What do the changes look like?
Software developers are using what they call agile project management methodologies to move away from the hive mind. They have a shared board that shows all the tasks that need to be done for a particular product. They have standing status meetings: everyone’s standing up so the meetings are quicker; there’s a brief agenda of who’s working on what today and what do they need to do that work today. Typically there’s a limit on anyone working on more than one thing at a time. Once the meeting’s done, they sprint – they just go and execute. For any incoming information, they have dedicated people dealing with it, so it stays off everyone else’s plates. This is a workflow that doesn’t require all of the ad hoc back and forth we see elsewhere at the moment.
I think we’re going to see a lot more sectors developing their own equivalent of this. Email inboxes will look like old physical mail boxes – they’ll be something you check once a day and they’ll contain only things like tax forms from HR. There will be very little interaction or collaboration happening in them and, as a result, people’s days will look a lot more sequential and intentional. There will be a cognitive focus that makes everyone a lot happier.
Can you give us an example of someone who’s achieved this?
There’s a UX design company in London. It was a fully hyperactive hive mind business and a few years ago its CEO Sean realised it was spiralling out of control – two of its top engineers had quit because of all the back and forth. Sean himself was getting tremors and twitches every time he heard a Slack notification, so he decided to basically get rid of email and Slack – and if they went out of business, they went out of business.
They still used email for private correspondence, sending files and stuff like, but everything else was switched to a much more structured workflow. Client information was stored in Basecamp and they had special tools for scheduling and interacting with clients. They told every client they’d speak to them on one weekly call. Everything they committed to do for them would be documented and sent to the client, but they’d only talk to them on that one call. Internally, they had highly structured, twice-a-day meetings. They’d meet in the morning, go work for four hours (using Basecamp again), then meet in the afternoon to keep everyone on the same page.
It worked well and everyone was so much happier. I caught up with Sean on the phone and asked him to walk me through his email inbox. There was no discussion, no interaction, not even many messages – an invoice, a file or two. He said he sometimes forgot to check it for a couple of days and it was no big deal.
How did he get over that fear of missing something important?
Having an escape valve really helps with that. The phone is a good escape valve. It’s there if, say, a client has something that really can’t wait, but there’s enough friction in the process that you’re not going to be checking your voice messages hundreds of times a day and a client is only going to call if it’s a real emergency.
You’ve convinced us, Cal. Where do we start with making those changes?
Find the right scale. If the CEO of a large company is trying to dictate new processes to 100,000 employees, they’re going to fall into bureaucracy because the scope is too big. You need the nimbleness, flexibility and buy-in of a team to decide for themselves how to reduce back and forth. In the book, I document teams that have done this without cutting themselves off from other teams.
If teams are the right scale, the right place to start is with individuals. If you tweak what you can on your own, without controlling anyone else, you can break the seal. You will also buy yourself some breathing room, so the team can come together and start figuring out new processes to reduce back and forth at that level.