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Software and knowledge worker productivity issues: Broken window or boiling frog?

By Anujah Bosman, CEO, Chillisoft.

Johannesburg, 18 Mar 2024
Anujah Bosman.
Anujah Bosman.

The essence of the broken window theory assumes that the surrounding landscape communicates to people. The typical example that is often cited is that if there is a broken window (even in a wealthy, well-kept neighbourhood) that continues to remain unfixed, the neighbourhood is perceived as having lax controls. This will attract criminals and lead to an increase in crime.

There is another broken window in economic theory, where there is a belief that crime and destruction are good because the resultant damage creates economic opportunities. This is a fallacy, because it does not consider the cost of lost opportunities, where you could use or spend your resources more beneficially.

The boiling frog syndrome indicates that when your environment deteriorates gradually, you adapt to the conditions instead of escaping. Well, right now and for the last few years in South Africa, we have had and currently experience all three.

No, this is not another doomsday press release, nor is it about emigration. The purpose of this press release is to highlight that the current physical, social and political landscape is South Africa's normal and the "textbook" based approach of assuming that your mental landscape is consistent is dangerous and untrue. In an effort to share our knowledge and to assist South African software development teams to be productive, this press release shares our insights and Chillisoft practices.

Software productivity requires a consistent physical environment, which cuts out interruptions and distractions. Consequently, it is essential for a business to have its own source of water and electricity. It is essential that your operations have standard procedures for dealing with power, water and refuse removal disruptions. It is also essential that your business is able to operate remotely to cater for scenarios where your team is unable to come to work or access transport. COVID-19 has ensured that most businesses have moved their core functions to the cloud and are able to operate remotely. You must now understand how your mind, body and quality of attention is being impacted by your environment.

Productivity in knowledge work, particularly software development, is directly dependant on your ability to focus your attention deeply on specific issues. Your ability to focus your attention is related to your ability to consciously shift your attention from your external surroundings to immerse your focus and attention on the task at hand. You need an interruption-free zone as you load the large cognitive context and domain into your mind. This act of focus, which is a routine process and an essential requirement for software development, is becoming extremely difficult to do as the noise levels soar and your mind is being bombarded with threatening signals. It is also difficult to do because you are continuously triggered by conversations, physical interruptions, social media and news that causes your energy to be diluted and sapped. Each time that you are triggered, your concentration breaks and your body quickly shifts into a fight or flight mode (stress response system). The long-term activation of this mode and the normally high cortisol levels associated with software development disrupts almost all the body's processes. We have all been in this mode from 2020 and there is little respite.

On a strategic level, imagine the impact of poor quality, short cuts taken, rushed architectural decisions and lower quality software that you are producing. Imagine what this will do to your reputation and the precedents for processes and quality that you are setting.

Therefore, it is imperative that businesses, leaders and managers:

  1. Acknowledge your reality and “lived experience”.
  2. Educate your teams about the impact of your reality on stress and ability to focus.
  3. Understand how productivity time is being eroded by office rants, gossip, re-reading the news, copious smoke breaks and negativity.
  4. Ensure that the one-to-one check-ins continue.
  5. Protect your production landscape from drama and chaos.
  6. Shift the focus to items and tasks that are within an individual’s control.
  7. Focus on creating eustress by paying attention to goals and the mix of tasks. Ensure that there is a healthy balance of challenge and flow tasks to match your team’s ability.
  8. Build and strengthen the trust in your team.
  9. Provide your team with an immersive activity that allows the mind to relax.
  10. Equip your team with tools that allow for better self-regulation, such as built in reflection practices.
  11. Build in capacity to your operations and teams to ensure that teams are not overloaded.
  12. Define a core set of non-negotiable quality standards, practices and routines.
  13. Ensure that you understand the trade-offs and compromises that you make during this period so that poor quality does not haunt you in the future, and don’t let it slip.

A CEO, CTO, COO must lead, inspire and focus a team. These days, if you are a CEO, CTO or COO in South Africa, how do you inspire a team when your team’s reality is stuck in the daily intricacies of obtaining water, sanitation, transport and safety? How do you inspire your team when the chasm between the great South African highlights (that your team has experienced) and their current reality widens? Do you “gaslight” them by creating a false narrative of the current reality and support it with one-sided “facts”? Do you throw up your hands in resignation and go home when it becomes too difficult to work? Do you adopt an attitude of “just another day in South Africa”, or do you just pretend that these factors are non-existent and expect your team to produce? In a nutshell, what is the current South African environment communicating to you and your team? What is the impact on your mind? Are you able to think strategically?

I don’t have the answers, but I have found that I need to refocus more, slow down more and defer important decisions. I have also found that making these questions part of my awareness has led to better awareness and regulation of my emotions and actions.

If we learn from the broken window and boiling frog theories, we need to be vigilant about housekeeping and maintenance of our workspaces, quality standards, our productivity time and our minds. As a leader or team member, you need to be aware of how you are being impacted and how you are adding to the current noise level signals in a production environment.


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