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Concentrating on serendipitous creativity

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When was the last time you were able to focus well on a difficult task in an office landscape? For long periods of time? Did you manage to finish the task in time? Knowledge workers are increasingly pushed together in large open spaces to promote collaboration and serendipity. But those unplanned happy accidents create another completely unplanned rather unhappy accident: the loss of concentration. According to Cal Newport’s “Deep Work” term, long uninterrupted hours of concentration manage to get difficult things done - not short bursts of collaboration. He calls those bursts “Shallow Work”. Being able to concentrate well for a longer period of time is often needed to solve a complex problem. Problems like these are not uncommon in the software industry where I’m in. Deliberate practice and “flow” are related to Deep Work. The ability to concentrate for longer periods on time is becoming an increasingly rare skill.

It doesn’t take a genius to realize constant interruption (called collaboration) doesn’t do your concentration skills any good. But locking yourself in a room all day wouldn’t work either because some shallow collaboration tasks are required to bring a big project to a happy end.

And that brings us to the first impasse: the current trend in latest office landscaping fully favors collaboration. It’s almost impossible not to see all your colleagues while you’re stationed at your “desk” (squeezed between two others): peer pressure is imminent. That’s most of the time a good thing: nobody likes seeing someone wasting his time surfing away while you’re working your ass off. But that unconsciously creates stress even if you’re sure that you’re okay with it. offices are designed to increase the like-hood of happy accidents: bumping into a colleague who’s working on something else. That bump might just create the next best thing as (if you both are open for it) you share ideas and merge two thoughts into one.

Talk to the duck!

In software engineering, that concept is called “talk to the duck”. (The duck being your colleague) If you don’t know how to solve a problem, likely you’re simply suffering from some sort of tunnel vision. Once another approach to the problem is suggested and your “aha” moment has passed, the problem made its way for a solution. A similar approach to finding another strategy to approach the problem is taking a break. Stand up, walk a bit, go to the toilet, and even before reaching it you might have already figured it out yourself.

So what’s wrong with creating temporary ducks to talk to? Nothing, except that those ducks might be working on something themselves and need to drop that work in order to help you. So what’s wrong with that? Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot, as once you notice how easy it becomes to talk to someone else about your problem, you’ll definitely think of doing it again the moment you stumble upon another problem. Maybe you’ll turn to a colleague just a bit faster. And faster. Wait, did you think this problem through before asking? No you didn’t!

This creates an “ask-a-lot”-loop that locks down others that also want to work. Look at it the same way as an overload of meetings, except they’re immediate and unplanned. Remember that context switching requires a mental overhead of at least 20 minutes. Uninterrupted concentration? Deep Work? Forget that.

Quack quack.

The other side of the coin: too much separation. A mental lockdown is good but doesn’t get any enterprise software out of the door. Some researches or professors might have the luxury of a private office space, but writing papers is mostly a lonely task. Imagine multiple software development teams “collaborating” if everyone is tucked away in their own little space (or worse, cubicle). The urge to stand up and ask something completely diminishes: “I’ll try to fix this myself”. The result is a mismatch and unstable codebase where everyone knows a little bit about something but the coherent whole is absent.

At least you’ll get to squeeze in those wanted Deep Work hours!

A possible solution might be a shared workspace with remote cells where you can concentrate on hard stuff, but you’re not too far away from the rest of the chaotic action. Alas that solution doesn’t work well if not everyone respects your intentions to do some Deep Work: you’re still reachable to quack. Company policies should clear things up but we all know that doesn’t work well either. We have a “silent room” at work, but it’s mostly used as a meeting room thanks to the lack of other available rooms. What’s more, the “silent” room isn’t silent at all: it’s located near the central printer and the air conditioning pipes, causing a constant humming that without a doubt creates a nice headache even without that Deep stuff.

Balancing collaboration and concentration requires:

  1. Respect from others
  2. Shared insight on when to utilize both.

As long as there’s someone in your company who doesn’t think of Deep Work as something relevant, you won’t be able to create that shared understanding.

tags icon collaboration concentration

I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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