The Other Half of Your Job

Corralling brilliant and creative individuals to work together as a team is incredibly difficult.  That’s why every successful company where people are both productive and happy feels a little magical.  The harried, stressful environment or the disengaged, sullen office are both far more common sights.

You might think that creative and productive individuals easily combine to form creative and productive teams, but I’ve noticed that the opposite happens more often than not.  An individual’s creativity and productivity are extremely fragile things that are liable to fall apart when individuals are put in a room to work on problems that are complex, time-constrained, and flat-out hard.

A well-intentioned response that I often see out of productive people is to get frustrated when not enough is getting done and go 100% into heads-down mode, but that just exacerbates the problem.  What ends up happening is embitterment, disengagement, and finally, attrition.  Preventing all that from happening is the other half of everyone’s job.

Tom Sachs, on the importance of communicating at work

Tom Sachs is a contemporary artist famous for his sculptures which are elaborate DIY recreations of modern engineering and design masterpieces (like the space program) who has a surprising take on how to get creative people to work together and get stuff done.  In his studio, if you’ve done your work, you’ve only done half of your job.

‘[S]ent does not mean received’ is a profound thing. Half of your job in this studio is doing your work, the other half of your job is communicating that it’s been done. Because if you do it, and I don’t hear about it, how do I know what’s going on? I’m not trying to control everything, but in an intimate work environment, where we’re really trying to develop something complex, a nod, saying, ‘I got it,’ helps moves things along.

Focusing too hard on getting stuff done just produces more stuff that needs to get done, and that’s a trap.  This is most poignant to people who’ve worked on projects with lots of moving parts.  Communicating that you’ve gotten the work done is another half to your job that’s absolutely vital.

do things, tell people - on the importance of communicating what you've done

(on the walls at Shopify)

Ultimately, we as humans are extremely sensitive creatures and the moments when we do our best work can quickly become fleeting.  In Tom Sachs’s understated words, “Working with 15 people is very difficult.”

To me, this is what people talk about when they talk about company culture: it’s the entire other half of everyone’s job to make the company run smoothly.  What Sachs says about artists rings true for anyone involved in creative work.

The artist’s creative process is a very fragile thing. Nowhere else do you find people who are as brilliant and self-motivated as in the arts and yet as fragile and insecure. Working with 15 people is very difficult. We’re trying to cultivate the indulgences of the creative process and, at the same time, eliminate creativity as a capricious gesture. In other words, a little creativity goes a long way. It’s like chili pepper. A lot of artists are filled with caprice and silliness. Finding that balance is the key to everything.