matter anymore,” one colleague told me. We had to act fast—and though we didn’t all agree on this—we decided that keeping up with the Joneses was the only way to survive. More content.

Eventually a few of us got so overwhelmed just trying to maintain our small part that we lost sight of the dish, or that we were part of a team. We had turned into a bunch of individuals on autopilot, trusting that our team communication was solid because we were essentially doing the same job (just with different editorial sections), and because we had been doing it long enough to know we could trust each other.

As we were swamped with emails (I hit a point where I was receiving about 60 each day from colleagues, and over 100 from contributors), we tried to replace email as our primary team communication with a once-a-week phone call.

And so began our foray into the communication illusion. Rather than airing our concerns on our weekly call, we started privatizing them. Instead of helping a teammate understand an error they made (a photo wasn't formatted properly, etc.), one of us would jump in and fix it without telling them. Who had the time? The machine had to be fed.

I could see the quality of our content dropping, but it wasn’t until joining the team here at Flow (and seeing what effective communication can look like) that I’ve come to understand how our drop in quality was primarily a result of poor team communication.

What in the world are team chat apps?

In the interim between the content factory and Flow, I took on a variety of jobs. I was an adjunct instructor for universities on-the-ground and online, a freelance journalist covering international issues, and a public speaker. Not once during any of these gigs did I hear about “project management platforms” or “team chat apps.” And then I join Flow, and my first essay is titled Work Email is Dying: What’s Next?

How the hell did that happen?

Because I saw the immense value a team communication tool can provide. Whereas I was receiving about 60 emails a day from colleagues, I’m now receiving maybe 1. Whereas an email meant adding their email address, then a subject line, then an opening line and then what I wanted to say—Flow allowed me to essentially skip those steps and get straight to the what I wanted to say part. And whereas I wasn’t sure where a conversation took place (or who was included on it), I could now jump into Flow chat and find exactly what I was looking for.

However, and although I am damn grateful for Jeremy Goldman of Inc. referring to us as What Might Make Email Obsolete, I have some reservations with team chat apps. Flow is a great product, and so are many other project management and team communication apps out there. But these tools are just that… tools. While they can and do help millions of people around the world work better together (I can’t imagine not using one at this point), they can also present new communication illusions for teams.

The illusion that you are now easier to reach

Chat apps have made communicating with your team easier. This can also mean they've made you easier to reach. Receiving an after-hours email isn’t cool, but it also doesn’t carry quite the same expectation of a reply the way a message in a team chat app does. In some apps, your teammates can see when you’re on or when you’ve viewed their message. In this way it’s similar to a text message or even a Facebook direct message—I saw you saw my message, why didn’t you respond?

The tool, of course, isn’t at fault here. To combat this, some have built-in features like away messages or “out of work” mode to let your colleagues know you’re away. But the ultimate way to dismantle this illusion isn’t to wield the tools of the app, it’s to work on your team’s workplace culture. This leads to:

The illusion that your team chat app = your team's communication

Reliance on team chat apps as the primary mode of communication can create the illusion that the app is synonymous with your team’s communication. This illusion can more easily take hold if your team chat app also handles project management. But the complexity of team communication is vast, and no app can shore up existing and deeply-rooted team communication problems. If communication was terrible to begin with (as ours became at the content factory), then introducing an app may create the same effect—teammates may gradually move from public chat to direct messages, and do so not for project management reasons but because of personal alliances.

The illusion that you can stop organizing your thoughts

It’s easy to hate on internal work email (I did it when I found a better way), but email indirectly demands that the writer compose their thoughts before hitting send. Team chat apps, because they feel closer to WhatsApp or LINE than to email, can create the illusion that it’s okay to send stream-of-consciousness unorganized chaos to your teammates. As Lauren Goode, senior editor at The Verge, put it:

lauren-goode-twitter.png#asset:919

The illusion that you're being productive

When I first started using Flow, I felt like I was most productive when I was logged in all day and up-to-date on everything everybody was chatting about. After a month or so I realized this was… an illusion. I am actually more productive when I’m out walking and speaking my ideas into a voice memo, or sitting in the bathtub thinking about what topic to write about for TMT. And when I was logged in all the time I felt distracted when I was doing research in other tabs—like I had to switch over to the Flow app in case I missed something. This broke my concentration, repeatedly, and actually made me less productive. In addition, this feeling of productivity led to me believing that I was portraying myself as a productive teammate (rather than letting the results speak for themselves). Of course it’s important to have synchronous communication with your teammates, but there are far better ways to do this (through setting notifications or scheduling time) than through waiting for synchronicity to happen.

The illusion that your team chat app will be embraced evenly

When communication started to break down at the content factory, certain teammates began to send text messages to those teammates they felt alliances with. That was the way some colleagues wanted to express what they were feeling. For me, because I didn’t feel my voice mattered on our team-wide calls, a 1-1 call with a teammate who I knew respected my thoughts helped alleviate some of my struggles. Still others wanted to rant via email. So keep this in mind as you discover which team chat app works best for your team:

Beyond the challenge of choosing, there is the challenge of using.

Teammates will embrace the app at different rates, and may use it in different ways. It’s important to understand each teammate’s communication preferences, and keep top of mind that the app is a tool and not the way.

Shaping your team's recipe

David Gelb’s documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi explores the life and work of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, a sushi chef considered by many to be the greatest in the world. Ono’s life schedule in Tokyo is and has always been like clockwork—he gets the train at precisely the same minute each day, he arrives at work at precisely the same time, and he prepares each dish with the same rhythmic pattern he’s been using since he started the craft. While the feature is of course on Ono, it’s equally fascinating to watch the others with him in the kitchen. Their movements are just as flawless. The Japanese sushi tradition demands that chefs master each of the parts before they are able to deliver the whole dish. The result is a team that understands what each other is doing, consistently delivers a quality product and, underpinning it all, recognizes when and how to communicate with each other.

Your team’s recipe will be different than any others, but your avoiding the illusions of communication along the way (whether you use a team chat app or not) will be what allows your team to reach its full potential.

What challenges have you had with team chat apps? Have they caused you or your teammates to experience any illusions of communication?

***

About the featured photo:

Christopher M. is known as “The Painter of Chefs.” In 2010, he was named Today’s Top Artist by Art Business News. His painting, Chefs in Harmony, seeks to show how chefs “work in unison and with great precision to create culinary masterpieces intended to delight all the senses.”

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Effective Teamwork Online requires Collaboration to be a Necessity, Not an Accessory https://www.getflow.com/blog/effective-collaboration Thu, 05 Nov 2015 14:00:00 +0000 Martin Zwilling https://www.getflow.com/blog/effective-collaboration effective-collaboration.jpg#asset:649

"Effective collaboration is about maximizing time, talent and tools to create value."

-Evan Rosen

***

Building a successful startup is not a job for the Lone Ranger. Every entrepreneur must effectively collaborate with many people, including internal team members, partners, customers, and investors. Real teamwork, both online and offline requires collaboration, leadership and initiative from the entrepreneur in order to drive the collaborative process and make the whole team better than the sum of its parts.

A few innovative companies, including the financial advice company The Motley Fool, are so convinced that collaboration is the key to their competitive advantage that they have added the role of “chief collaboration officer,” in the person of Todd Etter. Todd tells people that his primary role is to get people around him to creatively and intelligently think together. Their teamwork online embodies the essence of effective collaboration.

While effective collaboration is easier said than done, it’s the backbone for any startup that wants to get their product off the ground. As Ken Goldstein, former Vice President & Managing Director of Disney Online, said: “Products start with people… which means products start with collaboration.”

So how can growing teams not only embrace the idea of effective collaboration, a relatively abstract term, but actually use it?

For starters, it’s important to note that even the entrepreneurs who seem to have an innate ability to attract and inspire others can improve their collaboration skills. Regardless of our title or position in the company, we are all capable of learning from the experience of others. You certainly don’t have to be a natural-born leader in order to help your team find angles for collaboration.

Based on my years of advising entrepreneurs and investing, here are the three strategies that successful startups use to make effective collaboration an integral part of how they work:

They value all forms of communication, not simply agreeability 

Successful startups make communication a visible top priority. Nothing undermines offline or online teamwork and collaboration like poor communication. This includes written, verbal and body language. You can typically tell an unhappy, disconnected team by the way they interact and carry themselves throughout the day. All team members need to know what is expected of them on any given task, what their teammates are thinking, and what has changed since yesterday. Each individual teammate should be encouraged to be a positive role model through their actions, and discouraged from relying on the initiative of others.

As with all effective communication, episodes of conflict will surely arise. Successful startups encourage constructive conflict and view it as a way to explore alternative ways of thinking. Surrounding yourself with “yes” people, or people with no conviction, may feel good initially, but it will not produce the kind of effective collaboration necessary for a startup to succeed. You need smart people, with emotions as well as intellect, and this means that conflicts will occur as different perspectives are surfaced. Successful startups do not let conflicts turn into fights; they use conflicts to help drive consensus.

Effective teamwork online also means being strong enough to employ the two basic, but oft-neglected communication skills: asking and listening. The leaders of successful startups must be strong enough to ask for feedback, listen deeply to that feedback, and then act on it. Every entrepreneur, if they are committed to improving their team and their own effectiveness, will benefit from soliciting and actively listening to team feedback.

They lead, and let others lead

Successful startups foster individual credibility and trustworthiness. The surest mark of a trustworthy leader is one who delivers on every personal commitment, no matter how small or seemingly trivial it may be. Their actions, day in and day out, should showcase their willingness to both listen to and work with others. 

Effective teamwork online and in office is maximized on teams where everyone is credible in their own realm, and everyone trusts each other, including the leader. Again, actions speak louder than words.

But successful startups also recognize that everyone on the team needs to be a decision maker. Collaboration is not an excuse for anyone to avoid making a decision, and the expert on a certain part of a project should be given the chance to lead. People who are able and willing to make sound individual decisions, can make great decisions as part of a team if they’re given the opportunity to do so. The first decision of a startup leader must be to team only with people who can make timely, good decisions.

Effective collaboration can also be built when the leader introduces advisors to make teamwork online or in office specific learning opportunities. Successful startups occasionally see team projects as an opportunity to bring in outside experts to mentor team members, and guide them through complex issues and unfamiliar territory. They provide liberal access to inside leaders, with the expectation that collaborative efforts will be productive both for business and for personal growth.

They build a workplace where change is exciting, not painful

Successful startups build a culture where innovation and change are normal. Collaboration is wasted effort for a team when everyone knows that nothing is likely to change. An innovative team solution must be accepted with a positive attitude, and initial team instructions should always encourage creative thinking and solutions. Effective collaboration can only grow in an environment where change is exciting and expected, rather than rare and painful for all.

This type of environment can be built through encouraging and even incentivizing thinking outside the box, with a structured process. Chaos is the result of no structure, and is non-productive. Effective collaboration requires a balance of open-ended thinking within a leadership structure that drives to closure in a timely manner. Successful startups encourage each other to define parameters at the start of each project, and then measure progress along the way.

However, even a perfect environment must reward both effective collaboration wins as well as individual contributions. If a team only rewards individual achievements, collaboration, even in a team that embraces change, will be stifled. Rewards can come in a variety of forms—from appreciative words and extra days off, to paying for an employee's travel and registration to attend a conference in their field. In my experience, a balance between team and individual drivers is the most effective approach.

The result: a win-win-win relationship

While these three strategies are the backbone for successful startups, it’s important to note that they must always evolve with the times. The increase of remote teams, for example, may present new challenges to effective collaboration. Team members that do not work together daily, or barely even know each other, will require extra effort to build and maintain communication, credibility, and trustworthiness. What makes a team optimal online does not differ from an offline setting. It’s up to the leader or entrepreneur to provide the bridge, the process, and the glue to keep the team efforts productive.

Thus, a positive approach to forming any collaborative team is to capitalize on preexisting or “heritage” relationships. Research has shown that when 20 to 40 percent of the members are already well connected, the team was able to provide stronger collaboration right from the start. It’s important to leverage these existing relationships, especially when new team members come on board and need time to understand the workplace culture.

Also, bigger doesn’t mean better when it comes to collaborative teams. Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, famously nailed this with the “two pizza teams” rule: If a team can’t be fed with two pizzas, it’s too big. Throwing more people into a critical team is one of the most common productivity traps that new entrepreneurs can fall into. It can stop effective collaboration in its tracks, and in my experience individual performance levels often diminish as more people are added.

Ultimately, an effective collaboration and teamwork is one that strives for a win-win-win relationship for the individuals, the team and the company. Smart individuals working together soon realize that their collective results simply could not have been achieved alone. Each individual ends up learning far more than they contribute. Likewise, winning teams spawn winning individuals. The end result is this: focusing on and investing in individual-to-team development will mean a win for the organization.

In today’s rapidly changing and highly interconnected business environment, it takes more than a lone inventive genius to build a business. Successful startups realize that incentivizing effective collaboration for the entire team is a necessity, not an accessory. Those that embrace it, will carry on. Those that don't, won't.

Have you done everything you can do to create this type of environment? What have you found to be the most challenging part of effective collaboration?

***

Martin Zwilling is the Founder and CEO of Startup Professionals, a company that provides services to startup founders around the world. Prior to this he was a software developer and Executive team leader at IBM. He's a frequent contributor at Forbes and Entrepreneur. Follow him on Twitter at @StartupPro.

About the featured image:

Marcus Robinson is an Irish painter, photographer and documentarian specializing in urban transformation and architecture. The painting featured here, an oil on wood titled "Big Man In The Sky," is part of his latest project about rebuilding the World Trade Center.

A statement from the artist on the intersection of his work and effective collaboration:

"Walking along a steel beam, 1700 feet up in the air above New York City, is probably one of the more intense places to experience the need for effective collaboration! The ironworkers who are rebuilding the World Trade Center work as a team, fused together by years of training and the application of razor-sharp discipline, because their lives quite literally depend on it. For the past 9 years, while filming and painting the transformation of the site, I have witnessed extraordinary acts of dedication to their team ethos, and through this to a wider celebration of their shared humanity. It is this spirit that is at the core of my film and paintings."

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Growing, Growing, Gone: The Quiet Killers of Growing Startups https://www.getflow.com/blog/killers-of-growing-startups Thu, 29 Oct 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/killers-of-growing-startups growing-startups.jpg#asset:650

“A startup is designed to grow fast.”

—Paul Graham

***

When Elon Musk rolled out of bed on December 21, 2008, he felt on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

“I felt this is the closest I’ve ever come, because it seemed… pretty dark,” he told CBS.

In October of that year he became CEO of Tesla Motors, an American automotive and energy storage company, and Esquire referred to him as “arguably the most 21st-century entrepreneur on the planet.”

But the fuller picture is that Musk was coming off a string of failures in two companies he had bet the house on.

Pause. It’s typically around this point, after successive failures that leave a company hemorrhaging money and firing workers, that most startups call it quits. If they had noteworthy potential, they might luck out and see their name on the Startup Failure Post-Mortem list from CB Insights before they’re buried. Those that hang on, and fully believe they are the next Apple despite the overwhelming evidence, are living in what Mark Nichols referred to as “the type of delusion” that will probably increase the likelihood of their startup being one of the 90% that fail.

Play. As co-founder of PayPal, Musk made $180 million when eBay purchased the company in 2002. And he’d spent every cent of that on Tesla and SpaceX, a space exploration technology company he founded. The first three rockets launched by SpaceX didn’t reach orbit, and he felt a 4th failure could mean an end to the company. And Tesla? It was losing money, Musk had to fire a quarter of the company’s employees, and it was becoming known as much for its sense of innovation as for its quality problems (by May 2009 Tesla had to recall 75% of the Roadsters it made since March 2008).

Throw in this additional layer of context: the US economy was in the worst recession since the Great Depression, and nothing better portrayed this story than the very industry Musk was trying to succeed in. Chrysler would file for bankruptcy on April 30, 2009, and General Motors did the same about a month later.

Oh, and Musk was getting divorced, there was a point when Tesla nearly had to file for bankruptcy, and he was so broke that he was borrowing money from his friends to pay the rent.

Pause. You likely know where this feel-good story is headed after the pause, but there’s another reason why you should be feeling good right now: if your startup is growing you’re in a far greater place than Musk was back in 2008. Of course the barometer of global success is dependent on a variety of factors, including the industry, but your growth is a good sign. Paul Graham, venture capitalist and co-founder of the Y Combinator seed capital firm, put it this way:

Being newly founded does not in itself make a company a startup. Nor is it necessary for a startup to work on technology, or take venture funding, or have some sort of 'exit.' The only essential thing is growth. Everything else we associate with startups follows from growth.”

Play. The story then took a turn that is held up as a beacon for entrepreneurs everywhere. Money poured in from a variety of funders (including the government). The 4th launch of the Falcon 1 rocket orbited the Earth, becoming the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket ever to do so. Tesla went on to create the highest-performing car that Consumer Reports ever tested. And Elon Musk, since the death of Steve Jobs, became Silicon Valley’s superstar. Fortune even called him a “one-man embodiment of the future.”

Enter Zirtual

“Dedicated virtual assistants for entrepreneurs, professionals and small teams.” That’s the tagline for Zirtual. Or was. Or maybe it’s now on their virtual tombstone. Zirtual had enough potential to make the Post-Mortem list, but they’re now more known for their abrupt folding than for anything positive they achieved. As Tom Webster succinctly put it on Episode 56 of The Marketing Companion Podcast:

They folded without any notice to anybody. They had 400 virtual contractors who basically woke up the next morning finding out they weren’t going to get paid.”

Webster then referenced the Medium post from Maren Kate Donovan, Zirtual’s CEO. Donovan, in 8 sentences, tells the cliched story (and as some commenters believe, an untrue or incomplete story) of having her “backpacker’s pack and burning desire,” having to live in hostels so she could financially support her dream, and then in a blink how Zirtual “...had almost 500 employees, was serving thousands of clients and was on an $11M run rate.”

