Those of us who have managed projects with team members dispersed across distant time zones are well aware of the risks caused by geographic, cultural and temporal distance. The benefits of thoughtful co-location for right-sized teams are also well recognized, but even in such ideal situations, we face a different challenge which Daniel Pink covers in his latest book, When.
We know that some of us tend to deliver our best work first thing in the morning, whereas others are late bloomers who are most productive much later in the day. Daniel uses the common terminology of larks and owls to refer to those people who act as bookends of the working day, and refers to the majority who fall somewhere between these extremes as third birds.
He also provides guidance on the type of work which, for the majority of people, are best performed at specific times of day. For early birds, analytic tasks or critical decisions are better made in the morning whereas tasks requiring insight are better done in the late afternoon or early evening when analytical safeguards are down. For night owls, the opposite pattern appears to hold true.
While this is intellectually stimulating, what’s the relevance to our teams?
When our teams are forming, if we take some time to understand which of the three categories our team members fall into we might be able to more fully realize their collective potential. If we have a team which is predominantly larks, daily stand ups or other planning or analytical activities might better be done first thing in the morning whereas solving a particularly challenging problem or tapping into the team’s creativity might be better done during the latter part of the afternoon.
For a parliament of owls, you could consider the opposite approach. Such homogeneous cases rarely occur, so it is helps to understand each individual’s preferences. The book provides a number of simple tools as well as references to more advanced assessments to facilitate this discovery process.
Daniel also highlights a darker pattern – the early to mid-afternoon time tends to be both productivity and quality quicksand. Daniel provides the example of a hospital where the probability of an avoidable surgical problem was shown to increase from one percent in the early morning to four percent in the mid-afternoon. While this might not hold true for all people, the majority of larks and third birds are affected. However, the impacts of this can be significantly reduced through preventative measures such as short breaks and the use of quality methods such as checklists or non-solo work.
When it comes to productivity and quality, timing is everything.