Everything Tech Companies Should Know About Productivity Can Be Learned From Watching Mad Men

The fundamentals of Productivity haven't changed in 50 years.

The fundamentals of productivity haven’t changed in 50 years.

A couple years back, while binge watching Mad Men, I had a jarring realization- they were a bunch of drunks! No. Well, yes, but that’s for another blog post. The real light-bulb went on when I realized that nothing has changed at the office in 50 years. Longer even! It’s all the same fundamental actions, repeated day after day, year after year, decade after decade. Plato would recognize the patterns. Understanding this is crucial if you build or leverage common office tools & applications.

In today’s parlance, i’m talking about productivity- the term used by technology companies to describe the things you do in a professional setting, aka at the office. Of course, these days- the office can also mean your couch or on an airplane or your favorite cafe. Productivity itself encompasses a huge range of things- from developing proposals, to code, to creating designs, scripts, apps, widgets, gadgets, doo-hickeys and whatzits.

The epiphany I had while watching these suave ghosts of offices past brought lavishly to life is that we only really do four things while working. The big four are:

  • Create
  • Share
  • Discuss
  • Decide

That’s it. No matter how you dress them up, what MBA-speak you apply to them, it really comes down to just four fundamental actions. So grab a gin & tonic and let’s break them down a bit.

Create: Yes, create contains recreate, refine, revise, edit, rework, redo, scrap and start again, but really it’s all just create. Each scratch of a pencil, stroke of a pen, tap of a key, voice in a microphone, stroke of a stylus, excretion of plastic from a 3D printer- it’s all just the physical manifestation of what our brain can imagine. Create is turning darkness into light. Something from nothing. It is the most sublime things humans do. Treat creation with some reverence- it’s the best that we get.

Share: Whether you are walking down the hall with a storyboard, asking someone to lean over your shoulder as you take them through a virtual world, sending an email, printing a presentation (hey, it still happens), reviewing a forecast or balance sheet, chatting with coworkers or clients via Skype or conference call- the next step after creation is always to share your work.

Discuss: This is such a crucial part of the productivity process and one that, I think, still has the most room for improvement. Discussing what has been created, is still, I assert, best done in person, although many factors contribute to how often this actually occurs. So much of what we have to say to one another is not done with our words. Gesture, expression, nuance, energy- all function best in person. Email, the early hero of sharing, has sadly become, the ill-suited Goliath of discussion. The interminable discussion threads that travel around the office via email are the bane of all our existence and yet, we can’t quite quit them. They are just too easy to start and volley back and forth like a ping pong ball or a hot potato or sometimes- like a live grenade.

Decide: Next to create, decide is my favorite part of the process. I love to take action (which can be a liability, I know). Nevertheless, decisions can be made by groups or individuals and increasingly, we like to “believe” by data. Big data has become the darling of many decision-makers, though the smart money knows, that unlike sitting in Google’s self-driving car, few leaders would completely cede control of decisions to almighty data. Imagine sitting in that self-driving car completely blindfolded- how comfortable are you with that high speed trip on the Autobahn now? To decide is decidedly human.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Data won't either.

Would you trust a self-driving car to make ALL the decisions? Would you get out of the driver’s seat and ride blind-folded?

Four fundamental functions. Create. Share. Discuss. Decide. Repeat ad infinitum.

The point of this is to say that there are no new activities being done at the office- which is a powerful insight because it frees you. If you are in the business of creating productivity, it frees you to focus on one area where you can make your mark- HOW. How these things are done is where the magic can happen. Where, dare I say it, the innovation happens. Strike down the idea of some new step in the process. Ban the idea of new ways to work. There is only Kaizen. There is only the continuous improvement of HOW.

Years ago, at Microsoft- I talked about how the company needed to focus on the mental models that people had in their brains. What I meant was, what do people “see” in their minds when they were doing these four fundamental activities? How much of a person’s brain did we own? The end game is to retain as much of the customer’s mental space as possible.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

Before the digital age, our mental models were of physical things- paper, pencil, ink.

In Don Draper’s day, he might mentally envision a sketch pad or a notepad to capture an idea. He’d think about physical storyboards, the gritty feel of newsprint, or the silky feel of a magazine print between a reader’s fingers.

I would grind my teeth in frustration that no one seemed alarmed that the mental space once occupied by Word or Outlook or even PowerPoint was being cannibalized and consumed by Facebook posts, Twitter feeds, and YouTube videos- powerful technologies that did many of these things better. Microsoft dominated the mental space of most office workers and professionals. If they imagined it, Microsoft had the vehicle to move it from the intangible to the tangible. Today, an individual’s mental space is fragmented into a dozen or more, different platforms, with more competing for attention every day.

A software developer will move between his dev environment and the virtual product he is creating- perhaps a virtual sketch pad or notepad. Game developers will move between 2D code and the gorgeous, expansive worlds they create in AAA games. As a writer, I see a blank white page and care only about the fastest way to get my thoughts out of my head before they disappear. Swype, which feels like a cross between cursive and conducting a symphony, is starting to give keyboards a run for their money in this arena. I couldn’t have imagined that even five years ago.

If you are a technology company working in productivity, you need to get clear on which of these four fundamental activities you are trying to improve and then spend all your time thing about how. How. How. How. How. How can I decrease the distance between thought and action? How can I pull abstract ideas out of my customer’s brain? How can I improve sharing, discussing, deciding? How do I make it feel easy?

On the other hand, if you are a consumer of these tools, if you are in an industry that uses these tools to produce other things- lawsuits, drugs, movies, books, light bulbs- whatever, then you must think about how this piece of technology is improving our ability to execute against these fundamental processes? How is this helping me make a better light bulb? How is this helping me communicate with my customer more effectively?

In the world of productivity, the world of create, share, discuss, decide, there is no new step to be added to this process (though I’d love to hear your feedback if you have an argument to the contrary!). Don & Peggy would get along just fine in the digital office though they might miss their drinks & smokes. They would understand that there remains incredible opportunity for advancement. Even Shakespeare was wiser than he realized when he had Hamlet quip, “I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space.” Indeed, productivity is simply a nut to be cracked, with infinite opportunity for improvement.

Never thought I’d say it, but thanks Don Draper, for enlightening me. Cheers!

About jenlocati

JENNIE LOCATI started her blog, WYS Words as a way to share her experiences as a professional woman, wife, mother, and irrepressible “do-gooder”. Her diverse life experiences have taken her to Kenya as a Peace Corps volunteer, the trading floors of Wall Street, to PATH, and most recently back to Microsoft, where she works in product development. Jennie shares her many misadventures, occasional insights, and unique perspectives in a voice that is self-deprecating, honest, and authentic. Read more at www.wyswords.com

Posted on January 8, 2015, in Big Ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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