But it’s the 9th sentence that steps out of myth and steps into the kind of reality most startups face:

Then growing fast caught up with us….”

For every Tesla story there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of stories like that of Zirtual: companies that started with a fire in their belly, carved out their niche enough to grow and then… growing fast caught up with them. They had chased down growth, but once they got a hold of it things started to spiral out of control.

So what happened in this case? Donovan said burn was Zirtual’s problem, and she refers to it as “that tricky thing.”

Note 1: Burn is money in vs. money out.

And then she said the words that confirmed why a ton of people were pissed off:

The reason we couldn’t give more notice was that up until the 11th hour, I did everything I could to raise more money and right the ship.”

Here’s what Peter Shankman, founder of HARO, tweeted out:

peter-shankman-tweet.png#asset:926

Donovan then followed up her comment about burn with this gem:

“I’ve read notes from people calling me stoic as this shit storm has hailed down on us.”

Note 2: Burn is money in vs. money out. A shit storm may burn, but burn cannot shit storm.

As Webster completed his telling of the story, his podcast partner Mark Schaefer (who I admire greatly), brings up…

...Elon Musk. And of course the story of how Tesla was saved at the 11th hour.

And this is how the cycle of startup delusion continues. When all the stories of failure are countered with the same anomaly, that anomaly starts to become the mythologized norm. And since history rarely remembers teams, an individual becomes the epic hero.

The verdict’s out on what's true in Donovan’s post, but this is the part all startups should spend time deconstructing before it’s too late:

At the end of the day we grew faster than we could handle.”

So how can growth, that crucial component that makes a startup a startup, be the problem? Let us count the ways.

The 7 Quiet Killers of Growing Startups

Note: For a quick takeaway of these, check out our SlideShare at the end of the article.

1. The Growth Trap

In 2012, Georgetown University professor Sandeep Dahiya wrote a quiet little article titled Are You Growing Too Fast? for Harvard Business Review.

In it, he tells the story of Allen Printing, a family-owned printing business in Tennessee that had to file bankruptcy nearly a year after their sales hit an all-time high.

The Challenge: Dahiya said the company had "fallen into a familiar trap: unsustainable growth." He spoke of how high growth can overwhelm the existing internal control of small teams. Eventually, the CEO:

"...realized that as new orders poured in, it became difficult to establish the true cost of fulfilling them. And, because credit was readily available to cover the growing need for working capital, it was easy to ignore the sizable number of unprofitable and late paying customers."

The Answer: Dahiya breaks it down into three points:

First, understand your true operating costs and how they evolve as your business grows. Rapid growth frequently put margins under pressure as the company tries to keep customers happy with such services as faster fulfillment and generous payment terms.

Second, get a solid grasp of your working capital needs—how much cash does your firm require to conduct day-to-day business?

Third, avoid the widespread obsession with income statements as an index of health.

His conclusion is the practical advice of actually being in the mindset to take action based on what your metrics are telling you.

2. Stretching Resources

Stretch gently, and when you're warmed up, and you'll likely be fine. Stretch ballistically, when you're cold, and shit will likely break.

The Challenge: In an article for USA Today titled Can small firms grow too fast?, Laura Petrecca said that "Stretching too far, too fast is a common misstep among enthusiastic business owners eager for growth." Petrecca then highlights Daniel Lubetzky, CEO of KIND Snacks, who says he made many mistakes by putting too much emphasis on expansion.

Stretching resources to pursue the belief that sales growth trumps everything is a challenge many growing startups face. And in being hellbent on expanding, quantity can pull too much of the company's attention.

The Answer: Lubetzky eventually learned from those mistakes, and now says he puts more emphasis on the quality of the product — even if that means he misses an opportunity that needed his immediate attention. Petrecca tells the story of one of KIND's most popular products:

For instance, it took his company two years to develop a dark chocolate and sea salt snack bar. He could have rushed the process to get the bar on store shelves sooner, but Lubetzky says he didn't want to compromise on taste or rashly add in ingredients he wasn't proud of including."

"We probably could have launched it in six months," Lubetzky said. "But we did not betray our values."

3. Changing Team Size

As a startup starts to grow, eventually the size of the team will as well.

The Challenge: Whereas focus could once be spent on task management, focus must increasingly be split between the task and on the building and managing of a growing team.

John Hall, CEO at Influence & Co. opened his piece at Forbes titled, 12 Challenges Faced By The Fastest-Growing Companies, with this statement:

There’s a common misconception that fast-growing startups have it made: They’ve found a business recipe for success and are on the fast track to making millions. Unfortunately, that’s not the case — high growth equals high uncertainty."

From there he asks fellow CEOs what struggles they faced as their growth really picked up. One response, from Tom Sullivan of SoundConnect, stood out because it seemed to astutely address concerns brought up by others:

Getting the right people on the bus is hard. I’m picky, but I think that is a good thing. If you don’t have enough of the right people, then you will try to do everything yourself."

Mark Miller, VP of Marketing at Emergenetics International, was next in line. He had something awfully similar to say:

As a fast-growing company, the biggest challenge we face is capacity. We have increasingly been able to build our demand, but ensuring we have the right people to execute on this demand is really tough. There are brilliant potential employees, but truly understanding what kind of hires we need and how to get people up and running quickly, effectively, and productively is our biggest challenge.”

The Answer: Take your time when building a team. Filling "the bus" with temps (or with people that do not fit with what you love most about your company's culture) could cost the company big time. For a deeper dive, check out this piece on team size from Cyrus Molavi.

4. Filling the Gaps

Gaps arise naturally when a startup begins to grow. And it's often the filling of these gaps that enables the startup to have steady footing for their next surge.

The Challenge: It's often the CEO, the one with the bird's eye view of the company, that knows which gaps need to be filled. But too often, especially in lean startups, the CEO tries to fill the gaps. The result isn't just burnout, it's all of the problems that can arise when the company leader isn't leading by his/her strengths. In his piece at Entrepreneur titled, Challenges faced by CEOs at fast growing companies, Deepak Narayanan of MyCFO states:

In high growth companies, CEOs possibly have larger roles to play since they end up filling the gaps left open by the existing team. Mind you, this is not a comment on the capability and energy of the existing teams; it is just a reflection of an unfinished agenda that is omnipresent in every high growth company that needs filling up."

The Answer: If you're the CEO/leader and filling a gap, have an exit plan. This includes strategizing with your team on when and how you'll exit, as well as what you'll pivot your attention toward when you do.

5. Understanding Tech

Writing for Inc. Magazine, Ken Lin, founder and CEO of Credit Karma, said technology is "...less a solution to all of your company's problems than a puzzle that needs to be constantly assessed and configured to make sure you're serving your customers in the best possible way." This applies not only to tech startups, but to any startup.

The Challenge: How to assess and configure? How to decide which product to trial or commit to among the thousands out there? That's just part of the challenge. Lin posits that, broadly speaking, there are three key challenges: Data, Inertia and Security.

The Answer: For Data, Lin says: "If technology and cost weren't obstacles, what would your company be doing with your data to help put out the best imaginable product? When you know that answer, you have to start challenging the long-standing assumptions that are keeping your business from achieving that vision."

For Inertia, Lin speaks of the increasing time it can take to get things done with a larger team. When the startup was small, decisions could made in minutes. He suggests the importance of being mindful of this change not only as its happening, but before it happens. Growing the team is exciting, but it's important to keep the decision-making process as streamlined as possible as you do.

For Security, Lin says it perfectly: "Security is a technological issue that can also easily become a reputational one." The answer here is to take it seriously and to not naively believe "you didn't think it would happen." Do what you can to shore up issues before the breach. For starters, 1Password is a great product for making sure all your team's passwords are safe.

6. Keeping the Customer First

Your growth means newfound popularity. Your employees may be receiving interview requests, speaking engagements or other opportunities. While these can certainly be worth pursuing, the flip side to your growth is that there are more users of your product. This means more customer service interaction, more support tickets to handle and more customers tweeting about some problem they've had.

The Challenge: You're equipped to get your product into more hands, but are you equipped to develop the extra customer service relationships that demands? "Customer service failures" takes #3 on the list of Carla Young's OPEN Forum article titled, 7 Ways Rapid Growth Can Kill Your Business.

The Answer: Know the problem. Your growth may look beautiful when it's covered in major media outlets or when it's compiled into a bar chart, but it can be easy to forget that behind every success and number is a customer. Company's typically rise and fall based on their products and their customers. And it's especially important to nurture both in times of immense growth.

7. Balancing Budget & Risk

And now we're back to talking about cash flow. In a Forbes article titled, Watch Out For The Five Hazards of Growing Too Quickly, Brian Hamilton, chairman of Sageworks, said accounts payable moving faster than sales or collections is the biggest challenge he sees in his work with fast-growth companies.

The Challenge: Hamilton says, "The company’s growing, but they’re selling on account rather than through cash transactions. This turns you into a debt collector. Suddenly, you find yourself in the banking business (to a certain extent). You could have – and you do have – cases where the company’s growing, they’re even profitable, but because they’re not collecting their accounts receivable quickly enough they go out of business or they have big problems."

The Answer: Sure, it's important to strive for that balance between aggressively pursuing growth and allowing your existing cash flow to shape your decisions. But let's be real; most startups are pursuing a dream, and many become so caught up in it that they may take on a certain numbness to the risks involved. The advice is twofold. First, go back to (1). Second, find a trusted advisor who is outside of the daily company work and who, preferably, has achieved something similar to what you hope to achieve. They'll understand the game you're playing, and be able to provide a new perspective.

Of course all startups face challenges. But some of these challenges can be exacerbated when the growth they've pursued starts to kick in — and this is in addition to the many new challenges that arise as a result of growth.

While Elon Musk's fandom (count me in) and story will continue to grow, the story of Zirtual perhaps has more to teach.

And since we opened with Elon on the verge of a breakdown, let's end on a more positive note: the advice he delivered at Dell World 2013:

If you can get a group of really talented people together, and unite them around a challenge, and have them work together to the best of their abilities, then a company will achieve great things.”

Do you have advice for growing companies? Has your company overcome seemingly insurmountable setbacks? Do you also think Kevin Durand is Elon Musk's doppelgänger?

***

The 7 Quiet Killers of Growing Startups

-Photo: Flickr/werkunz

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Two Easy New Ways to Stay Up-To-Date With Flow https://www.getflow.com/blog/up-to-date Fri, 23 Oct 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/up-to-date blog-1-flow.png#asset:873

For years, we’ve been relying on this blog to tell you all about Flow’s latest features. Turns out there are a couple of problems with that.

First off, you might miss something if you aren’t checking back here regularly. We don’t want that. Second, we figure it’s better to hear about cool new things in Flow while you’re actually using it — so you can try them out right away.

Well, moving forward, updates about Flow — everything from small enhancements to big, exciting new features — will be delivered right in the app. You’ll see them pop out of the right side of your screen, but they won’t get in the way of your work. They’ll look like this:

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This way, as long as you’re using Flow, you’ll always stay in the loop. Nothing’ll get by you.

But please note: we’ll no longer be posting updates on this blog. If you’re a customer, you’re all set — you’ll start getting updates in the app. If you’re not a customer and still want to receive regular updates, follow us on Twitter @flowapp or like us on Facebook to hear about anything & everything.

And introducing… The Modern Team

We also have a lot of fun writing stuff for this blog that isn’t about some big new feature. Sometimes we come across some compelling research, or just want to share a new idea that we stumble upon.

Well, we’ve launched a brand-new publication called The Modern Team, where we’ll explore the best and most effective ways for growing teams to work together. Everything we post there will be full of honest perspectives and the best research we can find — the kind of stuff we wish someone had told us while we were building Flow.

In our first few articles, we talk about the future of email at work, firing your ‘chief everything officer’, and the optimal team size for workplace productivity.

Have a read, and if you like what you see, subscribe to get a quick heads up whenever we post something new (about once a week).

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It's Time to Fire Your Chief Everything Officer https://www.getflow.com/blog/fire-your-chief-everything-officer Thu, 22 Oct 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/fire-your-chief-everything-officer chief-everything-officer.jpg#asset:651

“I’m trying to do way too much.”

***

I remember the specific moment when I realized this. It was back in 2011, and I was the head of MetaLab, a design & dev firm. We were growing like crazy, doubling our revenue and staff every year.

On one pivotal day, I managed to secure a call with an exciting new prospect who seemed like a perfect fit. I glanced at the project spec, and hopped on a call with their point person, who also happened to be the company’s CTO. Now, I was used to pitching to other CEOs, and didn’t have much experience talking serious tech — but at the time, I felt that I was the only one who knew our sales pitch well enough to handle the important sales calls. I thought anyone else would screw it up.

Almost immediately, the tough questions started rolling in about our tech capabilities, and how we ran these types of projects. To be clear, I know as much about the brass tacks of building Rails apps as I do about astrophysics — I find it all very fascinating from an incredibly safe distance, but it’s certainly not something I’m qualified to discuss at any length.

For some reason, though, I thought I could talk my way through this call on instincts alone. I fumbled, and eventually, the call ended with a whimper. The damage had been done: we didn’t get a second chance with this client. It was embarrassing.

A few minutes later, a cruel realization tumbled into my brain: we had our own CTO, ready to rescue me from a situation just like that. I’d allowed my ego to get in the way of making smart decisions. I then recalled numerous occasions where I’d shot down suggestions that I hire a project manager, or an account manager, or that someone else should conduct interviews for important new hires.

I had spent too much time resisting passing the baton to somebody else, and couldn't bring myself to let go of the trusted rituals that grew the company from the ground up.

Copyright Bill Watterson, 1993

The problem was that the precious authority I once had over a team of three was spiraling away from me as we grew steadily into the double digits, and I was still too proud to cede control and admit that maybe I wasn’t the best person for every job.

It wasn’t just pride, though: it was anxiety, too. Anxiety that maybe the baby I’d helped grow into a wise teenager might turn into something else entirely if I wasn’t at the helm, making all the important decisions.

I knew that everyone’s job might be easier if I took a step back, or focused on different things. It just took a series of colossal screw-ups like the one above to finally make me do it.

We’re all one in a billion… right?

We all like to think that we’re Steve Jobs during the John Sculley era at Apple: that our company, under anyone else’s unique vision, will completely crumble. Well, most of us aren’t Steve Jobs, and most of our companies aren’t Apple.

Believing that we’re the next Apple is exactly the type of delusion that causes 9 out of 10 startups to fail. We place impossibly high expectations on ourselves and our business, and ignore the reality that companies are not built by individuals, but by a complex group of people with drastically unique skills who rely on one another.

This false image of the all-knowing founder-CEO lives on in all of us, as documented in this Harvard Business Review piece describing the Harvard Business School’s New CEO Workshop:

Workshop participants told us again and again that they needed to make a conscious effort to resist the illusion of self-importance, omnipotence, and omniscience…. They have found it difficult and ego-bruising to accept gaps in their expertise and admit that the job is more physically and emotionally taxing than any others they have held.”

We put enormous pressures on ourselves to be the indefatigable superhero CEO, who dispenses ingenious wisdom on a whim and never gets anything wrong. Maybe it’s just my distinctly non-Jobsian ambition, but believing that you’re right all the time sounds exhausting and alienating.

More than that, though, placing this incredibly high expectation on yourself doesn’t seem to work out well: even if you’re one of the 10% of startups that actually succeed, Noam Wasserman points out that eventually 80% of founder-CEOs are forced to step down. And unlike Jobs, it’s almost a guarantee that none of those 80% are getting a second chance.

The paradox of entrepreneurial success

Wasserman has done extensive research on when and why CEOs are replaced, and he compiled his findings in the landmark study Founder-CEO Succession and the Paradox of Entrepreneurial Success. The titular paradox is that the faster a company grows — that is, if the CEO is really doing their job well — the more likely they are to be replaced. He put it this way:

The person who took that company from nothing to $5 million has done a daunting job, but that person, in the view of the VC, is very often not the person that will take them from $5 million to $100 million."

When we think about people like Jobs, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, or Larry Ellison, we forget that they’re noteworthy because they are the overwhelming exception to this rule. They’re the magical, visionary founders and the successful CEOs, all rolled into one magic package. They’re equally capable of working out of a garage and a boardroom, and understand how to deliver something to the very first person as well as the hundred millionth.

Steve Jobs, minimalist (and magician?), 1982. -Photo: Flickr CC, culturalelite

For most of us, though, it’s incredibly important to recognize the moment where we feel things spiraling away from us — ideally before we're on a disastrous call we shouldn't have been on in the first place. It’s at this point that we can make the most significant additions to our team, and ensure that we’re future-proofing our companies. Ignoring these signs has the potential to be what quietly suffocates a company, even when the numbers are showing nothing but growth.

Stop acting, start directing

A good CEO — and a good leader in general — does not hold their company’s best practices as some magic personal gospel, written in a language that only he or she can understand. The best CEOs instead become educators in what makes the business work, and they do this through shifting their leadership style “from direct to indirect means — articulating a clear, easily understood strategy; institutionalizing rigorous structures and processes to guide, inform, and reward; and setting values and tone.”

When the CEO focuses their attention less on day-to-day work and more on the big picture of how their team gets work done, control becomes infinitely easier to cede.

Numerous CEOs I reached out to echoed how difficult it became to be responsible for every decision as their business grew, including Allen Walton from SpyGuy Security, whose experience mirrored my own:

I'd gotten to a point where I just couldn't do everything myself. Over time, I started doing things that cost my business in big ways. Phone calls were getting missed, emails were going unread, and basic things I needed to do in order to grow my business were going undone. My business had stopped growing — and I was coasting."

Many CEOs intelligently identify this tendency to coast as a trust issue, and explore ways to remove themselves from the team.

