Forget Productivity – What will Lockdowns Mean for Creativity?

For Product Managers, creativity is more important than productivity, warns one of Tech’s top Product Management gurus. 

There are a football and a UC Berkley baseball cap on top of a row of lockers behind Ben Foster. When he gestures at them, his right wrist comes into view on my laptop screen.

I lean closer. Ben is something of a Silicon Valley product management guru, so he has a direct line to all the coolest tech products. He’s running a unique Product Academy, helping DC area entrepreneurs transition their companies from Service- to Product-driven during the pandemic. That’s why he’s agreed to a hatchpad interview to help promote the program.

What catches my attention is Ben’s unusual bracelet. Product Managers are some of Silicon Valley’s most creative tech people. They’re in charge of seeing the future before everyone else does. If they can’t get their companies to innovate, they’ll get beaten by the competition. It’s not a standard smartwatch. Whatever Ben’s wearing, we figured it’s going to be the next big thing. Sure enough, WHOOP recently announced that it raised $100M, with a $1.2B valuation.

Ben began his career during the Dotcom bubble, so he knows a thing or two about what makes a tech startup scalable. He’s always thinking about what he needs to do to keep his team ahead of the curve. Today, he’s the Chief Product Officer at Whoop  helping to create some of the most advanced wearable tech in the world. He’s also the founder of Prodify and a teacher at the free Tandem Product Academy., which helps DC area tech startups transition from services to Product.

Our CEO, Tim Winkler, tells Ben about a recent hatchpad interview. Surprisingly, the pandemic seems to have increased productivity among software engineers. Many teams, Tim tells Ben, seem to be working longer hours now that they don’t have to commute to their offices.

Ben isn’t surprised. He sees many advantages to remote teams. But, he explains, he isn’t worried about productivity. He’s worried about creativity. How will the lockdown and remote work impact innovation? Will creativity stagnate months or years down the line?

If product managers don’t take the right steps now, Ben tells us over Zoom, they won’t catch up when the teams are back in the office.

Ben sees plenty of value in hiring remote employees. There are plenty of talented people around the world who aren’t able to relocate to Silicon Valley or NYC. Ben himself works in Arlington, even though Whoop’s headquarters are in Boston. He says many companies are waking up to the increased productivity they’ve seen as a result of remote work. Without long commutes, many employees are working longer hours and taking shorter lunches.

“But is that the yardstick you want to use?” Ben asks.

Your role in product management, Ben explains, is to be innovators. And innovation isn’t about “how long you spent banging out emails.” It’s about finding a way to create collisions of ideas among people. How do you do that when everyone is connecting over Zoom?

When it comes to creativity, Ben knows what he’s talking about. He boasts 17 patents with his name on them. None of them came from sitting at his desk at home.

“Every single one of them was the result of going out to lunch with someone,” Ben explains. His ideas came from talking about solutions to different problems and how he could combine them.

As Ben describes it, innovation comes from “connecting the dots” between problems that seem disparate at first glance. It’s the conversations that seem like the biggest wastes of time that sometimes generate the best ideas. Ben says these conversations are so valuable companies should offer incentives to encourage them. If two employees are getting coffee together before a meeting, pay for the coffee.

Whoop, where Ben is currently Chief Product Officer, is one example of innovation through connection. Will Ahmed, Whoop’s founder, started the company after meeting physiologists and cardiologists at Harvard. Without those encounters, Ahmed might never have created Whoop. He might not have seen the potential for wearable tech until too late.

Tim, our CEO, agrees. Isolation isn’t good for creatives. Productivity without progress creates burnout, not insight.

For product managers, it’s the serendipitous conversations at the water-cooler (or the spontaneous, interdepartmental white-boarding sessions) that are the keys to innovation. Those conversations don’t typically happen over Zoom. That’s not to mention the soldering and prototyping that can only happen in a shared physical space.

In other words, Ben says, product managers will want to return to the office as soon as they can.

Of course, right now, the pandemic has limited many tech companies to remote work and remote hires. Even employees who were formerly onsite are asking why they shouldn’t move out of areas with high costs of living. Why pay NYC rent when you’re confined to your apartment anyway?

Ben says companies will pay the price down the road if they’re not transparent now about their plans for returning to the office. At the very least, he believes that any company considering a return to onsite work should bring up the topic during the interview stage.

That’s why he always asks remote hires if they would be willing to consider relocating to Boston in the future. Whoop is growing fast, and as a product leader, he has to hire in anticipation of continued growth. He has to stay ahead of the curve but believes there’s no reason to hire employees who can’t make it to Boston yet.

Ben embraces the serendipitous moments created by onsite work, but he recognizes the tradeoffs. Conversations over coffee may be where innovations happen, but how often are those conversations documented? The disadvantage of meetings is how often someone might go to the bathroom or be out sick from work and miss everything.

The shift to working from home created by the pandemic has meant that Ben’s team has had to embrace digital documentation tools. His team uses Confluence, Figma, and Google Docs more than ever. In some ways, that’s led him to question how he ever got by without them. But, as a Product guru, Ben sees an opportunity to meld the advantages of onsite and remote work. It starts with conversations.

Chief Product Officers like Ben are always thinking ahead. They know the pandemic won’t last forever, and offices will eventually open back up. Companies that hire remotely now without a clear plan for the future will lose more than productivity – they’ll lose creativity. The solution, as always, is to have conversations early and often.

author Author: Chris Mills

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