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Why we need blocks of quiet time to be creative, and why meetings get in the way

startup journey business tips

Creative thinking

Two of our guys were on their way to meet potential new clients at their offices, this has nothing to do with RealtimeCRM. This is the consulting side of the business which we use to fund the development of RealtimeCRM. Typical bootstrapping stuff.

Now this is the first meeting, we don’t know if it’s going to go anywhere but its exploratory for us to find out more about what they want and for them to find out more about us.

So our guys get there and nothing, one of them posts to Slack “Guy wasn’t even there!”

When we tried to find out what had happened we were told by another member of the client’s team that he thought it was a phone call but he was the one who specifically asked us to come, so no meeting took place as the guy flaked on us and our guys had to make the hour’s long trek back which wasn’t helped by traffic due to an incident - a whole afternoon burned away for nothing. Time we could have spent working on RealtimeCRM or other client work we already had in the bag.

Meetings in general don’t spur creativity they discuss creativity

Whenever we have a couple of meetings in a day we already know they’re likely to be a bust and not much creative work will get done that day. For us, most of our guys need solid blocks of uninterrupted time to think and process problems over and come up with solutions.

A morning or an afternoon of just working through a problem in their head without any distractions - you cannot beat that.

You can then get and maintain that focus but if your day is filled with distractions dragging you one way and the other you’ve lost it and that laser focus dissipates. You’re frustrated and what you wanted to get done doesn’t get done.

That’s actually one way going remote has helped us, you can now shut everyone out and focus. You don’t need to listen to the other guy on the team having a phone conversation, you can switch off notifications on Slack and best of all you don’t have to change your day when clients visit for meetings even if you’re not involved.

Back in the days of the office, you couldn’t help but overhear meetings and you’d half follow along especially if they got heated. Well that’s your focus gone and add to that as we were trending towards fully remote we were getting smaller and smaller in terms of office size so we would have these ridiculous long conversations about how to arrange desks or get in partition screens so we wouldn’t distract the client during meetings - what a waste!

Going remote means that problem no longer exists, plus for a lot of us and me included walking and thinking is a must. You can just clear your head and think a problem through, it’s magical.

Walking dog

Back at the old office we were near a busy intersection with cars, trucks and all of working life speeding by at full sound, now I can walk in nice and quiet green surroundings. It’s good for the soul, it’s good for the mind and therefore good for the problem I’m trying to solve.

In a similar vein we don’t like to pull our devs from one project to another constantly jumping between RealtimeCRM work and client work in a frenzy because there again you lose the quality thinking. If you’re deep in thinking about a bug in the email attachments in RealtimeCRM you don’t want to be jumping between that and a bug in the invoicing system of a client project on the consulting side of the business, you lose that quality of thinking to really do a deep dive of the issue in its own context.

So why have meetings?

Most of our meetings are small in scale and they’re usually informal phone calls or hangouts between 2 or 3 people to discuss the creativity they just did in the hours of quiet time before, to compare notes and see what the others think. That’s what a meeting is, and it should never be longer than it needs to be. The other thing with meetings is recognise when you’re circling the drain and saying the same thing again and again it’s probably time to kill it because you’re not getting anything more out of it.

We do have physical meetings but they’re more meetups as much as they are meetings to catch up with other members of the team who are within a reasonable distance of each other, this is a more frequent addition to bi-annual formal company get togethers where we all catch up and reminisce in various stages of delirium over pizza and alcohol about what the hell just happened in the months before - there’s always some ridiculous stuff especially on the consulting side of the business with the eccentric people we meet.

But back to the more frequent in person meetings, they’re useful because not everyone is introverted just as not everyone is extraverted and some people need that physical tactile presence there to reinvigorate themselves. It’s like sunlight to them, whilst for others it can be too much and it too is like sunlight to them except their emotional reserves get burnt up.

So it’s about having the right balance and being flexible enough to work with different personality types but generally the way we’ve set things up has worked really well for us, and definitely better than when we had a brick and mortar office.

Scalability

But we have a relatively small team, going remote will surely show its cost as you grow and your team becomes bigger and more disparate. You’ll struggle to collaborate, it’ll feel more like isolated individuals working as contractors rather than a real team working on something they’re all invested in and made to feel like their investment is appreciated. But we know about bigger companies who are remote like Basecamp further down the road than we are, how the hell do they do it then?

Turns out in some ways not much different to us and they wrote a whole book about it in ‘It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work’, here’s something that really stood out to us:

Nearly all product work at Basecamp is done by teams of three people. It’s our magic number. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s one or two rather than four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chop problems down until they can be carried across the finish line by teams of three.

- It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried

Why did it stand out because right now about three people is as big as we go with when dealing with any problem too. For us though its due to not having a ton of spare people but it seems scaling up doesn’t change that magic number.

It’s actually quite heartening to see that we already have this in our DNA and we won’t necessarily have to reinvent the wheel as we grow.

On the other hand when reading the book (I recommend you do if you’re thinking of going remote or interested in entrepreneurship in general) they don’t have weekly catch up calls where everyone talks about what they’ve been working on.

At RealtimeCRM we do, their reasoning for not doing this is kind of compelling. So, say you have 8 people all on a catchup call talking about what they’re doing and it’s an hour call you’re not losing an hour, you’re losing 8 hours because those 8 people aren’t doing anything new and productive.

What they do instead is have people write daily or weekly status updates which everyone else can check out at their leisure.

For now, we can still get the uninterrupted time we need and do the weekly hangout. It’s not just about keeping up to date with what others are doing but also to just talk nonsense and re-establish bonds as it were, though I think as of writing Basecamp has 54 people in their team, a hangout with 54 people would probably not work so yeah some things won’t scale well at all.

What’s the take away?

Having to constantly jump between one thing and another without a solid block of time to focus sucks. It saps your energy and often you just can’t do your best work. If the environment at your company is high stress and people are on edge they’re going to burn out and you’re going to be churning good people when you didn’t need to.

For us going remote helped a huge amount - maybe that’s not for you right now. Let’s say you’ve got one of those open planned offices because everyone else has them because apparently they boost collaboration or something (Typing ‘open offices’ into Google gave suggestions of ‘don’t work’, ‘bad’ and ‘are terrible’).

Why not try providing some private spaces and see what happens to productivity and satisfaction amongst your people. Not quite as radical as going remote but it’s doable and you can see whether the effect is significant for your company or not.

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