This may be a bit of a controversial topic which many may not agree with, but throughout my life I’ve come to the conclusion that productivity and creativity are a bit like yin and yang i.e. they are often indirectly proportional to each other.
As a kid, when I was in school, I was very good at maths and art. I was either terrible or average at almost all other subjects mostly because they didn’t interest me, but that’s besides the point. Like all students in South Africa, as I got further into high school I needed to chose which subjects to take/keep and which to drop. My father suggested I take a more technical path in my studies, which included maths, science, electrical theory and technical drawing. His reasoning was that a technical path would be more practical in the sense that it’s easier to make a living later in life by doing something technical rather than being a struggling artist, because generally speaking people are less willing or able to pay others to draw pictures. I loved drawing and being creative, but on the other hand, having immigrated to this country with only two suitcases and knowing what it’s like to be poor, I couldn’t dismiss my father’s advice i.e. making a good living weighed heavily on my mind. After much deliberation, I decided to drop art. When I went to varsity, I made the same decision when having to chose between studying Graphic Design and Computer Systems Engineering i.e. combination of software and hardware subjects (programming, electrical engineering, electronics, digital systems etc.). Throughout varsity I spent huge amount of my spare time producing electronic music. Although I loved coding, the feeling I got from making music was like no other feeling I’ve ever gotten in my life; it was like a drug that took over my life. After having started my first job, I once again made the same decision to drop the music in order to focus on coding.
I realized that in order to succeed at a particular thing in life, you often have to sacrifice other activities that you love doing. Therefore, aside from perhaps designing user interfaces and choosing the clothes I buy, I have done little to no exploring of my artistic/creative side ever since I started my career in software development. It is for this reason that not a day goes by where I don’t think about the decisions I have made. However, to this day I still believe that I made the right decisions and here’s my reasoning behind it:
All the way back in high school I realised that as much as I loved drawing I could not imagine being asked to draw/paint on demand for any teacher, lecturer, manager or customer. The same applied to making music; I couldn’t put a track together on demand. I could only do these things when I felt inspired. On the flip side, I could solve an equation, troubleshoot a technical issue or write some code on demand. Unfortunately, to make a living in this world people will expect you to produce on demand not just when you feel inspired. It is for this reason that I believe I made the right decisions in my life given my circumstances.
In the quest to make more money, I could have chosen to become a stock broker, a salesman or accepted a job writing software for banks. But instead I chose a career in software development, writing various kinds of software from mobile, to desktop, web and speech recognition apps for various types of industries. My salary will never come close to that of a stock broker, banker or insurance salesman, but to be quite honest there are limits to how much I’m willing to sell my happiness for.
In my view, software development serves as a perfect equilibrium for my personality: it is a combination of intellectually challenging tasks/features that need to be developed on demand while requiring a certain amount of creativity for designing elegant technical solutions and user interfaces.
This finally brings me to my point, that throughout my life I have often noticed that I am most productive when working on mundane repetitive tasks, while I am least productive on tasks requiring me to be creative; mainly because being creative requires extended periods of time thinking, day dreaming and searching for inspiration. As an example, one will probably find that asking a factory worker to drill holes all day will yield a large amount of productivity, which in turn will increase a company’s profits, but the person’s quality of life and happiness will diminish day-by-day. Inversely, you will find that asking even the most talented painter to create an original and world renowned painting every week/month will not prove to be a very productive endeavour.
In line with Joel Spolsky’s thinking, you can either be a world renowned chef like the Naked Chef or you can be McDonalds: Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef. Although I don’t agree with Joel’s bias towards the Naked Chef, I do believe there are some lessons to be learnt from his analogy. McDonalds’ main appeal to the public isthe speed (productivity) in which they prepare burgers and meals. What is not mentioned in Joel’s post is that McDonalds will always make more money globally than the Naked Chef because it requires less creativity and more productivity. A chef’s success on the other hand is fully dependant on talent and creativity, which cannot be scaled nor can new and original recipes be created on demand. The only caveat with aiming to be a world renowned artist/chef is that very few make it to that level, while most end up living off of coupons and hanging on to their pipe dreams.
So how does this apply to software development teams/companies? Here’s an example of two companies I worked for in the past, both consulting companies. I won’t mention any names, but it’s essentially a comparison of the Naked Chef vs McDonalds.
- Cowboy Company: a small startup where I was the first employee. It was founded and managed by one of the most hard working, talented and creative software developers I’ve ever met in my life.
- Work environment:
- We were all encouraged to have a can-do attitude i.e. nothing is impossible, anything can be done and we can do it over night.
- There were no boundaries between us and our customers in terms of budgets, time constraints etc. If the customer wanted a product developed that would typically take 6-12 months to develop, we told the customer we could get it done in two weeks at obviously a fraction of the cost that any other company quoted at.
- Experimentation and hacking was encouraged i.e. software tools, utilities, programming languages, repositories, APIs, SDKs etc. were swapped and changed on a regular basis.
- Little to no training was offered internally. If you were working on something new and involved a learning curve, you were regarded as an idiot if you asked questions.
