A lot of you can relate to this incident from childhood. You have just built yourself two LEGO battle tankers. You are sprawled on the floor, firing imaginary shells into the air across the two battle tankers, making shell noises… bang… crack!. Your hero tanker has taken a few hits and is weak and your enemy tanker is just two shells away from destruction. The suspense is building and you are totally in the zone, lining up your barrel at the enemy’s tanker for two final shots, when…. your mother calls you and says that lunch is ready and that you should eat it NOW! You say, ‘Just two minutes, mommy’. But she is adamant. You have to go RIGHT NOW or she will get angry. She reasons with you that you can always have lunch and go back to play, ‘LEGO tankers’.
But the point is that you have been shaken off your zone, that total isolation of focus that got you completely involved in whatever you were doing physically, mentally and emotionally. While it may not be your mom anymore, you are constantly ripped away from your zone by meetings, phone notifications and calls and visiting people. In this post, let us talk about what gets you in the zone in the first place and how you can keep yourself there.
The tale of two persons: Maker and manager
Y-Combinator’s co-founder and tech investor Paul Graham, talks about two different types of people and how their schedules affect their productivity in one of his most viral blog posts, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule“. For any project, two types of persons are needed, the manager and the maker.
A manager is responsible for thinking ahead, planning, making to-do lists and schedules, talking to people, assigning and then moving on to the next items in the list, so that the team stays on top of the project. The manager’s schedule is based around scores of tiny tasks throughout the day, each one lasting typically only an hour or two at most. The tasks generally involve surrounding themselves with people, interacting and talking to them on basis. Also, most of their work is based around assignment of tasks to others and then gaining feedback from the assignees later. The manager will typically say, “Alright, Mr Designer, please get to work on our new logo design”. This task takes only seconds for the manager to say and another few seconds to note down on a calendar, “May 9 2016: Designer begins work on Logo”. The manager then moves onto the next task on the list, which may be the copy-writer, “Mr Copy Writer, we require content for the home page.”
The second of the two persons is the maker. The maker is the person who has specialised skills to actually perform tasks. This is the player who lives ‘right here, right now’ like the young LEGO tanker player. In fact, this type of person needs hours of uninterrupted time to put out his / her best work. The first 30 to 60 minutes are spent in getting from a clean sheet of mind into the proverbial zone, after which the productivity hits peak. However, any interruption to the maker’s zone will reset his / her mind to a clean slate. Think of it as a fire kindled steadily and then someone dousing it with water. The fire will require the build up time again to reach peak. This category consists of professionals like engineers, artists, designers, authors, accountants and other types of persons who require huge chunks of uninterrupted time, so that their work flows smoothly.
Maker vs Manager: The eternal clash
Seeing that the maker and the manager work at different levels, we can assume that they chug along with their own work pretty comfortably right? Well, not quite. Let us take our LEGO story. We are in the zone with our LEGO battle tankers and wouldn’t like to be interrupted. But mommy has tiny little tasks all day to ensure that the house runs smoothly. That would be buying things for home, helping the kids with studies, receiving guests and doing errands around home. If she is a working mom, then she has her own world of work to catch up on. She would like nothing more than for you to come immediately for lunch, when she calls you, since she has a lot more things to attend to. Your game and its delay will push her carefully scheduled day into disarray.
In the corporate world, the manager has small tasks to run throughout the day. He/she has clients to answer to and plans to make and alter depending on how the different stakeholders want the project to pan out. The manager will invariably need to speak to the maker professionals from time to time to find out how much code developers have finished, if the designer has finalised on the fresh design, if the accountant has found ways to save costs and so on. And just like mommy, the manager would like nothing better than speak to his/her makers NOW! This results in a barrage of suddenly called flash meetings which may last for minutes and even upto an hour. That is enough to throw the makers off their gear.
How can makers and managers co-operate
The manager wants to know how the project that he/she manages is positioned and for this he/she wants to speak to his/her makers. It is clearly unreasonable to walk on the maker and interrupt him/her from his/her sweet spot zone. Nor can the maker frequently attend meetings all day, thus putting his/her productive schedule at peril.
The maker wants to enter his/her cocoon of isolation and work uninterrupted. However it is completely unreasonable of him/her to think that the manager is not within his/her rights to request visibility on progress.
Pre-committing to meetings
Both can arrive at a consensus by setting a fixed schedule to meet up regularly per week. The frequency of meetings can be mutually agreed upon by the manager and the maker. But as a rule of thumb, it should not exceed more than once per day, preferably even only twice or thrice per week. Secondly, it should be at one of the ends of the day, just around a big break. E.g. start of the day, end of the day or just before or after lunch makes perfect sense. The schedule should be respected without delays. A meeting towards the start of the day ensures that the participants are fresh and sharp. A morning meeting will also make sure that an agenda is set for the day. A meeting should be brief with a clear agenda and with only those participants who can really benefit from it. It should be as brief as possible, definitely not exceeding the hour mark. 15-20 minutes are ideal for covering most meeting topics. Participants whose role in the meeting is done should be allowed to leave immediately if the rest of the meeting wont affect his/her agenda.
The idea of sterile cockpit
In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath talk about the concept of a sterile cockpit. In a plane that is taking off or landing, no one is allowed to talk anything other that what is essential for the plane to fly safely. Once in auto-pilot mode, the conversation can be even be so casual as discussing their relationships. Companies have borrowed this idea to ensure that their makers are not disturbed during certain blocks of time. There are cubicles, so that visual distractions are cut off, chat programs are disabled so that no one is tempted to ping, “Can you come here a moment?”. No one is allowed to approach the makers during sterile time. This helps the maker get into and stay in his/her zone for longer periods of time.
Working from different locations
Although there is no concrete evidence about how it works, makers and managers have often reported improved productivity when they work from different locations, which may mean different floors in a building, different buildings, different cities, both working from their homes and the like. It is attributed to the fact that the distance reduces the number of casual / flash meetups between the two which robs the maker of productive time. Meetings are often via channels such as telephone, Skype or Hangouts during very specifically scheduled times.
Any project needs both managers and makers, both with very important roles to play. Both need to meet up in order to collaborate and steer the project where it should be heading. It is best to allow the maker sufficient time to hit his/her stride and get the work done, but at the same time, touch up with the managers frequently in order to show progress and to receive guidance on how to proceed.
Now I would like to know about your experiences in your projects. If you are a maker, how do you manage hitting your zone and yet take time for collaborating with your managers? If you are a manager, how do you get the best of your makers by allowing them isolation and yet always stay on top of your project by getting your makers to speak to you regularly?