For Andrew Graff, the CEO of full-service agency A&G, this meant setting clear standards for the work people were doing to ensure that they were always aware of the right course of action. Graff explained:

We created a culture code that explains who we are on our best days, which in turn gives the team a great barometer check when making decisions."

Allen Walton created a similar document for his first employee, which he called his SOP (standard operating procedure):

I told my employee that practically any question he had could be answered by the SOP. This started off with taking phone calls and responding to customer emails.”

Walton and Graff’s ‘best practices’ strategy matters immensely to not only their ability to interfere with their team less, but also to empower their team to make decisions completely on their own: the document acts as a kind of pre-approval from the CEO. Removing yourself from a decision entirely is meaningful. Paul B. Brown put it this way in Forbes

“When employees feel you are going to make the final decision anyway, they don’t always think through fully what they are doing. Once the decision is theirs, they tend to be not only more creative, but careful.”

Replace yourself with experts

Of course, there’s also the question of hiring those first few people to trust with your newly minted marching orders — the people who will allow you to step back and focus on growing your business.

Chris Maddox, the CEO of Seneca Systems, suggests that you incrementally fire yourself as roles become too time consuming, and allow them to completely own parts of your business: “Find someone you trust to own a specific function and trust them to own it. While it's tempting to look for a generalist who you can offload any of your work to, that quickly ceases to scale.”

The thought of hiring a generalist is indeed tempting (it was certainly tempting to me), but hiring a jack-of-all-trades who requires training in numerous areas does not solve the riddle of the hurried CEO who cannot cede control.

Katie DeCicco, CEO of Celebration Saunas, points out that hiring proven experts won’t only improve certain aspects of your company, but will do so much faster and with much more finesse than you could do alone: "I recognized from the many jobs I’d had prior to starting my own company, how limited CEO’s were when they had to be the smartest person in the room. The minute I started my business, I gave control over to vetted experts.”

“You’re fired.” —me, to myself

At the end of the day, the best thing you can do for your business is identify what you do incredibly well, and make that your focus. For everything else, find talented & trustworthy lieutenants and be great at educating them on why your business has been successful. And more importantly, don't be afraid of their new ideas: just because they're not your initiatives doesn't mean you're not being a great CEO.

For me at MetaLab, I soul-searched and talked to almost everyone on the team before concluding that my strengths were in building relationships with clients and shaping projects. I made the decision that the moment we signed a contract with a new client (and my job was ‘done’), I’d hand off the project completely to a skilled, experienced project lead who could take the work through to completion.

As Chris Maddox suggested above, I “fired” myself from project management — and it felt great.

***

Are you a recovering Chief Everything Officer? Did you ever watch one in action? What advice would you give a leader who is taking on too much?

-Photo: early Egyptian juggler art. User: Oxymoron. [Public domain] via Wikimedia Commons

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Your Brand on Social Media: A Project Plan That Gets You Seen Online https://www.getflow.com/blog/brand-social-media Thu, 15 Oct 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/brand-social-media brand-social-media.jpg#asset:930

“Social media waits for no one.”

-Aaron Lee, named a Top 5 Social Media Influencer

***

There are about 3.17 billion people using the internet, and half of them are on Facebook. Each day, 500 million tweets are sent out. Every second, two new people join LinkedIn. The continued growth of social media has proven to marketers that it's here to stay. So if you want to be seen by all those people, this project plan needs a solid foundation.

But the sheer size and speed of social media can overwhelm many growing startups, especially those with key personnel that didn't first regularly use social media on an individual level. Regarding the size, many brands believe they can simply take the "spray and pray" approach. In other words, that if they blast their message out there it will miraculously land among their targeted audience. Regarding the speed, some companies wonder if they are too late to the game to start building a presence.

The research continues to prove social media's effectiveness for growing companies. According to the Twitter Small Business Blog, 85% of Twitter users felt more connected to a brand after they followed it on Twitter. However, the 2015 Social Media Marketing Industry Report found that 91% of the 3700 marketers surveyed are still unsure of how best to engage their audience with social media.

If you're new to the game or among that 91%, it's not too late.

To go beyond the research and into real-world application, I asked three social media marketing experts 3 simple questions. These questions should help you develop a plan to get seen on social. Here are their bios followed by their insights:

Austin Graff is the social media manager at Honest Tea, America’s leading organic bottled iced tea company. Austin leads their social media and influencer marketing campaigns, including their most recent which was named one of the top three social media campaigns in 2015 by Forbes. Prior to Honest Tea, Austin managed digital and social media marketing for International Justice Mission (IJM) where he built and led IJM’s social media presence of more than 500,000 fans across 7 platforms.

Sheridan Marfil is VP of All Things Digital at Voto Latino, a nonprofit organization that empowers American Latino millennials to claim a better future for themselves and their community. Sheridan leads the digital team and drives Voto Latino’s strategy for web, email and social media. Previously, she worked as the digital media producer for the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign, which champions vaccines as a cost-effective way to save children's lives around the world.

Matt Navarra is the Social Media Director for global technology news publisher, The Next Web. As of September 2015, The Next Web receives over 10 million monthly visitors. Matt leads their presence on Twitter (1.62 million followers) and Facebook (over 608,000 likes).

(1) What key lesson should growing companies heed as they develop their social media strategy?

Austin: It’s all about human connection. Since it’s 2015, it’s easy to get allured by the latest technology and platform (and there is a place for that), but every social media platform was created because and for human relationships. You can have the coolest piece of technology on social or the most beautiful photo, but if it doesn’t connect to the audience, it will fail. Know your audience and what they connect with and create your strategy around that.

Sheridan: When crafting a holistic and clear social media strategy for your company, I think it’s important to do your research. Figure out who your target audience is and where they like to play. Also, where are your competitors? Take the time to determine what social media sites you need to be on and assess if you have the resources to feed it with great content that will engage your followers. After you do this initial homework, come up with your strategy and tactics for those sites.

Matt: It's important for companies just embarking on developing a social media presence to never lose focus of what their brand personality is. They should be clear on what that brand personality on social is, and keep to it. Companies also need to stick to the basics -- be social! It is not a broadcast medium. Their fans and followers will expect to engage with them, so they should nurture a community by replying to customers and being responsive to their comments and requests.

(2) Many view social media as primarily a quick way to push out a company's message. But how do use social media as a way to build brand loyalty over time?

Austin: Because it’s all about connection, we should see social media as a relationship. What do you do with friends? You spend time with them, you talk to them, you invest in them. In the same way, you can talk to and invest in your followers. That builds brand loyalty. Favorite their tweets, join in their conversations, retweet them. Over time, they will feel known and heard and will go to bat for you. That’s a powerful thing for a brand.

Sheridan: I touched a little bit on engaging with your followers when coming up with a great social media plan. I can’t stress enough that you should set aside the time to read comments and mentions and respond swiftly and accordingly. Social Habit found that almost half of social media customers want a response to their inquiries within an hour! Getting personal with your fans online will help paint the story of your brand or company as being people-focused, and this will help build loyalty.

Matt: Building brand loyalty takes time on social. Companies should not expect to have explosive follower growth and/or engagement in the early days (unless they use social advertising products!). Customer service in the digital world needs to be fast and accurate. Customers will be more loyal to a brand that delivers first class social customer service, sells great products/services and, where possible, is fun to engage with.

(3) What is the most common social media mistake made by brand's today?

Austin: Being self-centered. Again, social media is about relationships. Be who you are on social. No one wants a friend who talks about themselves all the time. Interact with your fans. Speak their language. Go where they are. Be a good friend to them and they will pay you back with loyalty.

Sheridan: I really think brand’s try to create their own shareable content without thinking through how it could be misconstrued or doing adequate research beforehand. There are plenty of examples. A couple of presidential candidates recently solicited town hall questions on Twitter with #Ask [insert candidate name]. People tweeted in questions about dinosaurs, the meaning of life, etc., and real questions about the issues were buried in the fray. And then there's the American Apparel example, where they shared an image of what they thought were fireworks exploding on July 4th. It was actually the Challenger explosion.

Matt: Brands using social media platforms are fighting for eyeballs and customer dollars 24/7/365. Often, they try and jump on topical or trending social moments with a joke or 'fun' response in an effort to gain visibility and brand kudos. However, far too often, they hit 'tweet' before they think. They then find themselves in the middle of a PR recovery exercise that can tarnish much of the positive sentiment they have worked hard to develop up to that point. 

---

What was the first thing you did to get comfortable using social media? Once you were comfortable, what was your first moment of social media success?

-Photo: alphaspirit/Shutterstock

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What's the Optimal Team Size for Workplace Productivity? https://www.getflow.com/blog/optimal-team-size-workplace-productivity Thu, 08 Oct 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/optimal-team-size-workplace-productivity team-size.jpg#asset:653

When Mike Volpe was speaking at INBOUND 2014, one particular slide triggered 80% of his audience to stand up and take pictures.

It wasn’t the ROI results of a big campaign.

It wasn’t his final takeaway from the talk.

It was this slide giving a rough breakdown of how to structure an inbound marketing team as you grow.

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We really want to make the right decision about people on our teams — and specifically, the right number of people.

It’s perfectly natural. We often ask ourselves: “What’s the optimal team size?”

And for good reason. Hiring people is a big deal. The performance of a company depends on their work, and they are typically a company's biggest expense. In addition, the way people get along internally affects everyone’s happiness and ultimately impacts workplace productivity.

We want the right team, with the right skills, doing the right work. Hire too few people, and there may be skill gaps; hire too many people and we run the risk of a bloated payroll and processes more complex than they need to be.

So we think, there’s gotta be an ideal team size. If only we could figure it out, or at least establish a rule of thumb so that we don’t screw up.

Enough people have asked this that we now have an answer — or at least, a range of answers to suit most needs. But I think it’s important to realize up front that the answer itself doesn’t really matter. Thinking that team size is a predictor of success is like expecting all the characters on Temptation Island to remain faithful.

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We’re probably using this team size = success equation as a means to an end.

Which is fine. Because what we’ll figure out during the journey will be more important than the ideas we clung to in the beginning.

Teaming up

Why do we need teams? Can’t we avoid a lot of hassle by working independently? When we think about certain types of work, it certainly seems that some people can do their job without much peer involvement; assembly line workers, janitors, and salespeople can all have relative autonomy in their roles. Once they’ve learned the skills necessary, they can pull it off on their own. Can we extend autonomy to more creative, typically team-based roles?

We could, but quality would suffer.

When you get right down to it, the answer for what makes a successful team often begins with two words: “It depends....”

Every job is a series of questions that we must address in order to be good at it.

“What do I do with this piece of trash?”

“What should I do about this person who just walked in?”

“What should our next advertising campaign be?”

With roles that are light on teamwork, the answers tend to be obvious and consistent.

“Pick it up and throw it out.”

“Smile, say hi, and offer to help.”

"A holographic 3D floating image outside our shop, duh."

The last one didn't quite fit. That's because roles that tend towards teamwork often come with answers that start with “it depends.”

“It depends, who will we be advertising to?”

Sure, every “depends” job could be done by one person, but they would certainly not always get things right, and they’d definitely benefit from collaboration with others.

People working on their own are more susceptible to doing things like... running a campaign that publishes the CEO’s social security number.

A real ad campaign, and the CEO did indeed have his identity stolen.

Teammates can answer questions, provide feedback, or accept sub tasks that would bring the quality of work up to a point that gets the job done well.

When teams pool skills and resources, their decision making improves, and they can make better decisions as a group than any one of them could do alone. Researchers call this collective intelligence. (More on collective intelligence in a bit.)

But there’s another major benefit to working in a team. Jennifer S. Mueller, a Management Professor at the University of San Diego's School of Business Administration, explains it as such:

“...teams are prolific in organizations. From a managerial perspective, there is this rising recognition that teams can function to monitor individuals more effectively than managers can control them. The teams function as a social unit; you don’t need to hand-hold as much. And I think tasks are becoming more complex and global, which contributes to the need for perspective that teams provide.”

So while most individuals form teams under the assumption that they’ll be able to accomplish more complex tasks thanks to the complimentary skillsets of their peers, organizations as a whole benefit from team formation by reducing the need for management.

Everyone can win from flattening organizations.

Thinking it through

Okay, so teams are helpful. But how big should they be? ...It depends. (Sorry, had to.)

To get closer to the answer, think through:

   -the team’s goal

   -the skills required

   -who will lead the team

   -how they will decide who does what

   -how they will communicate

   -how they will form and maintain memberships

Factors like these are what Moe Carrick describes as critical to a team’s cohesion, productivity, and health.

Goal

Why are we forming this team? Having a common purpose is so central to teams that some people, like Pawel Brodzinski, an expert in project management, make it part of the term’s very definition. A team is a group of people with a common purpose.

Daniel Pink’s 2009 book, Drive, explores the factors that truly motivate us. In it, he lists purpose as the highest-level piece that pushes us to put in our best effort. Purpose is connection to a cause that’s bigger than oneself. So by thinking about the team’s purpose, and connecting it to the organization’s larger mission, we have a direct link between our individual efforts, our team’s goal, the organization’s mission, and a better world.

Skills

When teams form around a common purpose, we naturally pay attention to the skillsets we’ll need to achieve that purpose. Evaluating potential team members on the basis of how they’ll contribute gets us closer to finding the right makeup.

If five major skillsets are required, there doesn’t necessarily need to be five people on the team. As long as time isn’t a factor, four people covering the requirements would be preferable to five.

Leadership

It’s super important that each team member knows what they should be doing at any given time. How will they decide on their task allocation process? That role should fall to a leader.

Let’s let Mueller drop some more wisdom about this, using words fit for a preschooler:

We had a class on the ‘no-no’s of team building, and having vague, not clearly defined goals is a very, very clear no-no. Another no-no would be a leader who has difficulty taking the reins and structuring the process. Leadership in a group is very important.”

Keep in mind that a team can self-organize and pick what they want to work on, but the leader needs to shape how they do that, and what can be picked from.

The Scrum methodology does this with their use of Product Owners and Scrum Masters. Scrum is widely used in software development, but these two roles have applications relevant to any team. Basically, the roles recognize that there needs to be someone to define the work to be done, and someone who manages the process.

What’s a typical leader-to-doer ratio? Consider the experience of the team. Less experienced, newer teams will need to be smaller. More experienced, established teams can be larger. Tomasz Tunguz, VC at Redpoint Ventures, observed that at Google team ratios ranged from 1:2 to 1:20, with an average of 1:7.

As teams grow, the role of the leader becomes more challenging. Edward Lamont of Next Action Associates illustrates the progression as follows:

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His point is that as a team gets bigger, the leader’s job becomes more about creating a shared purpose, figuring out who’ll do what, and communicating that shared purpose.

Communication

One of the most recognized obstacles to forming successful large teams is the idea that the more people there are, the more people there will be to talk to, and talking takes time, which reduces efficiency. This impacts both the relationships of the team and the time it takes to get tasks done. When more people have a say, things will naturally take longer. As noted in this post at Lighthouse, it's all about the lines:

team-size-10.jpg#asset:941

But without enough skillsets, you can’t do the job in the first place. So what’s the balance between too many and too few people?

In 1970, Hackman and Vidmar set out to get a sense for that by asking two questions to individuals from groups of 2-7: Is your group too small for the task? Is your group too big for the task? The percentage of yesses to the first question fell as the second’s rose, and the lines intersected at a team size of 4.6 members.

It’s interesting that 4.6 roughly lines up with the sweet spot from that Spirograph-esque image above. If you turn those connected dots into a single graph, it shows that 5 person teams find the balance between members and communication connections:

team-size-11.jpg#asset:942

So why is communication so important? Because talking helps us solve problems, figure out who’s doing what, facilitate collaboration, and improve our decision making.

Empathy

Decision making in particular is improved by a higher collective intelligence. You might be surprised to hear that collective intelligence is not strongly affected by the individual intelligence of team members. Rather, it’s social sensitivity and conversational turn-taking that predict collective intelligence.

Sit in and let Anita Williams Woolley, Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior & Theory at Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business, explain this relationship:

She describes social sensitivity as the degree to which people can read facial expressions and make attributions about what others are thinking and feeling.

Conversational turn-taking is how evenly distributed talking time is across group members. Groups with more evenly distributed talking times tend to have higher collective intelligence.

As soon as you think about these in practice, it becomes obvious why they’re important to forming a functioning team. If you’re meeting with people who are oblivious to the social cues from body language and facial expressions sent their way, and refuse to stop talking without regard for the contributions of others, you’re going to feel like you’re part of a pretty ineffective team. And you’d be right.

Relationships

Another problem with having too many people to talk to with not enough time to do it is that it gets harder to build quality relationships. This has a real effect on productivity, according to my now favorite expert on team theory, Mueller:

“...individual performance losses are less about coordination activities and more about individuals on project teams developing quality relationships with one another as a means of increasing individual performance.”

This is why icebreakers, social events, video calls, and watercoolers are so important. Sure, team retreats with obligatory trust falls can be Groan-Central 2k15, but they work. The Wharton MBA program even did this for a while, sending their student working groups out to camp so that they could become more effective. Evan Wittenberg, the program director, shares why:

"I think this is what people forget to do when they create a team in a business — spend a lot of time upfront to structure how they will work together. [At the camp, we] get to know each other and share individual core values so we can come up with team values. But most importantly, we have the students work on their team goals, their team norms and their operating principles. Essentially, what are we going to do and how are we going to do it?"

Effective teams need to practice. And practice takes time. We shouldn’t expect new teams to live up to their potential right off the bat, even if we’re deliberate about their creation and guidance. It’s a bit like how national sports teams rarely reach the level of the best club teams. No matter how great the individual members are, the national team will suffer because they just won’t get enough time to practice together...

team-size-12.jpg#asset:943

...and gel to the point of being able to make no-look passes. Or as Professor Katherine Klein explains it (in much less sporty terms):

“...team mental models — defined as team members’ shared, organized understanding and mental representation of knowledge about key elements of the team’s relevant environment — may enhance coordination and effectiveness in performing tasks that are complex, unpredictable, urgent, and/or novel. Team members who share similar mental models can, theorists suggest, anticipate each other’s responses and coordinate effectively when time is of the essence and opportunities for overt communication and debate are limited.”

