When Dag and I started Crisp, our first step was to make a list of everything that did NOT work in our last company, Tapad. Tapad grew into a successful company with a great exit, but there are many things we, in hindsight, wish we had done differently.
This blog post is about time. Whether you are an intern or the CEO of a company, we all start the day with the exact same amount of hours at our disposal. I recently watched a 60 Minutes episode where Bill Gates interviewed Warren Buffet. Gates is very proud of how many meetings he can do. He then opens up Buffet’s appointment book and there are very few meetings in there -- some weeks even without any meetings at all! The two of them then go on to say that time is the most scarce resource for everyone - unfortunately it is not usually treated as such. We couldn’t agree more!
Looking back, we’ve realized that two activities took up the majority of our time at past companies: Emails and Meetings. We realized if we are going to give time back to our colleagues, and ourselves, we need to fundamentally change those two activities from the get-go.
1. Emails in an overcrowded inbox
Over 200 emails each day makes you a prisoner of your inbox. And I was a part of the problem. I used to send over 200 emails per day, many to recipients within my own organization. And for each email I sent as the CEO, it probably triggered 3 or more additional emails from each recipient to other people. It became an interruption machine for the company.
Not all emails are urgent, but it’s often difficult to prioritize which emails to address without actually reading them - that already has you distracted, so you might as well respond. Being extremely responsive to all emails is, in many organizations, a hallmark of someone that’s hard working and loyal to his or her team - I used to think so myself! What it probably really means, though, is that those people are constantly allowing themselves to be interrupted, likely to the detriment of their (and other people’s) other work.
Additionally, emails do not provide a good means to loop people in to ongoing information exchanges. Threads in emails don’t work, and never have - regardless of inbox sorting logic. Adding in people on an email string is like jumping into a conversation midway, having to gradually nest back to the origin to understand the purpose and context of the exchange.
Don’t even get me started on the “hot potato”-thread where people put others on the hook with a minimal amount of effort - just address someone else in the beginning of an email with a - perhaps trivial - question. That question might lead to other trivial questions which can be passed around without making any meaningful progress to resolution.
At Crisp, we rarely send internal emails - in fact, I have not sent a single internal email over the last 2 months. We still use it as a tool externally, since the rest of the world still clings to this means of communication, but the number of emails in my inbox on a daily basis is down to 10 or so - leaving me with plenty of time to actually get things done. Internally, if we see an email, we know it’s important and will address it, because it is such a rare event...
So what do we do instead? We use a tool called Dropbox Paper. It’s like Google Docs, but with a better design and more importantly cleverly integrated action points. A group of people, joined by a common set of problems to solve, share what we call a “Scratchpad”- a shared document consisting of all the topics that group needs to address, and a ‘portal’ to other documents.
We’ve also opted out of replacing emails with Slack. Slack is brilliant for some cases of fully synchronous communication, but it also has the potential to cause even more interruptions than email. We do use Slack, but only for (rare) stuff that really needs immediate action, but for which it doesn’t make sense to connect over video.
2. Meetings, meetings and more meetings
Yes, a lot gets done in meetings. But it’s a very over used tool for communication and coordination. My day used to consist of 8-10 meetings, this becomes a vicious cycle, as you have to be in a meeting to prepare for a meeting - leaving you with very little time to proactively and dynamically allocate time to the issues that matter most.
Traveling to meetings adds to the problem. I would visit our outer offices maybe every other month. We would go to customer meetings, but never really have the time to work together because of the tight meeting schedule for the day.
We have fundamentally changed this with our new way of working. Instead of a heavy meeting load within and across teams - for alignment, decision-making, working and information - we have now shifted the majority of these activities to asynchronous digital tools. Because people don’t have their calendars filled to the brim, there’s time to sit down to think and work through a list of asynchronous topics, spending the appropriate amount of time on it, instead of time-boxing into a calendar slot in a meeting with many others. Some things take much less time than most meetings, others take much more. There is still a social component of seeing your colleagues every now and then, and some topics are still best solved face-to-face - however even these topics are so much more effective to collaborate on if everyone has prepared individually before the meeting rather than during. Moving the agenda from slides in a meeting room to a living list of the most important topics and decisions we face has revolutionized our decision-making process.
Our meeting structure follows the groups we have identified in our Scratchpad. The group will discuss everything that is relevant for that team so one meeting can talk about marketing, product and technology. One group typically has 1 standing ‘Big meeting’ on Monday and a ‘Medium meeting on say Wednesday. In between there are 5 minute daily standups. The shared document has all the topics for the meeting and follow-ups. There are also Asynchronous topics in the scratchpad documents and the goal is to lift as many topics as possible in there so they can be addressed before we meet. It turns out that +80% of the topics we would spend meeting time on is actually done before we meet.
New ways of work will inevitably bring new challenges and we keep iterating on these new methods and tools as we bring on more people and discover short-comings. These techniques are definitely working for us, though, and sometimes we catch ourselves thinking “wow, I can’t believe how much work I’ve done today”. At noon. That’s the power of an interruption free work-day.