4 heads are better than 1

Say you need to make an important presentation on Friday. You can go about this task in two ways. You can block off 4 hours on Thursday and work on the presentation in one burst, close to the deadline. Or you can block of one hour each from Monday to Thursday and work on the presentation in four sittings.

Here’s a related question – have you ever stepped away from a problem only to return to it with new insight? How does that happen? How does a break help us return to a problem with a fresh perspective?

When we return to a presentation on 4 different days, we are actually 4 different persons. How we feel on a Monday morning is quite different from how we feel on a Wednesday evening. By spreading this task across several days, we are recruiting a team of 4 slightly different people to bring their insights to the presentation, without any communication and coordination overhead.

4 heads are better than 1.

The curse of scale

The larger a team’s size, the more it needs to communicate.

When you scale up a team from a size of 6 developers to 12 developers, how much more communication work does this entail? On the surface, we are led to think that we need to communicate twice as much. However, 6 developers can communicate two at a time in 21 ways (6 x 7 / 2). If you scaled this team to 12 developers, that number shoots up to 78 (12 x 13 / 2). That is 6 times more communication channels than the smaller team.

When we double a team’s size, we expect productivity to double as well. However, given that communication work need by 6 times, the productivity gain is a lot slower. This led Fred Brooks to coin Brook’s law – adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.

Instant interruption

I once had a manager who apologized if he didn’t respond to an instant message within 15 minutes.

While this might seem polite and courteous, it indicated that the manager thought of a 15-minute response to an instant message to be too slow. As his team, we proceeded to respond to his messages the moment they arrived.

Focused work requires long periods of no interruption – periods that are incompatible with responding to every instant message within 15 minutes. The expectation that instant messages need to receive an instant reply destroys the focus necessary for deep work.

Perhaps we need to stop calling it ‘instant messaging’.

When are we done?

Projects fail when we fail to define when they are done.

A pot of dal is finished the moment we garnish it with chopped coriander. But projects defined as ‘organize home’, ‘eat healthy’, or ‘workout more’, have no clear finish. When there is no clear finish, why bother starting?

Even habits can have finish lines in clearly defined routines. A routine to meditate for 10 minutes daily, or write and publish a daily blogpost have no finish dates. But they have finished definitions.

We move forward when we finish things – not when we start them.

Counter-intuitive productivity

I saw this wonderful internet post that draws an important distinction, when applied to building software.


Most teams I have worked with are on the left hand side. Yet, excellence sits squarely on the right hand side.

Fast is different in the short-term and the long-term. In the short-term, the left side is faster, and therefore, it is tempting. In the long-term, ‘doing it right’ always outperforms ‘quick and dirty’.

The cost of something’s absence

A good video conferencing setup – one that includes a projector, a mic and a camera, probably costs upwards of €5000.

At a first glance, this cost might just seem too high. Why invest in so much equipment when your employees can manage with their laptop cameras and microphones? Those laptops aren’t cheap either.

Yet, let us assume that a team of 10 people use the conferencing setup to enable hybrid work. Thanks to the setup, the team is, on average, 1% more productive. Of course, 1% is a conservative estimate here. If each of those employees are paid an average salary of €50,000, their economic output is likely to be at least €60,000 per head. 1% of that output for a team of 10 is €6000 per year.

In effect, the conferencing setup, when effectively used, pays for itself within a span of 1 year.

Things are ‘costly’ only in a certain context. A full-fleged conferencing setup for use by 1 person at home is probably costly. Yet, that same setup for a team of 10, turns into an investment.

The presence of a good video conferencing setup costs about €5000. The absence of a good video conferencing setup costs the team at least €6000 in lost productivity.

Which choice is costlier?

To work hard

Who is a hard worker?

Is it somebody who ‘puts in the hours’, or ‘burns the midnight oil’?

Is it that person who has worked themselves into exhaustion, but continues working? Is it that person who fights sleep, and yet, continues to plod away? Is it that person who struggles to stay focused, but make decisions anyway? Is it that person who is too tired to detect their own mistakes?

Or instead, is a hard worker that person who is well rested and refreshed? Is it they who can sustain their focus for a long period and then make a well considered decision?

Henry David Thoreau once wrote, ‘Those who work much do not work hard’. Alas, our culture has long confused busy work with hard work.