As a start-up, one of the only true advantages you have over the infinitely better-resourced incumbents is the ability to move quickly. In software companies, this speed enables rapid iteration and consistent improvement based on user feedback. Given this principle, a significant amount of my time as CEO of Verst has focused on improving our team’s overall productivity allowing us to operate at a high velocity without demanding the draconian hours fetishized by many Silicon Valley elites.
People choose to come to work at Verst every day for more than just a paycheck. To ensure our environment is constantly improving, I approach team productivity similarly to how I approach evolving a product, by continuously gathering and responding to feedback. I’ve found specific best practices include weekly all-hands meetings, one-on-one conversations, team surveys, and full team agile-style retros (we use start, stop, continue). I then make improvements to our processes and working environment based on this feedback; rinse, and repeat.
Here are five lessons I’ve learned along the way:
1. Clarity is key
By far the most important input to productivity is clarity. If everyone on the team knows her or his top priority, why this work is important, and how it fits into the broader vision of the company, your team will have a strong foundation upon which to build & ship quickly. The best ways to engender clarity are to (a) consistently communicate — as suggested by many who’ve covered this topic — and (b) ensure everyone is involved in both prioritization and task allocation to enable ownership and autonomy throughout the organization.
Walking into our office, you will see an “IRL Trello board” prominently mounted on the wall. This board includes all of the major tasks for the quarter, ensuring every team member can see our entire roadmap and the progress we’ve made to date. The board acts as a physical beacon of clarity as well as a display of momentum.
2. Distractions are dangerous
Inspired by Cal Newport’s deep work research, we have regularly scheduled two-hour blocks three days a week where there are no meetings, no Slack, no email and no talking in public areas. This quiet time allows for focused, individual work time and has made a massive difference in our team’s productivity for two reasons. First, since the entire company is participating, people aren’t being constantly interrupted from their flow states (some studies show that it can take up to 25 minutes to regain focus after being interrupted). Second, because there are no interruptions, people are more likely to take on tasks that require extended concentration.
3. Adherence over perfection
Everywhere I worked before Verst relied on email as the primary form of communication. Initially I tried to implement this structure at Verst, and was frustrated that Verst employees were not very active on email and, instead, relied largely on Slack for internal communication. After an initial period of resistance, I quickly learned that if I wanted the team to pay attention, I had to use the medium where people were active.
The lesson here is that tools are just a means to an end. Meaningful productivity increases will come from the way people use the tools, not the tools themselves.
4. Small tweaks can make a big difference
Once I joined Verst, we started running the team on weekly sprints in order to provide maximum flexibility as well as constant refocusing on the right priorities. Originally, sprint planning happened on Friday, however, I found this was (a) hurting focus on Friday (which is already difficult to maintain) and (b) causing issues on Monday where team members couldn’t get rolling on work because of cross-team blockers. Based on a suggestion from Paul Twohey, who leads engineering at ClassPass, we moved planning to Tuesday which ameliorated both issues. One of the most dangerous traps a team can fall into is “process inertia,” or blindly doing things because that’s the way they’ve always been done. Never stop asking why.
5. Don’t be afraid to experiment
Trying to find a one-size-fits-all solution to productivity is a fool’s errand as each team has its own idiosyncrasies. Thus, I’ve found experimentation crucial in deriving new ways to increase productivity. While this has unlocked amazing gains, not every initiative has been a success.
As mentioned, one of the reasons quiet hours worked so well is the avoidance of constant interruptions (a typical office worker gets only 11 minutes between distractions). In an effort to extend this interruption-free time beyond our set block, I bought Luxafor lights, which can be switched between green and red to signal availability (one engineer even programmed his to change automatically with his Slack status). The rules were pretty simple — if someone’s light is red, don’t talk to them unless it’s an emergency.
To my surprise, adoption was very low. After two weeks, the number of employees still utilizing their lights consistently had dwindled to just three. It’s now clear to me that quiet hours are particularly effective because of the social contract created by universal participation. No one wants to feel like the only jerk who is too busy to interact with their co-workers.
These experiences illustrate why bold experimentation is so crucial: (1) you never know what might click (like tweaking our sprint cadence), and (2) even “failed” experiments yield valuable takeaways that can be applied to future initiatives.
Increased productivity is key to success in a space where innovation moves at breakneck speed. By offering clarity & focus to your team, questioning your processes, and continually experimenting with new ideas, you can maximize your team’s productivity and get shit done.