Formation

Should you even be the one putting this team together? A bunch of senior executives told ThinkWise, in its 2015 Impact of Team Performance Survey, that their self-selected teams (meaning members choose the team they join) are their best-performing teams.

Gunther Verheyen, a proponent of Scrum teams, points out that through self-organization, a team will adjust its size autonomously for optimal performance. He suggests that rather than telling a team what their mandatory size should be, we should instead help them discover what works best for their needs.

But be careful to not create too fluid and open of an organization. Shadow hierarchies may emerge, where decision-making structures become hard to navigate, as reported at Valve, a famously flat company. Teams might also feel exposed if they don’t have clear boundaries around them. And feeling out in the open can hurt innovation, as Ethan Bernstein, writing for Harvard Business Review, reported.

Bernstein put up curtains around select teams at a manufacturing plant and observed 10-15% better productivity. He found that by shielding employees from observation, the curtains supported local problem solving, experimentation, and focus. Work within the curtains became even more transparent.

In Bernstein's own words:

Team boundaries can allow for productive, selective opacities within starkly transparent environments."

After thinking through a team’s goals, leadership, communication, empathy, relationships, and formation, we’re ready to tackle the size question.

Go big or go… small?

Many experts on optimal team size consider the low end to be around 4 and the high end to be around 20. Above 20, teams tend to naturally split out into multiple sub-groups. Either end of the spectrum has advantages and is better suited to certain situations.

The case for small teams

Teams optimizing for goals, empathy, and relationships should stay small. Bradner et al found that small teams are more aware of team goals and are better acquainted with other team members’ personalities, work roles and communication styles.

Teams made up of less experienced folks, or that are newly formed, should stay small. There’ll be a greater demand on the knowledgeable members’ time, which will become unsustainable at larger sizes. Newer teams require more communication to set their purpose, establish process, and pull things off. Larger teams make that communication more complex.

It’s also worth noting the Ringelmann Effect. It’s a classic observation from 1913 where its namesake measured the force on a rope pulled by different sizes of teams. When solving for the average effort made by people at different team sizes, Ringelmann observed that the bigger the team, the less each member pulled. Keeping teams small may keep average effort up, and conversely, increasing team size brings the possibility of free riding by individual members.

Then there are stories about teams getting cut in half, yet maintaining their total productivity.

As Frederick Brooks Jr. made famous in The Mythical Man-Month, adding people to a late project only makes it later. So don’t think that a bigger team necessarily means a more productive one.

Even large top management teams are more likely to disagree and will take more time to make decisions.

And to add one more nail in the big team coffin, members are less likely to be recognized for their true contribution by all of their peers. Because each member cannot know how each other member contributes, this awareness tends to be imbalanced, and people may start disagreeing over who is truly contributing substantially to the team. When there’s imperfect understanding of effort and contribution to goals, trust becomes strained and commitment problems can emerge.

The case for big teams

While there seems to be plenty of evidence that small teams are more likely to be optimal, there are certain cases where larger teams are preferable.

When tasks can scale and require little coordination, big teams are okay. When the team members are well acquainted, experienced, have an established process, and are clear about goals, big teams are okay.

Big teams might also be at an advantage when success depends upon the size of their collective networks, access to budget, or presence of a wide range of skillsets. In each of these situations, having more people would mean more availability of each factor. Spreading the word is easier when you have 20 people with 1000 friends each; in some places you are given a larger budget when your team is bigger; and, hiring a large, multi-talented team means members can learn a more diverse range of skills from each other, and can draw on those skills in their complex tasks.

The magic numbers

When asked for their optimal team size, experts usually settle somewhere on the low end of 4-20. The number seems to shift depending on the type of work, and the factor(s) controlled for.

Tech

7 is a popular and often recommended team size. It’s also the average observed at Google.

It’s common to see “seven plus or minus three” — especially in software development. (Or in other words, 4-10.) This is especially true where the range is determined by factors such as how well can they handle the load of a larger team.

Side note 1: I suspect the range is worded like that not because the people who say it are technically minded, but rather that it makes the range seem so much more precise. 4-10 is a ballpark guess; 7 plus or minus three is a statistical prediction.

Founding teams

For entrepreneurs starting a company, Shrivastava and Tamvada found that company performance and team effectiveness peaked at three people per founding team.

Gut feel

As we saw from the survey-based study, people tend to feel like teams of 7 are too big, and teams of 2 are too small, but teams of 4.6 were jusssst right.

Research

Mueller, who I hope to have sold you on by now, says the evidence points to six member teams correlating with optimal size, if businesses are facing issues of coordination and motivation.

She also points out that it gets harder to manage who speaks in teams above five. To illustrate this, just think of the absurd length of a recent Republican debate where the rules said that if your name was mentioned, you would get a chance to respond. Of course, the candidates took the hosts up on the offer and turned the event into a marathon. It’s easy to imagine this say-something phenomenon getting out of hand with teams above five.

Hungry teams

Jeff Bezos, CEO and Founder of Amazon, popularized the two-pizza rule, where teams shouldn’t exist if they can’t feed themselves on two pizzas. This suggests they should top out around 8, which is in line with the standard.

Side note 2: Bezos was quoted in that same Wall Street Journal article as saying “communication is terrible!” in response to the suggestion that employees should communicate more. It sounds bad at first, but maybe he was reacting with both the communication nodes concept and the curtained-off manufacturing plant team in mind.

Another food-themed team size suggestion is the Table rule, from Davide Casali, where the ideal size of a team is one which can sit around a table without breaking into multiple conversations. This translates into 3-8 people, and is suggested because it enables focus, context, and soft skills (“how was your day, honey?”)

Organized teams

I’ve mentioned a lot of different research, and read up on quite a bit of theory about the ideal team size. But I’ve been holding back on my own contribution to the discussion until now. I’m blessed to have access to a wealth of data about the actual productivity of teams that are getting real things done day in and day out. Let me tell you about it.

When I’m not writing for The Modern Team, I’m a marketer at Flow, an app where teams can keep all of their communication clear and organized. A central part of Flow is its task management feature, where teams can create, delegate, discuss, and complete tasks that are important pieces to reaching their goals.  

When teams complete tasks, we get anonymous, aggregate data about volume, frequency, and team size. It just so happens that the data is very relevant to this discussion, so let me share what we see from a productivity perspective.

The chart below shows increasing team size on the x-axis, and total task completions on the y-axis. The dots are the actual averages and the line is a polynomial trendline which exposes a pattern:

team-size-13.jpg#asset:944

As you can see, productivity gains continue as teams approach 5 members, and then diminishing returns start to kick in. This is roughly in line with what we’ve heard from other sources.

So what of it?

No matter how much we want to, we’ll never get to a single number that dictates how to size our teams, because it’s impossible to control for all the human and business factors that affect it. But if we take deliberate steps to think through the formation of our teams, ask the questions that’ll set us in the right direction, and take previous research into consideration, we’ll likely get close.

Next time you form a team, be sure to ask these questions:

   -What will be the goal of the team?

   -Who will decide its members?

   -How will they know what to do?

   -Do they know each other and will they get along?

   -Have they worked on this challenge before?

   -What skillsets will they need?

   -How will they communicate?

   -How long will they take to get to optimal performance?

   -How will they interact with outsiders both at the company and beyond?

And consider creating a team in the sweet spot between 5 and 7… err 6... plus or minus 1.

For Discussion:

What do you think about when forming teams? And how does team size play a role where you work?

***

-Lead Photo: "Teamwork" by David Wynne, 1958. cc: Flickr/dearbarbie

-Basketball Photo: "Maurice Jones no-look pass." cc: Flickr/neontommy

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The Real Reason Your Last Project Failed https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-failed Thu, 01 Oct 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/project-failed project-mangement.jpg#asset:964

"If we weren't making a film right now, would I quit? Yeah."

—Tim Jenison in Tim's Vermeer

***

That’s the reply that Tim Jenison halfheartedly musters — looking exhausted as all hell, depressed, and pale — when the filmmakers of the documentary Tim’s Vermeer ask him if he wants to quit the project that has consumed the last few years of his life.

At that point, he’d spent months attempting to create a stroke-for-stroke replica of a Johannes Vermeer painting, with the hopes of proving his hypothesis about how Vermeer managed to ‘paint with light’ — a mystery that has beguiled art historians for hundreds of years.

Well, it turns out that despite the almost unfathomably ambitious and meaningful nature of his work, he claims he’s only finishing the painting because they’re making a film about it. Using that as a catalyst, he plows through his doubts, boredom, and fidgetiness to finish the project.

Hearing that, I couldn’t help but wish I had a film crew and a multi-million dollar budget to not-so-gently push me and my co-workers forward on our projects — to ask us about our feelings.

But that’s really hard, and it turns out that filmmakers just aren’t that interested in a difficult marketing site redesign, or my Josh Donaldson fan fiction.

Into the abyss

It did get me thinking, though, about my own experience with projects that have gone into the abyss. What makes this happen time and time again, and how can I reverse the trend? What am I missing?

First off, let’s talk about how your team might get to the point where they’re staring into that abyss and ready to give up.

IAG, a business analysis firm, produced a study about what contributes to the success of a project — and found that 68% of the surveyed companies are unlikely to have successful projects. At all.

The tactics suggested to reverse this trend — things like setting budgets realistically, setting hittable timelines, and establishing proper requirements — are all things you’ve heard before and know that you need to be doing. These are the “Yeah, yeah, I know” solutions, and I doubt you’re surprised to read them.

And yet, our projects continue going over budget, and our schedules keep flying out the window. In fact, this Harvard Business Review study analyzed 1,471 projects and found that those projects went over budget by an average of 27%.

But wait: if we’re so knowledgable about what the answers are, if we’re so aware of what we need to do differently, then why are our projects always off track — even at ‘smart’ companies?

Beyond logistics

Maybe it's time to consider that logistics aren’t our biggest problem.

Maybe it’s time to start looking at stuff like this Gallup post, which suggests that when people’s emotional needs are ignored, projects start to go down the tubes.

If people aren’t feeling properly trusted, motivated, creatively fulfilled, part of a strong team, or one of the infinite whack of other things that we can classify as emotional needs, then they’ll disengage, and the project implodes. Some samples have even shown that as little as 15% of people are engaged in their work.

That strikes a chord. And it lines up more with what I’ve always believed, and what I learned while running MetaLab: you can obsess over budgets all you want, but if you’re not engaging yourself or your team properly, most projects are doomed to mediocrity or failure before they even start.

It’s not enough to be busy and organized; your team needs to be happy, too.

Don’t get me wrong: budgets matter, and timelines matter — they’re what keep the lights on. But they’re not the only things that matter.

After all, even though the bottom-line is your top priority, it’s not going to be for everyone on your team. You, your project manager, and your CFO care deeply about hitting targets; meanwhile, your broader team wants to focus on doing great work, and less on bureaucracy. Put it this way: have you ever heard your best designer say that their wonderful work was a failure because the project went over budget? Because they missed one deadline?

You won’t hear that, because teams fully engaged by their work aren’t primarily concerned with budgets and timelines. That’s your concern, and you should work on it, but don’t expect it to solve the problem of your deflated team. A team that doesn’t care will always catch up to you, no matter how good you get at forecasting money and dates.

Budgets and timelines become easy complaints when we’re disengaged and bored. When we’re feeling captivated by our work, it’s not that budgets, timelines, and requirements suddenly don't matter; they just become something to work with, rather than work against. Every element of a project feels harmonious.

When we’re not engaged in our work, though — when nobody else seems to give a damn about how things are going for you — this is when we give up and our projects fail, no matter how well laid out the plan might be. And at this point, it’s too easy to blame the failure on a paltry budget instead of our own lacking management skills (a crazy-sounding stat: 65% of managers have ‘checked out’). It's infinitely easier to blame ‘the system’ rather than address our own monumental communication problems.

What can we do?

There’s no magic bullet — everyone needs different things to feel engaged by their work. It could be as simple as running status checks individually, instead of just popping in to make sure things are on schedule. But this much is for sure: it means getting personal.

It takes work to get to know the unique needs of each person on your team. You’ll find endless literature online regarding how to work with ‘creatives’, but there’s no handbook for this. You need to practice real empathy. You need to be available. You need to be a leader of people, not just projects. This can be challenging and will take time, but here's my advice:

Pay close, unflinching attention to your projects at the people level.

Now, back to Tim’s Vermeer: I’m willing to admit that maybe Tim Jenison finished his project because of the gravity of a multi-million dollar budget — but I think it’s just as likely that he was pushed to the finish line by someone asking him about his emotional state. The release of being honest and up-front about his doubts — being engaged — might have put the whole thing into a previously-unseen perspective.

We can do the same thing in our workplace by establishing a culture where we talk to our team as though we’re making a Tim’s Vermeer-esque documentary about each project:

“How are you feeling about this?”

“Do you like the way this is going?”

“How’s everyone enjoying this work?”

These are questions that, for some strange reason, we feel afraid to ask.

I'd like your advice in the comments section. How do you use empathy to promote a better workplace culture? How do you draw the best out of your colleagues? 

***

-Photo: Johannes Vermeer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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Work Email is Dying and That Means a Lot for Teamwork Online https://www.getflow.com/blog/work-email Thu, 24 Sep 2015 16:00:00 +0000 Cameron Conaway https://www.getflow.com/blog/work-email work-email.jpg#asset:655

Ray Tomlinson can't remember what he wrote when he sent himself the world's first email back in 1971, but his colleague Jerry Burchfiel remembers what Ray said when he first showed him what he'd done:

Don't tell anyone! This isn't what we're supposed to be working on."

The breakthrough occurred when they were working at Bolt Beranek and Newman (BBN) on ARPANET, the precursor to the internet. But the breakthrough coupled with Ray's worry didn't spread the beast. Sasha Cavender of Forbes put it this way:

That worry ended when Larry Roberts, a director of DARPA, the government agency that ran the Arpanet, jumped onto the system and began doing all his communication by electronic mail. That, in turn, forced researchers dependent on Roberts for their funding to get online, and the system quickly went from being a convenience to becoming an essential tool."

And there it is. Good ol' 1971. The year email began its journey to becoming the world's premier workplace communication tool.

As it still is. Even as it approaches its 44th birthday this October.

And even as new tools have risen up and made many parts of it obsolete.

While email's continued use may be shocking to many, including those of us who have replaced work email, this is how Ray Tomlinson rolls:

I see email being used, by and large, exactly the way I envisioned."

He went on to say:

In particular, it’s not strictly a work tool or strictly a personal thing. Everybody uses it in different ways, but they use it in a way they find works for them."

Tomlinson is right. On a personal level, email has opened new channels of person-to-person communication that have allowed ideas to spread like never before. I've seen this happen in my own life.

I was shy as all get out when I was growing up. It seemed that I couldn't put sentences together unless I was playing Nintendo (Double Dragon!) or on the basketball court. Ike... thanks for setting a pick, man. Next time roll off it and I'll feed you the rock!

But then I'd be at the library or at a friend's house, hear the 56k modem rev and then, eventually, those magic words:

"You've got mail."

Whoa. Even if it was spam it felt good to hear that. But mostly it felt good to be able to express myself to friends (and girls!) that I'd have otherwise struggled to communicate with. It gave this introvert some space to think, breathe and collect thoughts before sharing them — and it did so at that crucial time when for me face-to-face communication felt too scary and too fast. And on the work tool front, there's no denying that email has changed the nature of work communication as well as how teams work together online.

In his article for The Houston Chronicle titled, The Impact of Email in the Workplace, Neil Kokemuller concisely lays out the goodness of work email. He highlights how email has allowed us to have broader and more diverse work teams, and how it's a great work tool for interacting with someone when there isn't a sense of urgency.

Consider This: At the time of email's creation, a letter (like... the kind on paper) served in this capacity, because a phone call carried the expectation of immediate interaction, and it wasn't until 1979 that Gordon Matthews applied for a patent on voicemail.

But the article also highlights the drawbacks, such as less personal communication (where important nuances can get lost and miscommunication can fill the gap) and of course how:

Email overload is a growing problem for many workers. Employees are sometimes so overwhelmed with catching up on email, they neglect other critical job duties. Managers who spend too much time reading and replying to emails with partners, suppliers, workers and customers have less time to coach, train and motivate...."

Despite this growing problem, work email is... hanging on. And many studies, such as Email Statistics Report, 2014-2018 (pdf here) from The Radicati Group, a technology market research firm, prove it. Here's the second point in their executive summary:

Email remains the most pervasive form of communication in the business world, while other technologies such as social networking, instant messaging (IM), mobile IM, and others are also taking hold, email remains the most ubiquitous form of business communication.

Pervasive. The word doesn't typically have the most positive connotation these days. Corruption is often described as pervasive. As is drug use.

And perhaps the drug comparison is an accurate one?

We found that Americans are practically addicted to email...."

That's what Kristin Narragon wrote on Adobe's blog in August 2015. They coupled that statement with this infographic:

email-addiction.png#asset:966

On the email addiction Adobe found, Frederic Lardinois over at TechCrunch followed up with a great point:

And when it comes to addiction, people are clearly aware of their bad habits because four out of ten respondents say they tried a 'self-imposed email detox.' Sadly, the [Adobe] study doesn’t tell us if that really worked for them, but 87 percent of those who tried said they managed to go without checking their mail for an average of five days."

Taking this at surface value, some may conclude that our email addiction means we are plugged more into our work and are therefore improving our ability to get things done.

But surfaces often contain mirages...

