“How Spontaneity Can Kill Creativity and Productivity” Interview with Ben Congleton, Olark.com CEO and CoFounder.
Last week I was hanging out in Miami and was speaking on the topic of building and running a remote team. You’ll recall I covered this topic in the pilot episode of FemgineerTV titled: How to Build a Happy and Productive Remote Team.
In the episode, Ben Congleton, the CEO and Co-Founder of Olark and I debunked three major myths around running remote teams:
- Remote workers will be unproductive.
- Remote teams will be devoid of culture.
- Remote teams cannot scale.
In my talk, shared our learnings from the episode and most agreed. However, there was still one issue that a lot of people couldn’t come to terms with when deciding between a co-located versus distributed team and that was spontaneity.
People preferred to have a co-located team to foster spontaneity, which they argued was essential to creativity.
I’d wholeheartedly agree that spontaneity is important to fostering creativity in your company.
However, there were two important facets that people who were in this spontaneity camp hadn’t thought about.
Interruptions Kill Productivity
Back when I was beginning to build BizeeBee with my co-founder Alex, I’d have all these so-called brilliant ideas I wanted to run past him. I’d tap him on the shoulder and ask him, “Got a sec?”
In the beginning, he’d say, “Sure!” Then I’d proceed to share my so-called brilliant idea with him.
As time went on I could sense Alex was getting perturbed by my so-called brilliant ideas and was reluctant to talk to me.
I wanted to know if he just didn’t think my ideas were brilliant or if it was something else.
Alex spoke up and said, “Your ideas are great, and I don’t want you to stop sharing them with me.
When you interrupt me, when I’m in the middle of coding or solving a tough problem, I get irritated. It takes me awhile to get into a flow, and when you interrupt, it breaks my flow. It’s hard to get back into it.
I’d like to propose that if it’s not an emergency, you hold off on interrupting me until I’m done working, and I’ll make my availability obvious.”
Lesson learned: one person’s spontaneity is another person’s productivity killer.
As we transitioned to being a remote team, it became easier for Alex to have quiet time to code and solve problems, and I learned to structure my spontaneity.
Instead of interrupting Alex or others, I’d schedule brainstorming sessions when I knew people were available. We’d do them in-person or online. They proved to be even more effective than my spontaneous sessions because people were focused and present since they weren’t in the middle of completing a task.
Introverts and Shy Folks Need Time to Think
Last year I was mentoring Jean, a senior engineer based in SF. Jean wrote beautiful code, and the reason was because Jean took the time to think through problems before arriving at a solution and implementing it.
Jean approached me to help overcome shyness and introversion.
Jean mentioned that the founders of the startup would have spontaneous brainstorming sessions weekly. During the session, Jean, who was soft spoken struggled to speak up, often remaining silent throughout the session, and letting others take the floor.
Spitballing ideas and solutions in an open forum were a challenge for Jean.
However, there were a few times when Jean’s startup was under the gun, such as the time when several servers went down. It was on a weekend. Jean took immediate action. Logging into the company’s chat client, keeping the team calm by communicating what was going on, and helping to resolve the issue quickly.
After the incident, one of the founders later approached Jean and asked how Jean was able to communicate clearly in chat and resolve the issue, but was often standoffish in brainstorming sessions.
At the time, Jean felt put on the spot, and replied, “I don’t know.”
When I sat down with Jean, I asked if the reason it was easy to think through the solution while working from home and communicating it via chat was because others weren’t present?
Jean replied that it was easier when there was no around to interrupt. Jean could think through solutions and then post them to chat. But that didn’t mean Jean just wanted to work via chat. Jean did understand the value of face time, and just needed a balance of in-person and remote work.
I recommended Jean sit down with the founders and explain the difference in behavior, so they’d understand Jean better.
Jean opened their eyes to the possibility that spontaneous brainstorming sessions don’t work for everyone.
Now I’d like to know which camp you’re in: do you believe co-location is critical to your company’s success or are you open to the idea of creating a remote culture? Let me know in the comments below.