Keeping the Creativity in Code

A January 2016 New York Times op-ed piece by Wharton professor, Adam Grant, discusses why the most successful adults are generally not child prodigies. He reasons the vast majority of highly and unusually gifted people are exceptionally good at following the rules. You give them a problem and they solve it in the most textbook way. Technical mastery of any task is a very good trait to possess. It is, however, detrimental to creativity. The problem being it leaves no room for originality.

What does this have to do with code? Good devs know coding is a creative act, and it is for several reasons. The first being developers are often creating products from ideas. Next, great code can actually inspire others to change their lives in any number of ways. The biggest marker of creativity, though, is solving problems. That act alone makes the job intrinsically creative. Since code is creative, it’s important not to stunt that creativity. Instead, foster it by pushing people towards autonomy and keeping an open mind about problem-solving.

Allow for Some Autonomy

According to researchers, the number one rule to raising a creative child is to back off. The parents of highly creative children gave those kids space. They limited the number of rules for homework and bedtime, and they didn’t force their children to think or feel a certain way about things. In the same vein, adults that make waves in and out of their industries are influenced by more than just their specific talents. Creatives who invested in travel and artistic hobbies had more ideas and more success in their fields.

We all work on some sort of team; the best way to encourage the creatives on our teams is to give them the space to be creative. Make balance a core value of your professional life. The easiest way to do this is to remind yourself what you do outside of work directly affects what happens when you open your laptop.

There will always be a time when working 100+ hours a week will be necessary to complete a project. Don’t make that the norm. If you notice someone on your team—be it a direct report or a coworker—is showing signs of burnout, push them to take a few days off to recharge their batteries. Autonomous workers are more creative and more successful than those that are constantly micromanaged.

Remember There Are Multiple Solutions to One Problem

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. This same paradigm should be applied to solving problems. If you work with junior developers, it’s easy to walk them through the issues they come across from your specific perspective. This is great as your knowledge is what helps them get answers. Instead of telling them what to do, however, ask them what they think they should do. Focusing on the process instead of the solution helps them not only think for themselves, but also encourages them to be creative.

Therein lies the value of multiple solutions to problems. Those that skew towards the creative will always have new and interesting ways to tackle the same old issues. You, as the more senior dev, are more set in your ways which can result in being more rigid and less creative. Maybe you’re not working with a junior dev; you could be working with a few other team members and reach an impasse. Since you are embracing the fact that there is no predefined way to solve a lot of the problems you’ll encounter, this is your opportunity to discuss processes and not squabble over the fact that you disagree.

Shutting down differing opinions wipes out creativity, and that’s a part of the reason why arguments are so detrimental to team success. Keep an open mind, and start looking for different solutions to the daily problems you face. Remember, coding is creative. Make sure your contribution to the work environment fosters that creativity.

Habits of Highly Productive Tech Teams

There’s always a lot of talk about “culture” on tech teams. And that makes sense: managers generally hire people that will fit in well with the group they’ve assembled because they know there’s more to work than just doing the job. Being able to get along with your coworkers, being reliable, and looking the part are also important.  A big part of building a solid company culture is about creating an environment which helps your employees be productive. Unfortunately, a lot of what we do in tech has the opposite effect.

What am I talking about here? Those weekly three-hour team meetings you could probably be finished within 45 minutes with just a bit more focused preparation. Alternatively, doing everything via Slack and never allowing your team to turn off notifications. I love foosball and a lush nap pod as much of the next person, really, but enticing potential hires with free housekeepers and dry cleaning also encourages them to stay longer and, as a result, not be as efficient.

There’s a middle ground here. You can give your employees great perks just for being a member of the team and those perks should boost productivity. Perks shouldn’t pressure your team to move into your office and never see their families. Highly productive teams all have three things in common, and they are easy to implement into your team’s routine.

The Meeting Culture

I’m always amazed when people tell me they spent their entire workday in meetings. How did they get anything done? Or is it their job to just be in meetings all day? This is a very interesting thing for me because I value meetings and because I’ve always freelanced, I actually look forward to them. Human interaction keeps us healthy by fighting depression and boosting creativity. Meetings also provide more opportunity for collaboration. As technology enables more and more companies to go global, the need is shifting towards team work. Meetings, therefore, are important. However, they only aid in productivity to a point.

The drawbacks of meetings are well known. The topic gets lost. They distract from real, paying work. And a lot of the time, the majority of people in the room don’t need to be there. It’s obvious how this absolutely murders team productivity. With that said, we can’t always be stuck in a corner staring at glowing screens. We occasionally need to talk to people. The solution here is to know the difference between when a meeting is necessary and when to take a different course of action.

This is a really great resource courtesy of Harvard Business Review on when to have that meeting, when to make a phone call, or do something else instead. Share this with your teammates and choose your meetings wisely.