Therefore the Master concerns himself With the depths and not the surface

—Lao Tzu

So the McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) went beyond the surface information (such as how many emails the average worker sends) and instead went in-depth about what such information means and how we can use it to improve the way we work together online. In their report titled, The social economy: unlocking value and productivity through social technologies, they found that the average interaction worker — which they define as high-skill knowledge workers, including managers and professionals — spends an estimated 28% of their work week... managing email. And another 20% of their time sifting through internal communication or trying to track down a colleague who can help with a specific task.

With this in mind they determined that the average interaction worker could increase productivity by 20-25% if they fully embraced various social technologies to enhance "communication, knowledge sharing, and collaboration within and across social enterprises."

Geoff Lewis and Michael Chui of MGI put a podcast together to unpack what they learned. Here's the quote that most stuck with me:

"If you look at the information that exists within an organization, our observation is that a tremendous amount of this information is locked up, kind of like dark matter, within people's email inboxes. And how much of that information that's trapped within those inboxes would actually be valuable to the overall enterprise and could actually increase the efficiency?"

email-dead.jpg#asset:967

Nope.

When articles speak of email's demise, it persists.

Forbes, 2005: Beginning Of The End Of E-Mail

In the intervening years there were hundreds of similar articles, all talking about how email was nearing its end or how we were getting sick of it and would soon be going back to phone calls.

Then there was the article from Fast Company in 2010, The End of Email?, where they used this graph from Radicati to highlight the demise of business email:

emails-per-day.jpg#asset:968

And since then there have been thousands of such articles. And most of them are becoming more predictive and gloomy.

Like this one from Inc. Magazine in 2015:

Why Email Will Be Obsolete by 2020 (featuring "stick a fork in your email")

To which email basically responded:

But here's the deal. Forrester, a highly informative independent technology and market research company, can tell email marketers that consumer "attitudes toward email have become increasingly positive." And Ray Tomlinson, the NPR-dubbed Man Who Made You Put Away Your Pen, can say that email is headed where he thought it would. But for the majority of us interaction workers, managing email (especially internal email) feels less like this...

...and a hell of a lot more like this....

This is especially true for those of us who have already replaced email and watched productivity go way up and the rates of our Jim Carrey teeth-gritting-face go way down. For some of us, this has meant going from email as 80% of our internal team communication to something less than 5%.

Couple this with how Google just made it far easier for brands to place native ads directly in your Gmail inbox, and it's easy to see why articles like Fast Company's How Email Became The Most Reviled Communication Experience are on the upswing. In said article, renowned designer Don Norman told John Pavlus that:

Email... creates a context where attention goes to die."

For the record, when I was an underpaid adjunct professor, it actually crossed my mind to sell space on my classroom whiteboard. For about 60 seconds I thought I was brilliant.

To combat my disgust at the higher education system and of my potentially working full-time yet only making $16,000 per year, I would sell the left corner of my whiteboard to... Wells Fargo!

Maybe the right corner to GlaxoSmithKline?

The center? I'd make advertisers fight for it. Oh yeah, Pepsi, well Coca-Cola offered me this!

Even before the illegality factor kicked in I realized what an absurd distraction that would be to my students. They wouldn't be able to focus on whatever lesson I wrote on the board if there were bright and catchy advertisements surrounding it.

Well, that's essentially what's becoming of your email inbox. If your inbox is a place you've learned to channel your focus toward, know that every inch of available space is being viewed by many marketers as an opportunity to grab your attention.

But there are other reasons why email is increasingly ineffective. First, let's address the can of "meat" in the room:

To understand spam we must take it from the top and head back to ARPANET. Here's a brief history of spam courtesy of Dan Fletcher back in 2009:

"Though it wasn't called spam until the 1980s — the term comes from a Monty Python sketch set in a cafeteria, where a crowd of Vikings drowns out the rest of conversation by repeatedly singing the name of the unpopular processed meat — the first unsolicited messages came over the wires as early as 1864, when telegraph lines were used to send dubious investment offers to wealthy Americans. The first modern spam was sent on ARPANET, the military computer network that preceded the Internet. In 1978, a man named Gary Turk sent an e-mail solicitation to 400 people, advertising his line of new computers. (Turk later said his methods proved so unpopular that it would be more than a decade before anyone would try again.)"

For your viewing pleasure, the mad origins of spam:

Spam's madness is still alive and well. We search Google thousands of times each month for "how to stop spam" and even "gmail spam," all to little avail. The big news this year was that for the first time since 2003, less than half of all sent emails were spam.

And then there are stories like that from Joseph Pinciaro over at The Suffolk Times. An email user and spam fighter for 20 years, Joseph finally threw up his hands in defeat. His latest piece is titled, I tried to beat the spammers. I lost. Here's the intro:

"The floodgates have recently opened on the spam folder in my email account and I have a depressing announcement to make, dear reader, for which I apologize in advance: The spam people have won.

"You win, Zagat. You win, Edible Arrangements. You win, Connecticut Landmarks, FC Bayern, Golden Door International Film Festival and Miss America Festival.

"You’ve all gotten an official mention from me. Now, for the love of everything that is holy: Please stop emailing me!"

Even if you aren't sweating over spam, there's everything it takes to formulate an email. Here are just a few of those steps:

(1) Which work colleagues to include in the email? Should you BCC or CC anyone?

(2) What are the best email subject lines? Hey Erika... or no because I'll open with that so maybe just Good meeting today or...

(3) How to start an email? Dear, Hey, Hi, Hello... just the name? Ms? Mr? For this one there are countless articles to help, such as 10 Opening Phrases to Use In Your Next Email. But... ugh.

(4) Body! Expand? Keep it simple? How much should be addressed here?

(5) How to end an email? Sincerely, Thanks, Best... something catchy? We're in luck! For that there are also infinite articles, such as this one from Forbes: 57 Ways to Sign Off On An Email.

Rest assured, there are also thousands of articles about general email tips! Like this one from Seton Hill which opens with a few sentences worth deconstructing:

"Email is different from text messaging. In a text message conversation, two parties expect to engage in multiple, rapid back-and-forth exchanges, asking for clarification and providing corrections when necessary. Generally, you are texting somebody you already know well, about a shared interest, and the subject of the conversation will change as your time together progresses.

But email is part of most people’s work routine. Most professionals who get 20 or 50 or 200 emails a day do not want to engage in a leisurely back-and-forth; they want to clear out their inbox and move on to their next task."

Hold up. This seems to be saying that email isn't so much for communication as it is to get rid of communication (attain that coveted inbox zero and feel all the productivity endorphins that come with it) and move to the next "task."

And wouldn't the way your team works online as well as standard communication feel better if, instead of being stiff and formal, it had that leisurely back and forth feel?

For what it's worth, this article was published in 2000 and has been continuously shared and tweaked. I'd love to see these article tweaks continue now that millions of workers around the world have either replaced email entirely or radically altered how they use it.

Seeing the light

It’s been exactly 6 weeks since I’ve moved away from email as a primary mode of work communication. Over the years I’ve even conducted entire writing classes via email for Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth. It wasn’t that I loved email. I was just too caught up in working on the next whatever to even realize there were alternatives.

Prior to the switch, I was a skeptic. Email had worked for me and I’d been fine. Sure, there were times when I had to dip my hands in ice water at the end of the day. But that was hardly a work hazard worth complaint.

Since the switch, however, I find myself typing less but saying more.

I’m also sitting at the computer less. Because I can see when someone is on and even when they are typing, I’m less compelled to wait in the digital darkness for a response.

I’m also able to better live my mindfulness practice of staying in the moment. I bang out the task at hand and the following day I’m not spending valuable time rummaging through yesterday’s threads.

So even if you're a spam crusher, can bang out an email without working through the steps, and have a zen master's focus when you enter your inbox… ask yourself this:

Is work email your habit or your productivity tool?

If “both” is your answer, ask yourself:

What tools have I tried?

If “none” is your answer, email is your habit.

If “a few” is your answer, the growing body of research and the modern business leaders below are mounting a case for you to try a few more.

And now for the finale.

To gather more insights I asked 15 modern business leaders if work email is coming to an end. Grab your preferred brew, kick back and enjoy the collective pulse of their thoughts:

"The average employee now checks email 36 times an hour, spending a full 13 hours a week reading, deleting, sending and sorting emails, and each time we’re distracted with an email, it takes an average of 16 minutes (yes, 16 minutes) to refocus on the task at hand. The reality is that our email inboxes, once-upon-a-time the private repository of important messages, have become a burden and a timesuck at work, and with the rise of messaging apps and other collaborative tools smart organizations are looking for better ways to streamline communications and increase collaboration."

—Ryan Holmes, CEO and Founder of Hootsuite

"With more than 2 million users and 50 strategic and advertising partners, our business exists outside our office walls, yet we spent most of our time communicating with each other. About 2 years ago, when we looked at our aggressive growth plan, we knew something had to change. In order to scale, we needed to get more out of our team and we needed to give them better tools and processes to be successful. One of the first changes we made was a 100% ban on internal email. We moved all internal communication to productivity tools, team messaging apps, and project/product management services. We expected more productivity, and that happened. But an even more important outcome was how it shifted our communication. Instead of spending critical time crafting well-worded, grammatically perfect emails to each other, the team became externally focused and our conversations became more about our users and our partners. It helped us create better products and a user centric culture I know we'll never lose."

—Gina Moro Nebesar, Co-founder of Ovuline

"Our entire product, engineering, and design team is distributed across the U.S., Canada, and Europe, so we use a variety of tools — outside of email — to stay connected in real-time. From social and project collaboration tools and private social networks, to discussion groups, video chat platforms, and repository hosting tools, we share progress as a team in a variety of ways. Internally, this means that we rarely communicate with each other via email; however, email has remained an important way for us to stay connected with partners, customers, and vendors outside of our organization because it is the industry standard."

—Allie VanNest, Head of Communication at Parse.ly

"Emails arrive chronologically, an inefficient and ineffective organization method. Project management systems allow updates to be made in an organized manner, by project, and employees can review recent posts when they're ready to work on that project, rather than when their inbox dings, interrupting other work."

—Simon Slade, CEO of Affilorama, SaleHoo and Doubledot Media

"We've completely done away with internal email. We have a text based platform that's replaced internal emails and our efficiency is way up across our 140 employees in 2 countries and 3 offices. I personally did away with emails to test this theory first and to be honest, it's time-saving strategies like this that allowed us to rise up from the ashes and become the growing company we are today. Although a different strategy, we've also eliminated all bosses and managers, and that's a work in progress, but at least we didn't need to send out a company-wide email to tell everyone!"

—Jessica Mah, CEO of inDinero

"Undoubtedly email is changing but it's unlikely to ever disappear. With the introduction of tools like team chat messaging apps, automatic notification systems, multiple-person video conferencing systems and other technology barriers dropping, it's never been easier to lessen the grip of email. It's unlikely to ever go away fully but the current ping-pong nature of email and inboxes will be very foreign to the next few generations."

—Paul Armstrong, Owner of HERE/FORTH

"Emails don't work, period. Things happen in startups quickly, so to keep everyone informed and not overwhelmed is a challenge. We’ve started using team chat communication tools because of its search functions, organization, and customization settings. The team can be alerted and notified of new action items or milestones, so it really keeps us updated quickly and moving fast."

—Katie Fang, Founder and CEO of SchooLinks

"Our team rarely uses email for day to day communication. We use a few cloud based programs to communicate and transfer files often supported by text. It's faster and easier to catalog based on topic."

—Violette de Ayala, Founder and CEO at Femfessionals

"We have opted to use a messaging app as our primary means of electronic communication as opposed to email. While we still use email to a degree, the majority of our electronic communication has moved away from it. Messaging apps provide a level of collaboration that email cannot."

—Slava Akhmechet, Co-founder and CEO of RethinkDB

"Email sucks because it's too easy to miss them, and too difficult to remember to follow up if you don't get a reply. During the working day, most business communication is best done over the phone, via team collaboration tools (which include instant messaging) or in person, and email makes it too easy to hide from these channels."

—William Pearce, Co-founder of InboxVudu

"As a global company with 2 offices in the US and in Turkey, we need a fast, efficient, and effective way to communicate that will minimize miscommunication across time zones. We still use email, but we are quickly relying more and more on office messaging. I encourage our team to communicate, collaborate, and mainly use a team chat messaging app because it's a faster way to get things done, and it's also fun for us. Office messaging helps us in our business communication because our friendly chatting makes the culture a more casual, fun place to be."

—Aytekin Tank, CEO and Founder of JotForm

"I have teams in multiple offices, and we have significantly cut down on email. With so many web-based chat and task management tools available, any company should be able to reduce internal emails by 50% or more."

—Mark Tuchscherer, Co-founder and President of Geeks Chicago

"Inter-company email is quickly coming to an end. It just isn't dynamic enough. Where email used to help companies win, it now slows them down. Inter-company chat tools now exist that store all files and create a searchable company database that anybody can search. Email is just too archaic for the specialized inter-company chat tools killing it off."

—Will Mitchell, Co-founder of StartupBros

“Work email can’t die fast enough. As a millennial and CEO, I find that email is the online equivalent to voicemail: I hate it and prefer the instant immediacy of text messages and chats. Millennials are over battling our inboxes."

—Kate Finley, CEO of Belle Communications

"Email is like a gremlin. It started off nice and sweet, got wet, and now it's overwhelming everyone. Instead of trying to get to inbox zero, we've decided to get out of the inbox entirely."

—Rasheen Carbin, CMO of nspHire

A glimpse into what's next

First, it's telling that those are only the responses I received within one hour (there were hundreds more). Second, despite the headlines trying to rope us in, email isn't dying. But it's clear to me that the current nature of work email is dying as teams move nearly 100% of their internal work email to other platforms. This is happening because modern business leaders are realizing that team communication is not about habit or reaching inbox zero or even using the best get things done app. It's about productivity.

So if you're still using email internally, here's an idea:

(1) Choose and implement a team communication app within your company.

But, like attempts to quit smoking, try to wean off instead of going cold turkey. Do this by...

(2) Charging each employee $1 for each email sent after you announce use of the app. Cap it at $15 dollars for the week. After 30 days (the typical trial period for many team communication apps out there) donate the money to an agreed upon charity.

If it doesn't work for your team, cool. Now you know and a charity wins. But there's a good chance you'll see otherwise.

Organizational psychology professor Cary Cooper titled his latest piece for The Guardian:

Work email is making us a generation of idiots.

There's no better time than now to break the habit, or at least realize it exists and try to find an alternative. Your company's success might depend upon it.

***

I want your thoughts on any and all of this. What tools do you use? How productive does your teamwork online become once you've adopted a communication app? Do you successfully use email for internal work communication? The comment section is open and I'll respond as best I can.

Special thanks to HARO

—Photo: Mailbox Peak by Vineesh Devasia

—Photo: Is Email Dead? by Cambodia4KidsOrg

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Introducing Chat https://www.getflow.com/blog/chat Tue, 01 Sep 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Andrew Wilkinson https://www.getflow.com/blog/chat

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A better way to talk at work.

We want to make working together better, and an important part of that is making work more visible. When teams use Flow to plan their projects and follow tasks through to completion, it all happens in a place where everyone on the team can see it.

Open communication leads to great things. Everyone on the team feels more involved, and each person contributes more than they could have if everyone were trying to work on their own. So while we’ve built Flow around tasks, we believe that clear and visible communication is the true, underlying foundation of a happy and productive workplace.

Creating the best way to organize your team’s communication around tasks was our first step, but we know that the valuable conversations we have at work aren’t always about specific tasks. They’re loose conversations about what comes next, and they are happening in all the wrong places.

They take many forms: neverending email CC threads that get buried under a mountain of other email. Meetings that eat up whole afternoons, leaving a gibberish-covered whiteboard. Or maybe in a messaging app, with no clear route to turn decisions into actionable tasks.

No matter where they happen, these conversations almost always improve the work everyone’s doing. Some of the greatest insights happen in unstructured conversations, so we think those conversations deserve the same special treatment we already give to projects and tasks. We want to create a place where everyone can participate and follow along with the key discussions that matter to their work.

Today, we’re excited to launch Chat, a new way to chat with your team, right in Flow. It’s faster than email and meetings, and keeps your team’s communications instantly searchable and accessible to anyone.

With Chat, you can use chat rooms to organize your team’s conversations into topics, like we’ve done here:

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We have rooms for ongoing discussions (like HQ, where we share company news), and some for specific, shorter-term projects (like Beta Interviews, where we’ve been sharing the results of a recent beta test).

And naturally, our Flow chat room has become the launchpad for all things Flow: nearly every task we create comes out of a discussion we’re having in this chat room.

And speaking of tasks, that’s where Chat gets really powerful. It’s easy to create tasks right from a chat room or direct message. You just hit tab in the message field, enter a task title, and hit return to create a new task. Best of all, the whole chat room will get notified about the new task right inline in the chat window.

Just like that, you’re done. A conversation inspires a task that will keep things moving forward.

You can also chat with a specific person (or group of people) privately by sending them a direct message. Your teammates can set a status, too, to let everyone know what they’re up to (“Out for lunch, back at 1pm”). No more shoulder taps.

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And when you’re actually in the midst of chatting, we made sure that there are plenty of fun ways to get your point across.

There’s message liking, for when you want to show instant appreciation or approval…

…And we’d be remiss if you didn’t get emoji at your disposal. Because emoji is emoji.

There are a ton of ways to use it, but at its core, Chat makes it easy for your team to have conversations about anything—and importantly, those conversations won’t happen behind closed doors, but where everyone can participate.

We think you’re gonna love it, and you can go try it out right now. It’s available now on the web and in our iOS and Android apps.

And by the way, Chat is only the biggest of today’s updates to Flow. We’ve also built a new way to invite your team to Flow (you don’t need to enter a bunch of email addresses anymore), better ways to see who’s on your team and share workspaces, and a brand new way to share projects with guests.

