Let me start with a simple question:
Does your team engender effective decision-making? Do you believe that modern work culture engenders effective decision- making? Do you believe that your company culture engenders effective decision-making?
Are you, yourself, as well as others around you, calm & considerate in your manner, as well as critical in your thinking in your work environment?
Unless you work in the handful of global companies that have radically modernised their work culture in the last few years, then I imagine your answer would be ‘no’.
And you are in no way in a minority there. Some depressing facts for you:
- 85% of employees worldwide are unsatisfied with their work, according to a 2017 Gallup poll
- The average office worked is actually doing productive work for under 3 hours per day, according to Inc (2018)
- That 50% of employees want to see a greater focus on wellbeing at work, but only a tiny percentage do, according to Forbes (2018)
- Despite innumerable benefits for company & employee of purpose-driven work, only 13% of companies surveyed offer - or even discuss - this topic, according to a 2018 Mercer study
So we can, in fact, say with a large degree of confidence that modern work culture does not engender effective decision-making. It does not engender calm. It does not engender critical-thinking. It doesn’t even allow people to enjoy their jobs - despite our jobs constituting the majority of our entire waking lives.
And those short-coming are caused by company culture. By your team’s culture.
By your individual thoughts, beliefs & actions in the workplace - your individual working culture.
Such shortcomings are not, as some may accept, a fixed reality. A depressing, inevitable fact of life.
They are, rather, problems to understand, to confront, and to solve.
Product Work is Intellectual Work That Requires a New Approach
But before jumping into why the modern workplace is like it is - & what the repercussions to your work are - it is important to reiterate why it is so relevant to product work, as opposed to work in general.
Because this point could be applied to any industry and any team - it should be in fact - but there is an important distinction to make between product and other industries or expertise:
Other industries can survive without addressing the limitations of modern work culture. In product, we cannot. In product, it means failure.
And that is because product work is intellectual work. It requires innovation, critical-thinking, complex problem-solving on a continuous and indefinite basis.
It requires leaps of logic & innovative ideas that appear as we cycle to work, as we chat over lunch with a colleague, as we sit -bored out of our mind - in another irrelevant meeting.
It is not a work of rote. Of repetition. Of making the same simple thing. Repeating the same simple task.
If you ran a call centre, you could push your team to exhaustion, stress them out with a load of work, threaten them with firing if they don’t meet their quota. Yet you would - as many companies unfortunately do - still get results from such an approach. You’d lose a few from illness. Fire some. Some would leave to find a better job. But you’d still hit your numbers, enticing new people in with a promising commission structure, pushing everyone to hit their quota each day.
But such tactics, when applied to product teams, do not work. In fact, they do the opposite of work:
They lead your team straight down the path to failure - to mediocre or irrelevant product ideas, key people out sick, a depressed team, and, ultimately, poor decision-making and a failed product.
High effort, low impact
Modern work culture is one that fosters a lot of time & effort, but with little to no tangible focus on having impact.
The startup world prides itself on 16-hour days, on blind dedication to the cause, but, in practice, doesn’t seem to actually value the impact team members have on helping the end user solve their problem, with team members rewarded for how long they sit in the office, rather than what the tangible impact of their work is each day.
This model is broken.
As Ben Friedman points out in the Harvard Business Review,
“Typically, we have a window of about three hours where we’re really, really focused.”
And, quite frankly, that is the limit of our attention when it comes to operating at a high-level, whatever we may think otherwise.
Therefore, anything we try to achieve outside of that window is usually negligible - or low-impact work such as sorting through emails, enjoying some reading, sitting in on meetings or chatting with colleagues.
If you work for yourself, & manage to get a good nap in during the afternoon, you could probably get another productive hour done in the evening (renowned author & productivity-hacker Tim Ferriss uses this approach, as do I), but you are really looking at diminishing returns after that first 3–4 hour block.
Even the most productive countries in the world, for example, only work around 30 hours per work (6 hours per day, 5 days a week). Think of your own experience:
Does any impactful work ever get done between 2–4pm? Anything other than trying to look busy, avoid the boss or mindlessly sifting through emails and scrolling through Facebook? Or simply trying to not doze off at your desk?
It’s the same for every other team member around you. And every other team.
Yet we still tend to question this reality because most of us spend our 8 hours incredibly inefficiently. You most likely spend 1–2 hours working with complete focus, with the other 6–7 hours spent distracted, in meetings or taking your time making another coffee.
So you may find your day is drawn out over 12 hours, broken up my meetings, by distractions, by your phone or Slack or day-dreaming. But how much of it is taken up by actual high-impact work?
Because of the broken-up, distracted nature of our work-day, we are unable to really get what author Cal Newport coined Deep Work, “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.”
Programmers, for example, who typically deal with highly cognitively demanding tasks, take on average 23 minutes to get back in a state of optimal focus after a major distraction, according to one Wall Street Journal study.
We also don’t utilise our mornings as effectively as possible, which Friedman (as well as a large majority of experts) view as the most productive part of your day.
Instead of getting 3–4 hours’ high-intensity work done in the mornings, we spend our time faffing around making breakfast, struggling onto a hot & sweaty Metro & sitting in inefficient meetings all morning.
Without having really experienced what prolonged focused work is, we deny its existence and say,
‘Well, that might work for some people, but not for me. I can work solidly for 12 hours without a break.’
But the time of the relentless daily grind - of pushing ourselves to our limits each day - is over.
The model falls short in the age of the intellectual economy, where the uncertain, innovative nature of our work requires better: A metric of impact over one of efficiency, cultivated by improving our decision-making as individuals, as a team, & by applying a process optimised for impact.
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