can I interrupt you?

Solitude. Focus. Clearing the decks.

Sometimes it’s pretty scarce. In fact for me it’s seemed to be almost non-existent. There’s been a lot of change going on — moving, unpacking, building, writing, working out. It’s hard to find time to just focus on one thing completely.

I’m a big fan of open offices despite their drawbacks. I’ve worked in startups that have offices, mostly for senior staff, as well those that are completely open with just shared conference rooms. That’s Korrio’s current layout. For the startup as a whole, I think open layouts are much better. Communication is improved and there’s a sense of equality instilled when everyone’s using the same desk in the same space.

For the startup it’s better. Not always so much for me.

In my experience there’s a big downside to such an open environment. Interruptions. It’s just too easy for someone to walk across the room to ask “Can I ask a question?” or for someone to lean over their desk to yell “Hey Steve, just a quick question!” In my case it’s worse because I’m not only the Chief Product Officer I am the ONLY Product Officer. Product design issues and our consumer experience strategy is my responsibility so every group from sales to customer service to the development team is coming by my desk constantly.

Paul Graham wrote in 2009 about “maker” vs “manager” schedules and workflows. Makers in his example were people like programmers who have a need for long stretches of uninterrupted time to find their creative flow. Time to think, to turn a problem over and over again until the right solution presents itself. Managers may be the ones calling meetings and setting schedules are most often working by exception. Managers are set up to react when things aren’t going exactly to plan. Interruptions are more easily tolerated by managers. It’s in the nature of the job to allocate time for a meeting, react to the unexpected phone call, then go back to the email inbox list for the next problem to tackle.

As the only “product guy” in a small startup, I have to try to live between both kinds of schedules.

For me writing anything new, whether it’s a blog post, a sales documents or especially any kind of user stories or specs really requires time to focus on it. Small bursts of attention interspersed with questions from colleagues or phone calls make it hard to really do the best work. Just when you get into a flow, being pulled away kills creativity.

Brad Feld wrote earlier this year about this. He called it the “monastic startup” which he defined as

The monastic startup is a place where engineers do the best work of their lives. This place involves work with long stretches of uninterrupted time.

This combination of long stretches of uninterrupted time is too often at odds with startup “open office” design. In fact it can be at odds with trying to create a startup culture of openness and communication. One person’s communication is another person’s interruption. Finding the right balance, especially for people to bridge the gap between manager and maker, between creative and operational is a special thing in a startup. Very few startup cultures master it at first and it takes a rare kind of organization to achieve it.

How do you find time to balance your needs for maker and manager time? Do you shut the office door or work away from the office? Can you find balance at home or in a coffee shop that you can’t find in the office, and with email, phones and Skype are you really ever free of interruptions?

I know that “maker time” is an absolute requirement this fall. There are too many new design efforts, too much creativity needed to tolerate being constantly interrupted.

If I don’t answer the phone, that’s where I’ll be.

One comment

  1. Jim

    SteveCheck out Cal Newport's writings about this subject in "Craftsman in the Cubicle" http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/07/25/the-craftsman-in-the-cubicle/I struggle with the daily balance between creating and managing in a business world where original thought leadership and critical thinking are at a premium and a lot of managing others can seem like a distraction and energy drain.It's tough but the only way it works for me is to get up crazy early and do the mental heavy lifting on proposals and individual work between 07.00am and 10,00am and then blow up a large chunk of the remaining work day with client calls, team calls and emails etc. As knowledge workers I think we are moving more and more towards a craft/artisan culture and we should give the heavy lifting of critical thinking the respect it deserves early in the day. Best- Jim

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