You Have To Go Slow To Go Fast
Why multiplayer gaming is the wrong analogy for the future of work.
Rajiv Ayyangar is strongly influenced by multiplayer games in his thinking about work patterns of interaction, as he lays out in Hybrid Anxiety and Hybrid Optimism: The Near Future of Work:
The future is multiplayer
“Multiplayer” enterprise software enables real-time collaboration. In contrast to “single-player” tools like Microsoft Word and Excel, Google Docs and Google Sheets introduced workers to the power of multiplayer editing. And the ability to work on the same artifact, simultaneously, was game-changing. In “The Arc of Collaboration,” Kevin Kwok uses the example of Figma to show how this mode of collaboration isn’t merely a feature; it opens up entirely new possibilities: “Unlike Sketch or Photoshop, Figma …shows what collaboration means when you understand that collaboration is intimately part of productivity. …The feedback loops of collaboration get so short that they become part of the productivity loop.”
A consequence of this, Kwok observes, is that both work and collaboration can happen speedily and losslessly within apps, and “going to Slack is increasingly a channel of last resort.” This is the power of multiplayer: it merges collaboration and productivity by allowing us to work together within the same tools that we rely on for solo work. Such tools, however, are technologically difficult to execute, and as a result, the shift to multiplayer has occurred gradually.
The future is *not* asynchronous
For some tech insiders, strictly asynchronous work — adopting processes and documentation practices to minimize or eliminate real-time communication altogether — is, apparently, appealing. As mentioned earlier, though, going fully asynchronous was a cultural shift that hardly any enterprises successfully pulled off. I don’t believe it was ever going to work: We’re social creatures who build trust through talking (more on this later), and, frankly, the preference for asynchronous work was likely an effect of the clunky and unreliable Remote 1.0 tools we had, rather than the intent.
COVID-19 seems to have settled this debate: When the pandemic hit, remote work was already starting to incorporate more synchronous communication, in part due to improvements in audio-video technology and the rise of multiplayer apps. The trend in the past year has been not to abandon synchronous communication, but to rely on it far more.
And hybrid work, of course, depends on synchronicity; in making the transition, though, we will need to incorporate some useful elements from asynchronous-first models.
One argument in favor of asynchronous work is that it facilitates the kinds of concentrated, independent work essential for developers and other information workers. See, for example, the classic Maker vs. Manager-dilemma, which argues for a clear separation between the two schedules and modes, and the need for big chunks of time without context-switching.
The reality is that most high-performing teams need to compromise between the Maker’s and the Manager’s schedules, blending synchronous and asynchronous modes in the service of speed, alignment, and creativity. In a 2016 study, Christoph Riedl and Anita Williams Woolley characterized the optimal communication cadence for creativity and execution as “bursty” (a mixture of rapid communication and uninterrupted, independent work). In a randomized, controlled trial of 52 software teams, they found that bursty communication was used by the most productive teams and tended to “lead to better outcomes”. Riedl and Woolley observed: “People often think that constant communication is most effective, but actually, we find that bursts of rapid communication, followed by longer periods of silence, are telltale signs of successful teams.”
A useful analogy here: if we think about the enterprise as a living organism, good **asynchronous practices** (e.g. documentation, project management, Slack etiquette) are like long-term memory — necessary for order and consistency; **synchronous practices** (e.g. voice and video calls, real-time collaboration) are like the central nervous system — vital for speed and creativity. Both are essential.
I wrote about Riedl and Woolley’s work in Paradoxes of Engagement: Less Video, More Understanding, but I took away different points from that research. Not only are teams better off when they channel communications into limited periods of time: ‘bursty’ periods alternating with quiet periods. The authors also point out that even then, people communicate better — listen better — with less video:
We may achieve greater problem solving if new technologies offer fewer distractions and less visual stimuli.
Ayyangar is offering Silicon Valley thinking, where technology can fix the world a line of code at a time. No surprise, he’s a founder of Tandem, a real-time communication and coordination app for teams involving a lot of video.
The economics, politics, and psychology around work is, however, a chaotic system, driven by non-linear dynamics between companies, workers, and institutions. You can’t change such systems a little at a time.
The coronavirus has acted as a strange attractor and has moved the state of work from one pattern of instability to another, distinctly different sort of instability. We will not be able to impose order on the deeply chaotic human system called work, and certainly not by adopting a specific set of work technologies, or by corporate fiat.
For many, the future may become more asynchronous, at the day-to-day work communication level, to the degree that the rest — the extroverts, the managers, and the psychopaths — are willing to tolerate it. The always-on, presence-centric, fishbowl model of work that Ayyangar seems to envision would turn our work lives into an endless multiplayer role-playing game, but most of us want more time for deep work, not more time for conversation and synchronous collaborating.
I will put it another way. In martial arts there is an expression:
You have to go slow to go fast.
This seeming paradox is explained by the difference between habit and performance. The dissection of the phrase reveals an intermediate step:
Slow is smooth; smooth is fast.
Before you can perform a martial arts movement ‘fast’, you have to be able to do it ‘smooth’. But to be ‘smooth’ you must undertake to practice that movement ‘slow’. Once you have mastered being smooth, only then can you be fast.
The analogy I offer is that we, as practitioners of our work roles, have to first learn to be slow: to think deeply, focus, and adopt techniques that slow down decision-making and improve problem-solving. This requires introspection and the capture of individual thinking and effort, asynchronously. That in turn leads to us becoming smooth: able to apply what we know in new contexts, to direct what we have learned to new challenges, and to share that with others. Only then can we take effective fast action in the community of our teams, and teams of teams.
This way of thinking is centered on the individual as the ‘still center’ at the heart of work, as opposed to starting with a focus on the interactions of the team. If we want teams to be fast, first the individuals have to learn to be smooth together, and that is best done when each individual has the time and freedom to focus on going slow.
Individuals have to go slow so teams can go fast.