Consider the bee. On a productive day, she visits as many as 5,000 flowers, quickly extracting the nectar and pollen, then moving on to the next flower, where she’ll repeat the process and aid in the blooming of countless meadows. Now consider the woodpecker. If he acted like the bee, flitting from tree to tree after just a few noisy taps, he’d soon starve. His work requires the patient, consistent tapping of a single tree in order to extract his dinner.
I’ve been thinking about Seth Godin’s image of creative workers as woodpeckers from his book “The Dip,” but there’s a valuable lesson for leaders in extending the metaphor to include the bee. What we’re really talking about here is the difference between the maker’s day and the manager’s day, a concept first discussed by Paul Graham of Y Combinator in a now-famous 2009 essay.
The effect of meetings on deep work & innovation
By now, we’re all familiar with the concept of deep work and its importance in the creation of anything with tangible value. We also understand that different roles within our organizations require different levels of deep work. But contrary to everything we know about this dynamic, most organizations continue to operate according to a system that caters primarily to managers. That is, to the bees.
This imbalance is starkly apparent when it comes to meetings. Because leaders tend to conform to the manager schedule and thus include less deep work in a typical day (more on this later), leaders often grossly underestimate the level of disruption meetings can cause to makers’ productivity — a point Paul Graham points out from his years of experience working with programmers. Add to this the modern-day scourge of social media and its deleterious effects on our attention spans, and we begin to wonder: how can innovation happen?
How to strike a balance between managerial work & maker work
But there is a path to recovering balance between the equally important rhythms of managerial work and maker work if we’re willing to pay attention and make some adjustments to how we expect others to fit into our day.
First, it’s important for leaders to communicate what the end goal is, then step back. Allow makers to be creative during deep work sessions, without constant interruptions to check on progress and direct the process granularly.
To that end, it can be useful to develop a set system for updates and feedback that is consistent and doesn’t leave makers constantly checking their calendars to make sure they haven’t missed a sporadic meeting. Establishing such a system also paves the way for smoother remote work, allowing makers to perform deep work at the times that most suit their rhythms while maintaining the necessary feedback and guidance. We can even go as far as Paul Graham did by borrowing from college life and establishing set office hours.
To further minimize costly disruptions, it can also be useful to schedule meetings in clusters — either at certain times of day, or limited to certain days of the week. As Harrison Harnisch, a developer at Buffer, points out, “Especially when working on projects that span multiple teams, there is a huge amount of context that needs to be formed in your mind before you start solving the problem. Building context can take hours, only to be lost by a random interruption.”
It should also go without saying that it’s critical to conduct high quality meetings that address clear objectives and are a worthwhile investment of everyone’s time.
If we want to build organizations that create great things, we must respect the profound differences between the woodpeckers and the bees — the differences in the ways they must think about problems and how they must work through them. There are likely countless useful strategies for extending this understanding into time, energy, and sanity-saving measures specific to any organization. But first we have to take the crucial step of understanding these differences and molding our organizations to not just accommodate them, but leverage them for success.
The often-trumpeted concern that attention itself is being slowly eroded by life in the digital era, causing the critical process of deep work to become increasingly rare, is a well-documented phenomenon. It’s detailed in works like “Stolen Focus” by Johann Hari and “Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age” by Maggie Jackson, and only highlights the importance of protecting those in our organizations who still engage in this endangered practice, because as it becomes more rare, its power to impact an organization’s competitive advantage will grow.
Everyone is a maker in some respect
Finally, as leaders we should understand that the way of the woodpecker is not relegated to the kind of work done by coders and designers. Even those of us who must visit all the flowers in the meadow on a given day can benefit immensely from carving out a bit of protected time in our schedule for deep work. We’ve begun to forget the transformative power of reflection — its ability to connect seemingly unconnected dots, to synthesize all the disparate bits of information from the day into a cohesive plan, and to bring about the occasional “eureka!” moment.
Moving forward, let’s commit to fiercely protecting those in our organization whose deep work we depend on, and let’s just as fiercely protect our own need to tap away at the trunks of deep issues. Let’s slow down in order to speed up and move ahead. Let’s consider the woodpecker.