- The day-to-day work environment had zero structure, rules or processes. Thus it was the most chaotic work environment I’ve ever been in. For the first time in my life at the age of 24 my hair started falling out to the point that I was wiping my hair off the keyboard every hour on the hour.
- Company outcome: the company was in existence for only about 18 months before we were told that we’re closing shop.
- Reasons for the company outcome:
- If creative people make for the worst employees to manage, then the same creative people make for even the worse kind of managers for the day-to-day running of a company. Here’s why: the process of being creative requires a huge amount of experimentation and trial and error. This experimentation process is unfortunately very counter productive because you’re not walking in a straight line, but rather zigzagging your way to nowhere in the hope that one day you’ll find the pot of gold.
- Creative people make the worst kind of managers for managing people and budgets. Ensuring that money always comes in and that people get paid their salaries requires structure and discipline. Managing people’s productivity requires rules and methodologies to be followed in order to set expectations because as we all know the most common cause of unhappiness is unmet expectations.
- What happened to the manager: this highly creative, talented and unstructured man ended up becoming the CTO of the world’s second largest gay social network, which he developed from scratch. Within a few years, they acquired the largest gay social network in the world. Needless to say that he’s become very successful in the end.
- Structured Company: a large multi-national goliath of a tech company, with very rigid rules and regulations.
- Work environment:
- Highly structured and regulated work environment. Everybody had specialised roles knowing exactly what needs to be done with clearly defined goals and expectations.
- A strong emphasis was put on training and documentation. Everybody was taught everything they had to know in order to get their job done. Asking questions was encouraged and the managers were always happy and enthusiastic about sharing their knowledge.
- The management of people was pretty good; people were treated with respect, expectations were set and met etc.
- The software consulting department I reported to was run like a well oiled machine, with projects being delivered on time and within budget. No major surprises ever came about (within the department), and every change introduced was carefully planned out.
- Everybody was encouraged and directed to follow a straight line to success, which was great in many ways for your own mental health.
- On the other hand, new ideas, strategies or ways of thinking were strongly discouraged. Internally, the typical company slogan was “this is how we do things around here” or “this is not how we do things around here”. In other words, there was little to no room for creativity or original thoughts … unless if course you were considered someone of importance i.e. you had a VP (Vice President) somewhere in your job title. Putting up your hand in QBRs (Quarterly Business Reviews) and mentioning my concerns and ideas often resulted in being laughed at or told that “you clearly don’t know how this company works”. Coming up with ideas for new apps or ways of generating more money resulted in being told that “it’s not your job to be thinking about that, don’t look to the left or to the right, just look straight ahead and do the job you’ve been hired to do”.
- Outcome: over the course of a decade the revenues of this goliath of a tech company started dropping year-by-year. Eventually it ended up being cut up into pieces and sold off.
- Reasons for the company outcome: innovation stagnates in an environment where creativity is choked in favour of productivity. The company stopped innovating and instead only released incremental improvements on their existing products. The people in the highest levels of management believed that the strategies that worked two decades ago will continue to work today. I personally witnessed such managers looking at spreadsheets in QBRs and scratching their heads as to why the revenues were plummeting. All the while blaming the sales people for not pushing more sales, without ever realising that you cannot sell yesterday’s technology for tomorrow’s prices.
- What happened to the management: the company was acquired by another stagnant company, and they are still conducting their business the same way they always have, all the while still living in fear of their revenues dropping which continue to do so. To this day they still refuse to invest in R&D on certain technology stacks and prefer to purchase, rebrand and resell their partners’ products. Certain components in their hardware products are even purchased from their competitors. Due to these people being focused primarily on productivity and profits, their only concern are the earnings for the next quarter, and then the one after that. Short sightedness and puddle thinking is embedded into the cultures these types of older corporations.
The moral of the story is that companies which purely focus on productivity will always outperform creative companies in the short term, but they will never hit the jackpot. Creative companies on the other hand will always struggle in the short term and many will fall by the wayside, while a small minority of them will hit the jackpot in the long term. In the end it all comes down to high risk high rewards for creative companies and low risk low rewards for productivity focused companies.
On a more personal note, depending on your level in an organisation and your perspective, here’s what you can take away from the story:
- If you’re an employee: part of growing up and maturing is the ability to come to terms with your own limitations. So you firstly need to know your own strengths and weaknesses and ask yourself whether you’re the creative cowboy type or the structured book smart type of person. Thereafter strive to work in environments where you are surrounded with like minded people. Personally I would advice you to work for a mid-sized company which is still in the process of growing, thereby offering opportunities to be both productive and creative.
- If you’re a manager: as a manager you don’t (or should not) have the luxury of being biased towards either types of employees. Realise that you may have productive and creative types working for you and an ideal tech company requires both kinds of people i.e. you need the productive people to milk the cows, while you need creative people to invent new cows to be milked. Incentivise people accordingly. For productive types give them tangible goals and deadlines and you’ll probably learn that you’ll have to micro manage them. For creative types, give them a bit of freedom, a generous budget and time to play and experiment.
So summarise: productivity and creativity are indirectly proportional, but ideally they both are required for a tech company to not only thrive in the short term but also stand the test of time. Hence the I believe productivity and creativity are like yin and yang; they’re opposing forces but you still need both.