Sunday, January 15, 2012

Teamwork vs Concentration

I had my belief that co-located teams were more productive challenged by an entrepreneur recently. When we expressed our concern that his four-person team was spread across four cities spanning 10 time zones, he didn't just respond with the usual, "It's not ideal but we make it work." Instead he pushed back and said that they were more productive than if they all shared an office, because they distracted each other less (he was self-aware enough to admit that he was the one doing most of the distracting).

In an opinion piece in the NY Times on Friday, Susan Cain makes the case that "privacy makes us more productive"
"In a fascinating study known as the Coding War Games, consultants Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister compared the work of more than 600 computer programmers at 92 companies. They found that people from the same companies performed at roughly the same level — but that there was an enormous performance gap between organizations. What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. Sixty-two percent of the best performers said their workspace was sufficiently private compared with only 19 percent of the worst performers. Seventy-six percent of the worst programmers but only 38 percent of the best said that they were often interrupted needlessly."
 She goes on to note that teamwork is still important, but that electronic teamwork is most effective:
"[While] recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals ... teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all." 
Since correlation does not imply causation, one could argue that better programmers have better concentration, rather than that more interruptions cause worse programming, or that remote collaboration by individuals at separate universities is more successful because these highly-specialized teams are not limited to the local talent pool.

The point however is not that one way of working is better than the other, but rather than every team needs to find its own balance.

I tend to find that at the beginning of any working relationship, or when a new group is formed, that more face time is helpful to establish trust, rapport, and informal rapid decision-making protocols. I prefer to do most of my work independently, but to have many informal phone and email touchpoints, as well as regularly scheduled time together in the same location.

Regular and informal scheduling allows face-to-face interactions to occur naturally, without the choice of medium sending too strong of a signal or dominating the content and tone of the conversation. At Genacast I am based in New York while Gil and Austin are based in Philly, but Gil and I tend to be in the same city twice a week. This may change as my time with the firm increases, but I find it very helpful for learning from him and for getting to know each other's styles.

[1] The Rise of the New Groupthink

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