They Know Their Roles

As job titles and descriptions get fuzzier (and in some cases, eliminated), it’s becoming more difficult to determine what people’s roles are in the office. People need to know their roles on teams for teams to perform well together and, as a result, be productive. Here’s the proof: individuals that know why they were hired and how to deliver on their talents contribute to high-impact teams. Individuals that know their roles are also better workplace decision makers. And, employees that know what is expected of them have an easier time meeting those expectations.

This all comes back to internal transparency. If your team members know what they are supposed to be doing on a day-to-day basis, they’ll be able to better assist their co-workers and better serve your customers. Aren’t those two things the most important part of managing people and building a great company?

They Trust Each Other

That’s the crux of having a wildly productive team: trust. Trust that your coworkers and managers are competent and committed. Knowing you can take any issue to any of your peers and get it resolved with minimal conflict. And being so comfortable communicating that empathy and vulnerability are inevitable. There is no better way to boost productivity on your team immediately, than instilling a culture of trust.

If you want to improve productivity on your team, start today. Delegate tasks to capable direct reports and trust them enough with the task that you don’t need to micromanage them through it. Spend an hour a week with one of your employees or coworkers and listen to their concerns about their role; focus on building a relationship with them and not just trying to solve a problem. Finally, instead of scheduling a meeting, just ask for help in a one-on-one conversation; people feel valued when they are allowed to show off their capabilities.

The main takeaway here is this: team productivity is the result of individuals committing to make the entire team look good, not just themselves. Employees that know their roles at work will work more efficiently with their team members, especially when they’re collaborating in meetings. Because of that, relationships will improve, and there will be a foundation of trust among your teams—even across teams. Give your team the chance to be truly productive, and the results will be immediate.

Habits of Highly Productive Individuals

We’re all concerned about maximizing what we can do in a day. Case in point: there are thousands, possibly millions, of articles on the internet devoted to productivity. There are just as many apps out there dedicated to helping you manage time and workflow. But personally, I’m all about picking up habits that will net me the most significant results day to day. So here are the three things that will make positive changes in your daily productivity.

Only Check “Thing You Obsessively Check” a Few Times a Day

Slack (or any other ChatOps tool). Text messages. Email. Twitter. Instagram. Your phone in general. Shut it down. You already know this; you already know checking email is time-consuming and stressful. You also know that even though Slack has pegged itself as a tool for productivity, it can actually be worse than email; so much so it can lead to anxiety. Twitter is great for keeping up with current events and learning something new, but this constant stream of information contributes to the on-demand culture we live in. Some studies have even shown we may be addicted scrolling and consuming.

You know what the solution is here. Do I even need to say it? Do I need to tell you to turn off Slack notifications? Or to only check your email twice a day? How about saving Twitter for your daily train commute or during your lunch break? It’s great that we want to stay connected and be updated on what’s happening outside of our little corner of the world, but we also need to remember that our little corner still needs to be maintained.

Do Similar Tasks in Bulk

Technology allows us to pay our phone bill or car insurance on an app. The convenience factor is extremely high (raise your hand if you’ve paid a bill while driving to work). However, trying to do small but important things while doing larger lesser important things is mentally taxing. It can lead to frustration and careless errors; those feelings can follow us into our offices or back home to our families.

Instead of trying to sneak these tasks into other daily activities, set some time aside during the day to do them all at once. Since paying bills, making mundane phone calls, or buying your friend their wedding gift are all low-pressure tasks, you should be able to knock those out fairly quickly once a week. Commit to spending a set amount of time each week just doing small tasks.

A quick note here about multitasking: it’s awful for productivity. You may think to do three small tasks and one big task at once is helping you complete more tasks faster, but it’s not. It may actually be damaging your brain because you’re not multitasking; you are task switching and, as a result, are 40 percent less productive. Since you’re continually switching tasks, you’re cheating each task you are trying to complete simultaneously. The best thing to do here is to focus on one task until it’s completed and then move on to the next one.

Make Free Time, Free

Yes, I know Marissa Meyer worked 130 hours a week at Google at now she’s running the universe. But working more hours doesn’t make you a better worker, and it definitely doesn’t make you more productive. In fact, working Google-level hours makes us less productive. The chances of us burning out skyrocket when you work over 55 hours a week and hobbies legitimately make us happier people. And happy people are, you guessed it, more productive.

So devote some time each week to doing something you enjoy. Make this something other than coding; the idea here is to make your free time actually free. Start a MeetUp; learn to play the guitar; join a sports league; or pick up a healthy TV habit (start with WestWorld; you’ll thank me). If you need an excuse to take some time away from work, read a few articles from this Google search.

When it comes to personal productivity, just remember the time you spend away from work—so in developers’ cases, away from most glowing screens—is going to help you write better code when it matters. When you’re at work put away your phone and shut down Slack. When you’re not at work, give your brain a break by picking up a hobby. Getting the most out of your workday truly does begin with what you do when you’re away. Embrace your time away from the office, and enjoy being something other than a developer for a few hours a week.