There’s plenty more to come, both with chat and tasks.

Update: Flow has been featured on Product Hunt! They carefully handpick the web’s best new products, so it’s a big honour. We’d love if you’d go check us out.

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How We Make Flow Better Every Day https://www.getflow.com/blog/delight-day Thu, 09 Apr 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/delight-day We try to improve Flow a little bit every day. It’s not always easy, and it’s not always obvious to customers. After all, ‘better’ usually means small performance improvements that only the most scrutinizing users notice. And if we’re not busy ensuring Flow-as-you-know-it is perfect, we’re working on a huge new feature that the general public won’t lay eyes on for months.

With all that day-to-day work going on, we’re lucky to get in a few days per year where we get the pleasure of seeing our customers discover something brand new in Flow. Something that makes them smile. Happy customers make us happy, so we wanted to find a way to give people that nice feeling all year round.

And thus, Delight Day was born. Think of it as a Treat Yo Self day at Flow, but instead of getting massages, we’re giving them: we’re thinking solely of what we can do to make Flow even more enjoyable to use, and give our customers that warm, fuzzy feeling that only comes with the new, joyful, and unexpected.

It’s sort of like a hack day, but with a critical difference: Delight Day is about taking what we’ve got with Flow, and really making it shine. That’s right: on this day of days, you can’t work on anything that doesn’t already exist in Flow. This is the day where pet projects, small annoyances, and silly ideas finally get their moment in the sun.

We held our inaugural Delight Day a couple of Fridays ago. So, how does it work, exactly? Glad you asked. Well, first, we needed to decide what we were all going to focus on. Our product director, Jake, set some context on Delight Day Eve:

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From there, everyone at the company then put forward a couple of ideas for what they could work on that would really delight our users. It became clear that very few parts of Flow would go untouched. Almost everyone seemed to have something on their long-standing wish list. Here are just some of them:

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While some people went to work on things that they could do on their own, certain ideas required a few sets of hands. One idea that had been put up for scrutiny earlier suddenly picked up steam:

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The idea was a powerful one, since completing a task is the single most rewarding thing you can do in Flow—and a ripe opportunity for some added delight. It soon become clear that the potential for delight here knew no bounds.

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With a small team of designers, developers, and marketers attaching themselves to the idea, everyone went to work. One of our developers, Rose, set some rules for when these ‘rewards’ might show up for customers:

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Mark (from marketing) came up with 5 alternate ‘rewards’ for each accomplishment…

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…and in just a few short hours (and some quick illustrations from our designer, Emma), we had a skunkworks version of the task completion reward notifications:

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It was that simple. In the course of one day, we’d conjured an idea for a big improvement, spec’d it out, and designed & built it. It’s amazing how quickly something can get done when it’s not only on a short timeline, but something that’s pure fun for everyone (including our customers).

That was just the start. Here’s everything that we improved in Flow over the course of one single Delight Day:

  • Task completion rewards, which you just read all about.
  • Easy task pane resizing. Maybe you want to focus just on one task’s conversation, or maybe you just want to keep an unflinching eye on your task list. Resizing the task pane gives you loads of freedom over what you’re seeing in Flow.
  • Super-simplified time zone switching. Flow now detects when you’ve changed time zones, and asks you if you want to update your settings with a single click.
  • Brand new, extra-delicious copy everywhere. A few people did a sweep, and found several areas where copy could be improved to make it sound more… well, more like us. Nothing is more delightful than unexpectedly great copy.
  • Updated tutorial videos: Now with nice, contextual, and on-brand thumbnails.
  • Webinars, now with 10,000% more Seinfeld jokes: These were feeling a little dry, so we did a complete refresh of our boilerplate webinar content. They’re gold now. Gold!

And best of all, there were plenty of other ideas that we’ll be saving for a future delight day. This wasn’t a one-off.

However, Delight Day isn’t just about boxing all our delight-driven ideas into a single day. It’s about creating a constant reminder of who’s going to be actually using our product, and ensuring that customers are always the #1 consideration.

It’s a simple point that’s easy to forget: after all, with incredibly long development cycles, endless design revisions, and long nights sweating over copy, you can become quickly detached from your users. You can forget entirely whose happiness and joy you’re really striving for.

So while we aim to make Flow better every day, Delight Day makes certain that ‘better’ doesn’t just mean better to us.

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Workspaces Are Now Unlimited: A Field Guide to Using Workspaces to Keep Teams Organized https://www.getflow.com/blog/unlimited-workspaces Mon, 06 Apr 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/unlimited-workspaces Good news! The number of workspaces you can create in Flow is now 100% unlimited. This gives you an ideal way to keep different types of work separate or private.

But before we get into the goods, many of you may be thinking, “Why would I need more than one workspace?,” or perhaps, “What is a workspace? I have never used a workspace before. Teach me, please.” Gladly.

And we often hear those two questions from our customers: under the old guard of limited workspaces, most teams were using just one workspace. For those many people, learning about workspaces was never an important part of using Flow. So let’s start at the ground level.

What are workspaces?

Workspaces are what Flow uses to keep different types of work separate, and group people who work together. You’ve been using a workspace all along, even if you’ve never created one - it’s where all your tasks and projects live.

If you were to create more workspaces, you might use them to break up the different departments in your company (like HR, marketing, and finance). Or maybe you run a design agency, and you want to set up a workspace for each client project. Only the people invited to the workspace would have access to it.

Oh, so it’s a private place where people can go to work together.

Yep. Regardless of how you’re using them, the key thing to keep in mind is that workspaces are 100% exclusive to those who have been given access. This is why workspaces are so ideal for separating departments or clients: it keeps your conversations completely separate, without ever needing to worry about changing your privacy settings (PS: you can create private projects, or have for-your-eyes-only tasks in your inbox).

What good are workspaces for me?

Plenty good. You can have finance or HR workspaces with select people from your company, and never worry about the wrong person seeing them (this doesn’t mean you need to have a dedicated finance team to create a finance workspace; you may just want to isolate finance-related tasks/discussions from everything else). You can invite clients to a workspace (and remember, they’d only see that one workspace!), and manage the whole project right in Flow. These are just a couple of examples of the new flexibility that workspaces opens up.

How can I set up another workspace?

First, think of a team at your company who might benefit from their own separate workspace. Maybe it’s you and your bookkeeper; maybe it’s just your marketing team. Let’s say it’s your marketing team.

First, hover over your workspace’s name. You’ll see a little arrow appear. Click it.

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To create a new workspace, hit ‘new workspace’ in the workspace list:

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Next, name the workspace, and add all the people who you want to be involved. Remember, only these people will be able to see the projects and tasks in this workspace (you can invite others as needed).

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That’s it. Then you’ll see that workspace listed along with your original ones. Note the indicator of how many people are in each workspace:

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Workspaces are not discoverable, so only people who are a part of the workspace will ever see that it’s there.

Now you know all about workspaces, and how you can use them to better organize all the different parts of your company, some of which may need to be private - or just separate. If you have an account, go give them a try today. If not, sign up for a free trial, and use workspaces to organize your teams right out of the gate.

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Major Improvements to Task Exporting & Reporting https://www.getflow.com/blog/task-exporting-reporting Thu, 19 Mar 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/task-exporting-reporting We know that Flow won’t always be the be-all and end-all for most customers. After all, a time might come when you’re having a meeting that includes people not familiar with your comprehensively organized account, and in those trying times, you might need to rely on a good ol’ fashioned list of tasks presented in an easy, consumable format.

It might be that you need to show your bosses the progress of a project, and you need a quick list of all the tasks completed and by whom. Or maybe you’re having a budget meeting, and it would be nice to get a straightforward list of all the tasks that’re left. Whatever the case, it all means that you need Flow to be really, really good at making reports.

You’ve always been able to export a clean list of tasks into a report. But today, we’re happy to announce some major improvements to task exporting. Like with all our enhancements now and forever, exporting is now prettier, faster, and more useful to you.

Here’s just some of the stuff you can expect from our now-hyperpowered task exporting:

  • Export all the completed tasks or open tasks in a project - or an archived project - into CSV, PDF, or HTML formats
  • For spreadsheet users: more comprehensive CSV data than before, allowing you to easily view the number of tasks completed (by person, or in general), completion dates by task, the type of task completed, the average time taken to complete tasks, current open tasks in a project, and much more
  • Much, much, much better looking PDF and HTML formats

Let’s say you wanted to export a list of all the completed tasks in a project.

First, you’d click ‘Export tasks’ on the project dropdown menu…

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….then you’d select ‘completed tasks’, and pick whichever date range and format you needed. We’ll say ‘last 2 weeks’ for this one, and grab a CSV.

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From there, hit download, and you’ll have your CSV in seconds. Check it out:

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So while we wish that everyone on your team could use Flow, we get that it’s not always going to be the case - and task exporting is a quick-and-dirty way to share software-neutral reports on a project’s progress.

Give it a shot today. Login to your Flow account, or sign up now.

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Get A Bird’s Eye View of Your Project with Kanban Boards https://www.getflow.com/blog/kanban-boards Mon, 23 Feb 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Jake Paul https://www.getflow.com/blog/kanban-boards Flow has always been great at helping you track the status of the tasks your team is working on by giving you a view of what has happened on each task, from start to finish. As projects grow to include more and more tasks, though, it can be hard to get sense of what’s going on in the project as a whole.

Today, we’re excited to introduce a beautiful new way to see the big picture in your projects, called Kanban Boards. It gives you the power to visualize any project and stay on top of each task in your workflow, so you can spend less time managing work—and more time doing it.

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The best way to get a feel for Kanban Boards is to see one in action, so we put together a 60-second video to show you just that:


Getting started is as simple as switching to the Kanban view in one of your current projects and dragging & dropping the tasks into sections. We recommend starting with sections that describe the stages tasks in the project go through, like Planning, Ready to Begin, In Progress, and In Review.

You can add more sections at any time, as well as rename and reorder the sections you’ve already created. Sections show up both as columns in Kanban Board view and as headers when you choose “Sort Manually” in list view:

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In addition to drag and drop, tasks can be added to sections directly from the project field in the task form—and you can make any section the default, so tasks added to the project will automatically start there.

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Finally, we’ve added one more detail that we think you’ll like: a minimize tab on the edge of the sidebar. Use it to hide the sidebar when you need to focus, and while it’s hidden, simply drag your cursor near the left edge of the window when you want to switch to another view—when you’re done, it will slide discreetly out of the way again:

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Giving Kanban Boards a try doesn’t require any big changes: start with sections that match the way you already work. Once you have those in place, you’ll be able to zoom out, quickly spot bottlenecks, and start to understand ways your team can work better and smarter.

We hope Kanban Boards give your entire team a better look at your projects from start to finish. Try it on your next project, and let us know what you think.

See more of Kanban Boards in action, or sign up to try it out right now.

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‘Lists’ Are Now ‘Projects’: A Slight Adjustment to Flow That Doesn’t Really Change How You’ll Use It https://www.getflow.com/blog/lists-to-projects Fri, 16 Jan 2015 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/lists-to-projects We’re making a nice little change to Flow that we think is going to make it better for everyone: we’re changing ‘lists’ to ‘projects’.

Here’s why: first of all, we realized that lists is a confusing term for what is much more commonly known as a project — especially to people who are brand new to Flow. The name ‘list’ came about since what it represented was a group of tasks (i.e. a list of tasks), but at the end of the day, our definition of a list was always a project to anyone else in the world. So, this change will hopefully make Flow a little bit more accessible and recognizable to your future team.

Our thinking is a little bit bigger than that, though. We’re all about getting things done, and helping you wrangle massive projects that feel impossible. Something about the word ‘lists’ has an infinite feel: something neverending, that could have continual additions. A good project, on the other hand, has a firm beginning and end, not to mention the undertones of accountability and purpose — whereas a list is really just a list. This puts a little more emphasis on managers to create projects with a clear end goal — but that’s never a bad thing.

Lastly, this sets the stage for several very nice new features to come, the first of which is right around the corner (hint: it starts with K, and ends with anban). Follow us on Twitter to get the latest info about those features, which will be live on your screens before too long.

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Why I Won’t Work During the Holidays https://www.getflow.com/blog/holiday-work Thu, 18 Dec 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/holiday-work We’re taking a full week off this December to celebrate the holidays. It’s a little more than what most teams take. Having this extra time made me wonder how I can make the most of it. I’m only half joking when I say I want to optimize my bliss.

Last year, some Flow users demonstrated some very interesting (and anti-holiday) tendencies: between December 27th and Sunday January 5th there was an unusual spike in completed tasks per person in Flow. This means a small group of people were sneaking away from their family eggnog chugging, snow-dampened forest hikes, and drunk uncle reining to check tasks off their work lists. Was it you?

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This gave me pause, since I usually take a hard-line on holidays: I think they’re a time to relax, and that work shouldn’t get in the way.

Now ultimately, the amount you work during the holidays depends on your personality, workload, and team expectations. If you’re someone who works more than 70 hours a week on a regular basis, then you’re more likely to feel a distinct sense of accomplishment from checking in over the holidays. And that’s okay. Neil over at Quicksprout works during the holidays to keep ahead, set an example for his team, and take a deeper look at his company’s strategy and vision.

But that’s not me, and that’s not us. That’s not most people. The average person desperately needs time to relax distraction-free and recharge their batteries. We’re not the only ones who think so: it’s been proven that unplugged holidays lower stress and help reduce burnout.

Much research has been done into the benefits of time-off, it appears that the extent to which you benefit depends on:

  • how completely you detach from work,
  • the level of relaxation you enjoy during your time away, and
  • the time you spend with loved ones (source)

Detaching from work

I’m particularly interested in that first point - the importance of detaching from work.

Detaching from work means not checking in, not thinking about work stuff, and not working on company projects. It improves mood and reduces fatigue. Oh, and it doesn’t negatively affect job performance.

There’s even a direct connection between number of hours worked and ill-health. Like Sonic with shovel shoes, you can definitely run yourself into the ground by working too much.

So what helps you unplug and stay unplugged?

  • Having a heavy workload with upcoming deadlines makes it hard to detach, so try and wrap up as many commitments as you can before leaving on your last day.
  • Team norms go a long way towards feeling comfortable detaching, so make sure employees and direct reports know your expectations.
  • Connecting with friends and family will help you take your mind off work (source), so make a point of spending quality time with loved ones.
  • Having work apps on your phone makes it hard to detach (source) so hide or remove them temporarily while you’re away

So now that I know how to optimize my bliss, I’m gonna try not to worry too much about whether I’m doing it right. Happy holidays!

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Attach Files from Google Drive https://www.getflow.com/blog/attach-files-from-google-drive Wed, 17 Dec 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Eric Goodwin https://www.getflow.com/blog/attach-files-from-google-drive comment_form.png#asset:706

As I’m sure many of you do, we use Google Drive here at Flow to manage and share documents and spreadsheets that we work on together. Google’s collaborative editing is best in class, and we often use Docs and Spreadsheets for “living” documents that expand and change over time, as well as in situations where inline commenting comes in handy, like in drafting our blog posts.

Before today, the only way to share something from Google Drive in Flow was to paste the link into a comment—that worked, but having to open the file in a separate tab just to view it always felt clumsy. Well, we love finding small ways to make everyday work easier, so I’m pleased to announce that Google Drive files are now fully integrated into Flow, joining Dropbox files and files you upload from your computer as a new type of attachment.

Better still, clicking a Drive file opens it in our built-in viewer, so you can see Docs, Spreadsheets, photos, and other files more quickly and easily, without leaving Flow:

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Have a Google Doc that you would like to attach to a task? No problem. Open the task pane, head to the comment form, and then click the Google Drive icon in the lower right. (We’ve also moved the options to upload a file and choose a file from Dropbox to the same place.)

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The first time you click the Drive icon, you’ll be asked to connect your Google account to Flow, if you haven’t already done so in Account Preferences or when you signed up. This just takes a second, and then you’ll see a dialog with a list of your Google Drive files, and tabs along the top you can use to limit the list to a specific type of file or only files you created. Select one or several files, save your comment, and you’re good to go!

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It’s important to note that Drive files you attach in Flow are still affected by the sharing permissions you set on Google. We recommend keeping your team’s Drive files in shared folders, or configuring your organization’s Google Apps settings to share files by default. For more information about Drive attachments and permissions, check out the Google Drive article in our Support Center.

This new integration is a step in the direction of making Flow the best way to manage all of your team’s tasks, conversations, and files in a single place. We hope you love it, and as always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback.

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iOS Task Form Update https://www.getflow.com/blog/ios-task-form-update Fri, 12 Dec 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Ian Hoar https://www.getflow.com/blog/ios-task-form-update iphone@2x.png#asset:711

The latest update to the Flow iOS app is a big one! We’ve redone the task form, the dashboard, and the login form, and we now support the iPhone 6+.

The New Task Form

We’ve been working on this for months so we’re really happy to release it to you. We’ve made the task form super quick with nice little custom pickers to set all of your task details. Take a look:


Updated Login Form

The login form just got a nice update. This came as a bonus to the deep work we did on the signup flow. It had become clunky so we completely redid it to make it speedy to sign up for Flow. We even threw in some confetti to celebrate. If you haven’t signed up for Flow on iOS yet, join the party.

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New Dashboard

The release of iOS 8 gave us the opportunity to do some much needed upkeep to the Dashboard. The result is something that’s a lot smoother to scroll through, and the layout is a lot less buggy. Flow users spend a lot of time in the Dashboard, so we wanted to make sure it works well.

We’ll continue to find things to rewrite and perfect for our next release.

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Idea Surges https://www.getflow.com/blog/idea-surges Tue, 02 Dec 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/idea-surges A couple of months back, everyone on the Flow team got together in the same room for the first time in our history. While we’re normally happy to distribute our team, we wanted everyone to get together and talk about the future of Flow. Needless to say, it was a big discussion that resulted in plenty of big ideas.

