Swim Lanes

Two meters is much narrower than you think. Maybe it’s fine if you’re just lounging around. But if you’re trying to accomplish something, like, say, winning 22 gold medals, it’s a pretty small space to work in. There’s definitely no room for distractions.

Distractions are Toxic

According to Gloria Mark, a leader in interruption science, “once distracted, a worker takes nearly a half-hour to resume the original task”. There are numerous articles on how we’re actually not wired for multitasking, and how distractions kill productivity. We claim to know these things in the modern workplace, yet we fall into the same old habits of distracting ourselves and each other on a near daily basis.

This leads me to one of our core maxims at Nine Labs:

Don’t ask a question you can find the answer to in less than 20 minutes.

The idea is simple, if you can find the answer to your question in less time than it would take to distract someone else and for them to get back on task, don’t distract your team mate with the question. Now back to the swimming pool.

Whether it’s visual design or company strategy, everyone on the team has a specific range of skills and does their best work when they are allowed to focus on performing in that arena. Performance of each of these skills is necessary for the success of a project, and ultimately, the success of the business. These are the swim lanes defined for each team member. Everyone on the team should do their best to stay in their lane and – perhaps more importantly – not drag someone else out of theirs.

Being in your swim lane as staying is a state of flow; focused and productive. Getting out of your lane leaves you blurry and ineffective.

Easier vs. Better

While it might feel easier to ask a team mate a simple question about a project, if the answer lies somewhere in Basecamp, Slack, or a Google Doc, go find it there. Chances are it will just take a few minutes to find it, you’ll know where the answer is, and you won’t have pulled a team mate from their swim lane.

“But isn’t having the ability to ask for help part of the benefit of being on a team?”

Sure it is. Here are a few tips to try (they work for us):

  1. Have a time on the schedule for open team discussion and collaboration. This can be as frequent as you like. Find a rhythm that works for your team.
  2. Create clear signals for when it is and isn’t okay to inturrupt you. For us, it’s having your headphones in. Status messages are also good (that’s why all the chat apps have them). Set your status to ‘Do not Disturb’ when you need to focus. Conversely, you have to respect these signals when you see them and not distract your team mate.
  3. Have a bat signal, use it sparingly. Create a clear structure for what constitutes an emergency and how to communicate that to your team. Don’t abuse it, though. If you cry wolf too much your team won’t take you seriously when you do need help.

What if I can’t find the answer in 20 minutes?

This is bound to happen, so your team should have a plan for what to do when it does.

  1. Poke your head up and see if the person who has the answer is readily available.
  2. Ask if they have a moment to help (this is super-important).
  3. If they say yes, ask the question as accurately and concisely as possible (see: how to ask good questions).
  4. If they don’t know and need to get back to you, unless it’s urgent, post it in your project management system and tag a time to follow up.

Respect People’s Time

There’s a lot more to being an effective team than just getting your own work done. A lot of it is allowing other people to get their work done, too. This could mean overcoming your reflexive tendency to ask for help. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s hard at first. But after putting some structure around how and when you ask questions, you’ll see the team’s performance increase in short order.

So next time you think of asking a team mate something simple, first ask yourself “Can I figure this out?”. You probably can, and that’s better for everyone.


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