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The most glaring challenge was carrying that momentum forward. We were quick to get the ideas on paper - ahem, in Flow - and spent the next couple months up ‘til now shipping features, and just generally acting on those big ideas.

But I’m making that sound too easy. Dealing with a sudden influx of brand new ideas can be seriously hard, whether it’s during your annual company summit or just your run-of-the-mill brainstorm.

  • Too many cooks in the kitchen - everyone had great ideas, but 25 voices all coming at once from different angles means a high signal to noise ratio.
  • Too many ideas - lots of good ideas got dwarfed by even better ones, which can be tough for those whose ideas get lost in the shuffle.
  • Not enough time - there were plenty of ideas the team loved, but we had to focus on the amazing ones. You don’t want to put too much on your plate and overwhelm the team.

Since we’re board certified Productivity Experts (the University of American Samoa has an excellent program), we didn’t fall victim to any of these. Ok, that’s not true. But we evaluated afterwards, and learned a lot about how we can do things better the next time.

We’ve reached one solid conclusion: ideas for improvement can’t come all at once. Your team needs to have a constant process of ideation, evaluation, and action. Here’s how can we keep the team avoid the dangers of idea surges, while retaining all the good stuff:

  • Spread out your inspiration - make consistent, small efforts at all levels to keep your wheels turning. Regularly read blogs you love, and check out what the competition is up to. Or have your company do several small events as opposed to one big one.
  • Record ideas and evaluate them separately - conversations or chatrooms have a tendency to bury topics due to their low bandwidth. Capture your ideas using tools for developing them. I know of one called Flow.
  • Review old ideas - instead of looking for new ideas, spend time reviewing suggestions you’ve put off. This could mean taking another shot at a much-requested feature, or re-reading feedback.
  • Stay focused - when it comes to improvement, time is always the constraining resource, not ideas. Instead of trying to do too much, pick one or two things that will make the biggest impact now.

Having big idea summits with your team is great for plenty of reasons, but don’t forget that it’s possible to capture great ideas all the time. Go find ‘em.

Do you agree? Are idea surges dangerous, or should they be chased? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Click-to-tweet: “@flowapp: summits and hackathons cause idea surges that can throw off your focus”

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Back in Blue https://www.getflow.com/blog/back-in-blue Wed, 26 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jake Paul https://www.getflow.com/blog/back-in-blue Flow got a new look today: a bright blue header across the top of the app, which is now home to Notifications, Search, the New Task button, and the Help menu.

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The new placement of these actions better reflects their rank above the context of a single workspace—Search, Notifications, and the New Task Form help you to work across all the workspaces you’re a part of.

This new header also lays the foundation of some changes to come. We’re not ready to talk too many details yet, but we’re very excited about what we’re working on. (Don’t worry: this post won’t be the last word on that.)

In addition to the bright new paint, we’re also introducing a change to the Workspace Switcher, which now slides out of the way when you’re within a workspace. We decided on this tweak based on data about how workspaces tend to be used, and we think it adds to the sense of focus that matters most when you need to get work done.

As with any change, we welcome your feedback via tweet at @flowapp or email to support@getflow.com.

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Time Tracking with Harvest https://www.getflow.com/blog/time-tracking-with-harvest Tue, 25 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Mark Nichols https://www.getflow.com/blog/time-tracking-with-harvest harvest.png#asset:723

Lately, lots of you have been asking whether or not we plan to add time tracking to Flow. It’s an excellent idea, since many people already use Flow to manage client work.

Here’s the thing: someone else is already doing time tracking unbelievably well, and their service is tailor-made to integrate beautifully into other apps (not to mention that they also offer invoicing, advanced reporting, and plenty more).

That’s why we’re proud to announce that Flow now integrates with Harvest, the best time-tracking service on the planet. We’ve kept it super simple: start a task timer, and your time will be sent directly to Harvest. No fuss, and no switching between apps every two minutes.

You can turn it on right now by editing a workspace that you own, and selecting the Harvest option in Integrations. Refresh, and you’ll be good to go.

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Check out this support article detailing how it all works.

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Mention and Attach in Android Comments https://www.getflow.com/blog/android-comments Fri, 21 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Derek Smith https://www.getflow.com/blog/android-comments Leaving a quick comment helps you communicate with your team. Getting specific by mentioning someone or attaching an image helps you get your point across. We’re pleased to announce that you can now do both while on the go with Flow™ in the Flow Android app.

Cleaner Comments

We’ve built a new comment form! It’s cleaner, easier to use, and more functional than before. When you open it, the blue Action Bar disappears and the form controls expand so that you can focus on your writing, with less distraction.

Easy Image Picking

Tap the ’+’ icon in the comment form to attach up to 4 images from your device with the new gallery picker.

Inline Mentioning

Mention teammates as you comment by typing ’@’ followed by their name; pick them out from the auto-complete options that appear as you type. If mentioning someone gives them access to a list, we’ll check with you first before posting the comment.


We’ve also made a bunch of incremental updates with this release:

  • Lots of bug fixes
  • Simplified UX for tag and subtask creation
  • Ability to unsubscribe yourself from a list, and updates to list editing
  • Small UI/content updates and fixes throughout

Thanks go out to the Rebound Physics and AndroidViewAnimations libraries, which were used for building animations.

Check out this latest version of the Flow Android app on Google Play, and leave a review if you like what you see!

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Flow Radio #6: Secret Identities https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-6 Thu, 20 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-6 You asked, and we delivered: this episode is packed to the gills with super boring video games and inside stories of life at Microsoft.

But seriously: Sean joins us today to talk about his past life at Microsoft, and his transformation into a Mac-using, project-managing Head of Ops at MetaLab. Also, Jeremy reveals how he and his friends have raised almost two million dollars for sick kids by driving a virtual bus.

Subscribe to Flow Radio on Soundcloud, RSS, or iTunes.

Make sure to review us on iTunes or tweet us at @flowapp to let us know what you think!

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Smart Links https://www.getflow.com/blog/smart-links Mon, 17 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/smart-links When discussing a task, sometimes it helps to make a reference. You might want to mention a task you’re waiting on, a project that’s in the works, a change that’s being made, or a relevant discussion.

You can do this in a Flow comment by pasting in the URL of what you’re referencing.

What you might not know is that for certain types of links, we’ll clean up that messy http-colon-slash-slash business, and turn it into something readable.

  • Flow tasks get renamed as their title. This also works for Lists, Groups, Workspaces, Tags, and People
  • Github.com Pull Request URLs get renamed to show their organization, repository, and Pull Request number. For example, one of my PRs turned into “metalabdesign/flow_marketing/#427”
  • Any other long link will be shortened to avoid clogging up the comment thread

This:

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Turns into:

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Sorry (not sorry) for gettin’ meta on you with that example there. Hopefully with this feature, your references will be a little easier to digest.

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How We Improved Teamwork Online by Encouraging Remote Work https://www.getflow.com/blog/encourage-remote-work Thu, 13 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/encourage-remote-work We had to listen to our own observation:

35% less work gets done on Friday than on Monday.

We had seen it while digging through the aggregated productivity data for all the teams that use Flow. It’s standard for teams to get less done on Friday.

But is there anything we can do about improving our teamwork both online and in office?

We wanted to try answering this, so we thought about how we might shake up Fridays. Laying down rules, targets, or structure were off the table–that’s just not how we work. Instead, we wanted to try something that would make people happier and put them in a better position to do good work.

The Birth of Remote Day

We decided to try working remotely on Fridays. It would break up the end of the work week, allow us to tweak our work habits, and help us focus during a day that tends to be distracting.

On Remote Fridays, every team member is encouraged to work from wherever they want—be that from home, a coffee shop, the couches, or their office desk.

It’s completely optional, and doesn’t change any of our existing policies. Every team member is already encouraged to work wherever and whenever they want.

We’ve been at it for over 8 weeks, and are still running with it. Here’s what we’ve learned.

The first Remote Friday was fun. A bunch of us found a new spot to work from and made a point of being more present than before on internal chat and Flow task discussions. Some of us even shared remote selfies.

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It felt like having a remote day made our online teamwork more lively and engaging. We talked a lot more online about work and other things.

Getting Comfortable

After that initial bump, we gradually returned to our regular level of communication.

When we checked in to see how Remote Day was going, almost half the team said they felt more productive. Others added that it would take some time to get the hang of remote work. The rest didn’t feel any more productive.

Team members said things like:

“I feel like a lot of my distractions live at home; however once I settle in, I do better work there. I get really distracted by other humans.”

“Employee happiness wise I like it, but productivity wise, I’d say I’m about the same level of productivity at home vs the office.”

“Yeah… with no one else in the office it’s nice and quiet”

Moving forward

This confirmed to us that everyone has their own preference for getting “in the zone.” Some people love the flexibility of working from wherever, while others prefer the structure of office hours. It depends on the person and no single schedule can be chosen for everybody.

But actively encouraging remote work actually got some of us doing it. More of us now work from outside the office throughout the week–not only on Fridays!

We now work however we like. We’re dispersed across the office, the city, and elsewhere. Knowing that there’s no chain on our desk and no one is tracking our movements is liberating. It frees us up to do good work.

In the end, what improved our teamwork online was realizing that it’s not important how each person prefers to work, what matters is the freedom to make that decision ourselves.

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Flow Radio #5: Name Game https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-5 Fri, 07 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-5 This week, Cyrus joins us to chat about marketing—but not before revealing that we’ve been mispronouncing his name for months. Also: we discuss what we’ve been watching to curb our seasonal affective disorder, and how the Canadian media does things right.

Subscribe to Flow Radio on Soundcloud, RSS, or iTunes.

Got a question for us? Want to hear our thoughts on something? Leave a comment below and we might talk about it in a future episode.

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A Smarter Autocomplete https://www.getflow.com/blog/smarter-autocomplete Wed, 05 Nov 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Rose Robertson https://www.getflow.com/blog/smarter-autocomplete As of right now, assigning and mentioning in Flow is a whole lot smoother and easier.

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There are lots of people out there named Michael, Jane, and John, and soon, they will be replaced by fleets of Jonahs, Olivias, and Kourtneys. The names will change, but the problem will remain: lots of people with the same name, leaving you with lots of irrelevant autocomplete results when you’re assigning tasks.

Now the people to whom you most frequently assign tasks will trump everyone and appear at the top of your suggested names. It’s a small change that’s gonna make task creation and mentioning a whole lot simpler and cleaner.

It’ll be on iOS and Android very soon.

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Bench: How We Stay Productive as a Team https://www.getflow.com/blog/bench-team-productivity Wed, 29 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/bench-team-productivity Bench-Stay-Productive-Apps.jpg#asset:730

From time-to-time, we catch up with our friends over at Bench to talk about what’s going on with our teams. We share what’s been working, what we’ve learned–anything that could help each other out. Today, they’ll share some of these productivity tips with you. This is a guest post by Cameron at Bench.


When your business suddenly enters a period of rapid growth, how do you maintain a high level of productivity across all teams?

This is a challenge we’ve been addressing at Bench. As a scaleable online bookkeeping service, we pair every new client with a professional bookkeeper – meaning that the more clients we acquire, the bigger our workforce grows.

As we’re nearing the 100-employee mark we’ve had to develop a range of in-house methods to maintain productivity, maximise efficiency, and bring costs down both for our clients and for ourselves.

We wanted to share some of the tools and processes that have helped us to achieve this in the hope that they’ll benefit you and your business too. We’d also love to hear about any productivity hacks that you’ve developed, so please tweet them to us and share them in the comments section below. We’re listening!

Optimized Team Communication

Optimizing the way we communicate saves us time on individual, team, and company-wide levels. In addition to Flow, here are some apps that have proven critical in helping to streamline our online communication:

Close.io: Our sales and bookkeeping teams use Close.io to track and centralize all communication with clients.

Bloomfire: Everyone in the company has access to Bloomfire, a searchable database of company-specific information. We store everything from morning meeting notes, sales reports, accounting best practice guides, and other useful content that we’ve found on the net which helps us do our jobs more effectively. Over time the Bench Bloomfire account has become a goldmine of searchable information for everyone who works here, and it saves us from repeating answers to commonly asked questions.

We’ve also integrated the following practices to improve in-person interaction:

Lunch & Learn Sessions: Every Wednesday a different team member presents an hour-long presentation to anyone who wants to attend. One week it’s font and color selection, the next it’s a deeper look at using Excel. In-house Lunch and Learn sessions are a cost- and time-effective way of distributing valuable information and skills throughout the company.

Bierhaus: Always fun. Always on Friday afternoon. Bierhaus is a social, open company forum held every two weeks where department heads update us on company progress, and anyone is welcome to ask anything they like. It’s our way of proactively encouraging interaction across departments and teams while discouraging a sense of hierarchy.

One-on-Ones with Ian (Bench’s CEO): We steer clear of hierarchy. Similar to Bierhaus, we’re able to ask Ian anything we like - feedback on our performance, his take on the future of the company, even his thoughts on the next season of Game of Thrones.

Bench Academy

All new Bench employees go through a week-long training period we call Bench Academy. Everyone, no matter which department they work in, learns how to process client bookkeeping using Bench’s web platform.

After the training, every employee - from our CEO, our VPs of Marketing and Operations, to members of the dev and marketing teams - is tasked with managing the books of a Bench client. Having everyone work directly with Bench’s web platform helps us to understand our clients’ needs and identify areas where we can improve the Bench web app to better serve our clients.

A New Macbook Air For Every Employee

One of my colleagues (we call each other Bench Mates) used to work for a large multinational company before joining Bench.

“It took two weeks and cost $2000 for someone to move desks!” he said, marvelling at how easy it was for us to move desks and work remotely.

Using MacBook Airs instead of stationary desktop computers means that moving desks takes no more than a few minutes. It also makes it easy to head to a nearby cafe for a team meeting. Google Drive and Dropbox also help us to reduce time spent locating, sharing, and accessing documents no matter where we’re working.

Work Smart, Not Hard

Here’s an interesting story: during my first week at Bench I attended a company-wide meeting. Management announced that they’d noticed a lot of people working overtime and reminded us that, at Bench, we strive to work smart, not hard. We were reminded to ask teammates and managers for help to achieve our results without sacrificing a healthy work life balance.

I’d never before heard a manager, let alone a company, make my well being a priority. As an employee, this policy reminds me that I’m supported. It makes me feel valued. And it motivates me to collaborate with others to find ways to work smarter and produce better results without risking my sanity in the process.

A ‘No Questions Asked’ Work From Home Policy

“Hey, I’m going to work from Starbucks this morning.”

This is a common message to receive via email from a team member here at Bench.

Choosing to work from home is at every employee’s individual discretion. The only stipulation is that employees must be in the office if their presence is required for a meeting.

Our self-directed Work From Home option re-emphasises to everyone that we’re a results driven company. If working remotely increases your productivity and your well being, do it.

Our Approach to Dropbox

We hacked Dropbox. It’s a minor hack, a tweak if you like, that ensures we don’t lose information or waste time trying to track it down.

All new employees are set up with a dropbox account. Whenever an employee creates a new folder on their personal Dropbox drive, two specific team members in the company are given admin access. Knowing that two people have access to all of the company information on Dropbox means that we don’t lose information or waste time trying to track it down when an employee is sick or on vacation. It’s a simple hack that saves us plenty of time.

1Password

1Password is an app that generates secure passwords and saves them in a single account. All you need is a master password to log into your 1Password, and you’re able to access all of your saved online login information.

As a Content Manager, I have 40+ logins (and counting!) that I access on a weekly basis. For argument’s sake let’s say that it would take me 5 minutes each day to manually enter passwords for existing accounts and generate/store existing passwords.

If 1Password saves me 5 minutes a day, then that’s 25 minutes saved each week, and 1300 minutes (21 hours) I personally save each year. Multiply that 21 hours by 100 employees and we’re saving 2100 hours company wide per year thanks to a single app.

What cool hacks and processes are you using to increase team productivity? We’d love to hear them and chat with you in the comments section below.

Cameron McCool is the Content Manager at Bench, the online bookkeeping service that pairs you with a dedicated accountant and simple, elegant software to do your bookkeeping for you.

Flow users, click here to sign up for your free 30-day trial of Bench.

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Flow Radio #4: Travel Crush https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-4 Sat, 25 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-4 Have you checked your podcast library yet? The fourth episode of Flow Radio is out and it may already be with you!

In this episode, Ian returns from Europe, scared away by the tales of phantasmal pickpockets. He takes us on a magical journey to the the legendary Touch ID Utopia. It’s like the NeverEnding Story, but done in 20 minutes.

You can subscribe via Soundcloud, RSS or iTunes.

We haven’t had much feedback, and would love to know what you think of our podcast-y experiment. Leave a comment here or drop us a review on iTunes if you get a chance!

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Instantly Assign Tasks to People You Invite https://www.getflow.com/blog/assign-tasks-to-invites Wed, 22 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/assign-tasks-to-invites Up to now, when you invited somebody to Flow, you had to wait for them to sign up before you could assign them tasks. This meant that tasks needed to be held somewhere else in the interim, which meant that they would probably be missed and never completed.

This was a big annoyance, and we’ve changed it.

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Now, you can assign tasks to somebody immediately after inviting them. As soon as they sign up, their work will be waiting. This should make getting up and running with Flow a lot easier: create your workspaces, invite your team, assign them tasks, and you’re done. No more waiting for everyone to get set up before you can structure your work.

We’ve also added some other features along way:

  • You can now log in with any of your confirmed email addresses
  • The People page shows you who hasn’t accepted their invitation and lets you send them reminders
  • Anyone you invite will receive daily email notifications of the tasks you assign them

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As with any change, let us know what you think. Leave a comment here, ask for help at support@getflow.com, or suggest changes on our feedback forum.

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Flow Radio #3: Fingers in Every Pie https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-3 Thu, 16 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-3 As you read this, Episode 3 of our podcast should be finding its way to your device and, hopefully, to your heart.

This week, Tim and Jesse tell us how to use Tinder to judge strangers from the safety of our homes, and we learn how to spice up Halloween with a free fedora and a 2-6 of Smirnoff Ice! Join us as we become total human garbage on Episode 3 of Flow Radio.

You can subscribe via Soundcloud, RSS or iTunes.

Also, as a visual aid, here’s a picture as Ian dressed up as Khal (Karl) Drogo: a costume truly fit to conquer.

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Our board was again attacked by annoying—albeit different—audio gremlins this week, so again we apologize for the sub-par quality. Feel free to rage at us in the comments here or on Twitter at @flowapp. You can also comment on the Soundcloud stream to let us know the exact second your mind was blown.

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Flow Radio #2: Jake Swag™ https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-2 Thu, 09 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-2 Less than 48 hours after releasing our first show, Episode 2 is out the door.

This week, we shuffled our lineup to include Jake, Flow’s vagabond lead developer, and Rose, our small-dog aficionado and talented front-end developer. Ian, Kim, Rose, and Jake tackle pushing the envelope with JavaScript, emoji-based office drama and the untapped potential of Ello. They also battle some sub-par audio, which was unwelcome, unexpected, and will hopefully be unrepeated. Have a listen:

You can subscribe to Flow Radio via Soundcloud, RSS or iTunes.

We’re still super stoked about this project and welcome any feedback about the content, format, or anything else. Please tweet your comments to @flowapp or review us on iTunes to tell us how we’re doing.

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Flow Radio - Episode 1 https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-1 Tue, 07 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jeremy Giffon https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-radio-1 We’re trying something new. To help you get to know the team behind Flow a bit better, we’re starting a podcast.

It’s relaxed, conversational, and not-too-serious. We loosely follow topics such as technology news, office culture, and what’s going on with the team and its members.

In this first episode, Ian, Kim, and I discuss office botany, Flow, and Apple news. Have a listen and let us know your thoughts.

Subscribe to Flow Radio on Soundcloud, iTunes, and RSS.

This is our first episode; we haven’t produced podcasts before, so it’ll be a little rough to begin with. We’ll aim to release an episode every Thursday, moving forward.

We’re having fun putting this together–hope you enjoy it!

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Huge Improvements for Easier Task Management in the Flow Android App https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-android-app-improvements Thu, 02 Oct 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Derek Smith https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-android-app-improvements We’re happy to announce that the Flow Android app has just been updated with major improvements. The bulk of the app is now native, making it faster and more reliable; we’ve thought carefully about bringing list and project creation to the platform; and we’ve added a bunch of polished interactions that make task management a smoother experience and the app is overall more pleasant to use. Download Flow for Android now and let us know what you think of the improvements by reviewing it on the Google Play Store.

Making it Native

From the start, our goal with the Android app has been to build the best task management experience for Flow on your phone. This update is a major step in that direction, in-fact it’s the largest update since launch. Looking at the project so far, we’ve been gradually turning it from a wrapped web-app (website) to a fully native experience that takes advantage of the platform’s strengths.

Here’s a brief overview of the app’s history:

  • We started out simple, the first version of the app was just a natively wrapped website or web-app, with the ability to login and sign-up being native
  • Then we built out native navigation - we started native development at the highest-level element of the app by building the sidebar menu. We started here because we knew we could branch off of the navigation to build out more native components and functionality
  • Where we last left off was fixing major bugs before a hiatus while we worked on the bigger updates

Designing lists

We started this update initially just building lists, because they were the most complex views and thus the biggest design challenge. A nice intentional benefit from building lists first was that when it came time to build out the favourites views we could copy the design language and navigation over to them. This also created a more consistent experience and a more pleasant way to manage tasks within the app. In short, we started with lists, established a general design, then worked backwards to build everything else.

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Here’s the first design we built for lists. It follows the Android holo guidelines, but could be better in a lot of ways. The tabs take up too much space and are distracting; the gradient is lame; and there are lots of things that need to be stripped away and re-thought. Notably it doesn’t actually improve the experience much.

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This iteration was getting closer. We got a lot right with the navigation. It’s cleaner, less distracting, and just as good at helping you navigate (we included “spinner” navigation, which is prevalent on Android.)

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Almost there… this iteration added inline task creation. Note the “+” icon, which is actually a functional element that focuses the editText. It also has much better spacing between elements, and we moved more functionality into the overflow menu in the action bar.

The final design that we ended up going with can be seen in the video above.

Polished interactions

We don’t want to change Flow’s design unnecessarily as we build the app. However, we’re certainly enhancing interaction in ways only a native experience can. We’ve thought about how every swipe, menu, spinner, user flow, and bounce looks and feels. You’ll notice that the app isn’t just pretty looking, it wants to be poked and tapped and swiped, and the interface responds to that. All spring, list item, and button animations were pulled from Facebook Rebound’s open source project. Adding interactivity became a theme for this release; it has given the app a distinctive visual language and added personality to its productivity-focused interface.

Progress Update

In this release we:

  • Built native functionality for list creation, viewing, and editing, Calendar, My Tasks, Inbox, Delegated, Subscribed, and Flagged
  • Added the action bar everywhere. This adds navigation and functionality to the remaining views that are non-native (dashboard, search, and task pane)
  • Completely re-designed every screen, animation, and interaction
  • Improved performance for better task management
  • Fixed lots of bugs

We’re now working on:

  • Tasks - we’re going to spend time getting tasks right. We’d love to be able to attach photos, and create an experience with tasks that really fits and ties the app together
  • Dashboard - this view deserves a lot of attention to detail. It’s complex, but shouldn’t be confusing, and should quickly give you the information you need
  • Search - we’ve dramatically improved our search algorithm on the web, so we’ll be building native UI’s to really take advantage of that
  • A widget - not for the sake of saying we have a widget, but because it’s genuinely helpful and complementary to the app. We’ll be working on ensuring its functionality and design fit the right context before we release anything

Open Source Projects

Facebook Rebound was mentioned above, but we also wanted to give a shoutout to all the open source projects we’ve used in the development of this latest release. They’ve made development quicker and better in a lot of ways. Big thank-yous go out to:

Download Flow from the Google Play Store

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How to make the most of Mondays https://www.getflow.com/blog/monday-productivity Wed, 24 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/monday-productivity “What do you want to accomplish this week?”

Everyone here at Flow gets asked that on Monday morning. We share our responses internally to keep everyone updated. However what I want to highlight is how this question takes advantage of a pattern we share with teams just like yours…

On Monday, we’re at our most inspired, most proactive, and busiest.

I’ll say it in a different way. On Monday, we plan more and do more. We set the tone for the week and hit a high note in terms of quantity of work.

This may seem like a given, but this collective hunch can finally be backed up with hard data. To do this, we use the behaviour of tens of thousands of Flow users.

As you may recall from our observations about the "Friday Slump", the way people use Flow directly represents actual work getting done. When someone creates, delegates, discusses, or checks off a task, we’re witnessing productivity in action. By aggregating every little action from across our user base and analyzing the patterns we observe, we can learn more about the way teams work.

Here’s what we see:

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This is a graph showing the relative activity of Flow users as they get things done throughout the week.

Compared with any other weekday:
More work gets created on Monday.
More work gets delegated on Monday.
More work gets scheduled on Monday.
More work gets completed on Monday.

It’s when we’re at our most proactive. Typically, Mondays are 14% more active than the average weekday.

We come back from the weekend with new ideas and perspectives on what we want to accomplish. The time away inspires us.

There is one exception to Monday’s mania though: discussions. Tuesday edges out Wednesday as the day with most task-based discussions. While we plan our weeks on Monday, we work out the details on the days following.

What about the completion rates on Mondays? Why are so many tasks getting knocked off right at the beginning of the week?

While these won’t be true in all cases, here are three reasons why Mondays might see so many completed tasks.

  1. We only have little spots of time here and there, so we pick up the smallest, quickest tasks and get them out of the way early--not all tasks are created equal!
  2. We review finished work and confirm it’s complete, checking off tasks that were done previously
  3. We knock off more tasks in general thanks to a rejuvenating weekend

This data confirms a well accepted work cycle. First, we plan; then we decide how to start; then we get on with it. It appears that this cycle flows in sync with our work week.

So how can we take advantage of Mondays?

Like a cold shower for writer’s block, stepping away from work is sometimes the best way to unlock new ideas. When ideas happen, even if it’s the weekend, make sure you capture them as tasks to review and flesh out on Monday.

When you get in to work on Monday, take advantage of your inspiration not by reading your emails, but by lining up the work you want to accomplish. This will mean reviewing your existing plans, working in and ranking new ideas, and scheduling tasks for yourself and others to make your plans real.

You’ll likely have a busy day with plenty of interruptions, so make use of the time between them by finding short, easy tasks to get out of the way. This’ll start your week off on the right foot and free you up for work that takes focus later on.

Click to Tweet:
“@flowapp: Mondays: 14% more active than the average workday”
“@flowapp: Here’s how much busier you are on Monday”
“@flowapp: Mondays are more productive than you’d think”

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Use Zapier to Automate Task Creation in Flow https://www.getflow.com/blog/zapier-automation-task-management Mon, 15 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/zapier-automation-task-management Zapier is a service that connects apps together. You can automate task creation in Flow using Zapier - and, in doing so, you can cut out repetitive work. How? By setting up Task Creation Rules that run in the background.

Here’s what to do.

In Zapier, choose your trigger, and then choose your action to Send Email. You’ll send the emails to tasks@getflow.com, as you see here.

First, choose to send an email as your resulting action (to create a Flow task).

If you’re using Flow with a Gmail account, this’ll mean you choose Gmail’s Send Email as your action. (There are also SMTP and IMAP options if your email is with another provider.)

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Next, send the email to tasks@getflow.com to create the task in your account: 

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You can automatically create a task in Flow anytime by sending an email to tasks@getflow.com. See more about how you can create Flow tasks from your inbox.

Don’t forget to choose your trigger action. Try the suggestions below, or let us know if you come up with others.

6 Productivity Hacks with Zapier and Flow

When might you use this integration to simplify your day? Here are 6 ideas:

Turn forms into tasks

Host a form that accepts project requests from other people at your company and creates them as Flow tasks for your team.

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Turn your boss’s emails into tasks

Stay on the ball (and out of your inbox) by creating a follow up task for every email you get from your boss.

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Make tasks for your boss

Get prompt approvals of your work by creating a task for your boss whenever you save files in a “Please Review” folder in Drive or Dropbox

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Make reading a task

Add a Feedly “Saved For Later” item to a reading list.

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Turn support emails into tasks

Create a ticket whenever a Support, Sales, or IT request is submitted.

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Turn pull requests into reminders

For software developers, set up a reminder to touchbase with non-Github users when a pull request is merged.

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Your Flow workspace could automatically refill with tasks. It’s really easy! If you want to try any of the above actions but you aren’t sure how, tweet us or send an email to contact@getflow.com, and we’ll walk you through.

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Create Flow Tasks from Your Inbox https://www.getflow.com/blog/inbox-flow Mon, 08 Sep 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Jessie Jones https://www.getflow.com/blog/inbox-flow You can create a task in Flow just by emailing the task to tasks@getflow.com.

So let’s say someone sends you an email about a task you or your team should work on. Instead of opening a new tab and going to Flow to create the task, you would simply:

  1. Hit ‘forward’ on the email
  2. Enter tasks@getflow.com in the "To" field
  3. Edit the subject line so it describes the task you want to add to Flow

The subject line becomes the task. So, in the subject line, enter the @name of the person you want to delegate it to. Briefly describe the task. Choose a list. Set a due date. Like so:

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This handy email trick is also the foundation for automating task creation. Here’s more on how to customize a task created via email.

Update My Preferences So
I can Email Tasks to Flow

Do You Use Zapier?

Use Zapier to automate task creation in Flow

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Which Day of the Week Is Least Productive? https://www.getflow.com/blog/productive-day Mon, 21 Jul 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Cyrus Molavi https://www.getflow.com/blog/productive-day Studies like this show that Tuesday is the most productive day for workers…

But what day of the week is least productive?

On what day are you showing up because you have to clock in - not because you’re pumped to strike 10 items off your To Do list?

To answer that question, we looked at the usage data of over 37,000 Flow users. Flow is an indicator of productivity because activity in Flow directly represents things getting done. So when someone creates, delegates, discusses, or checks off a task, we’re witnessing productivity in action. By taking all of these little interactions and aggregating them across our user base, we’re able to analyze productivity trends on a higher level…

Check out what we found:

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As you can see, Monday and Tuesday are the most productive days. And the least productive day of the week is - drumroll - Friday.

Surprised? Probably not.

After all, which day kicks off your weekend? Friday. Which day puts your workweek to bed? Friday. Little shock that Friday is our least productive workday…

What is shocking is by how much Friday slumps.

We calculated daily averages for all of the meaningful things people do in Flow - creating, delegating, completing, and discussing tasks - and found that, consistently, Friday is the least productive day of the week.

When compared against the mania of Mondays, the Friday Slump sees:

  • 35% fewer tasks created
  • 28% fewer tasks delegated from one team member to another
  • 25% fewer comments posted
  • 35% fewer tasks completed

Let me repeat that last point…: 35% less work gets done on Friday than on Monday.

So Are We Just Plain Lazier on Fridays?

Whether you’re excited for the upcoming weekend, exhausted from the week that’s almost over, or simply numbed by the seemingly endless cycle of the work week, that data suggests that most of us are going into the office on Friday and, in the back of our minds, thinking something like:

“Because today is Friday, I don’t have to work as hard.”

But is that what’s really going on?

The data is saying that less work gets planned, re-distributed and completed on Friday. But are we truly clocked out and going through the motions at the end of the week?

Perhaps not.

Think about this: not only is Tuesday a highly productive day; it’s also a day commonly filled with meetings. It’s far less common to book meetings on Fridays - especially on Friday afternoons. Which means that, when you look at your calendar Friday morning and you see a big ol’ meeting-free gap, you have 1 of 2 options:

  1. Fill your time watching cute cat videos
  2. Fill your time chipping away at a bigger, longer-term project

See, on meeting-filled days like Tuesdays, you may only have 30 minutes to an hour between meetings. So you knock a few small tasks out on those days. That leaves the big projects for your evenings, weekends… and Fridays.

Are you actually less productive on Fridays… or are your hands just not as busy?

Perhaps Friday is a focus day - or a day for larger tasks - rather than a multi-tasking day. As we learned early on in the development of Peak - our solution that sheds light on your team’s output, including reports and insights based on your team’s activity - quantity does not mean quality.

Should Your Team Try to Complete More Tasks on Fridays?

Consider this: according to the Economic Policy Institute, worker productivity grew 80% between 1973 to 2011. Which means that, when our parents were our age, they were producing about half as much at work as we do today. (Oh, and that same study shows that our pay doesn’t reflect our robotic levels of productivity.)

Also consider this:

  • This research review found that “downtime is in fact essential to mental processes” (from Scientific American)
  • Studies show that taking a day off every week - rather than longer vacations - can result in greater overall productivity as well as improved satisfaction with a company
  • Studies show that most people can engage in ‘deliberate practice’ for only an hour without rest

Innovation requires rest. Creativity requires downtime. Satisfaction comes not just when we produce great work but also when we have time to sit, relax and reward ourselves for the great work we’ve completed…

That said, you can keep your week-done slouch at bay by planning work in Flow. When your brain is zonked and your energy is low, it’s Flow that’ll remind you about that one mindless task you keep putting off then forgetting about…

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The New Flow for Mac app https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-mac Wed, 25 Jun 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Luke Seeley https://www.getflow.com/blog/flow-for-mac apple-flow.png#asset:751

We want Flow to fit the way you work. This means that if you’re on a Mac throughout the day, Flow needs to stay by your side, within easy reach of you and your workflow. Today we’re happy to announce that this is now possible for Mac users with the new Flow Mac app.

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We’ve totally overhauled the app. You can now stay updated with your team in real-time with desktop notifications and an indicator on the Flow app in your dock. The app itself is one click away and has all the functionality of the browser version. No bookmark needed.

The ability to quickly input tasks with keyboard shortcuts is still available.

Flow for Mac is a free add-on to your account. Download it here.

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Our #1 Requested Feature (and More) https://www.getflow.com/blog/design-refresh-launch Thu, 13 Mar 2014 00:00:00 +0000 Luke Seeley https://www.getflow.com/blog/design-refresh-launch We’re really excited to be announcing some huge improvements to Flow: subtasks, an Android app, an updated iOS app, and a design refresh.

Subtasks

Hundreds of teams asked for it. We listened.

You can now add, edit, rearrange and delete subtasks in Flow. They’re accessible from within a task or in the quick task form.

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This unlocks a ton of flexibility to work the way you want. Get detailed, keep small tasks together, and structure your task hierarchy to taste. Try them now in Flow.

Flow for Android

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We just released a fully featured Android app. Download it now from Google Play.

iOS Update

Both apps got a lot of love this month. The latest version of the iOS app features liking and subtasks. Download it now from the App Store.

Design Refresh

As mentioned last month, we’re happy to announce a fresh new look for Flow. It features:

  • An altogether brighter look, notably in the sidebar, creating a friendlier, more readable environment for your team to work in every day.
  • An always-present workspace switcher beside the sidebar, allowing for quicker switching and a clearer visual presentation of the workspaces you belong to.
  • More transparent list privacy and sharing. Get a sense for the visibility of your lists.
  • An enhanced people view. You can see how many members each workspace has and invite new members easily.

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We’re really happy about these improvements, and would love for you to check them out if you haven’t tried Flow lately. Try it now for free.

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