Short Questions, Disproportionate Costs

Short questions destroy progress.

They are the payday loans of the knowledge transfer economy: small, seemingly expedient transactions that frequently extract disproportionate costs.

If you are a source of domain knowledge or the in-house expert on some technology or the original developer on a code base, you are an easy target for lots of small questions. If you get them all lined up and answered in a single burst, no problem. But if you meet a day full of interruptions for short questions, you are constantly being yanked out of “the zone” to ruinous results.

This is why I think open concept offices are a bad deal for development groups. Open concept reduces the cost to interrupt coworkers to near zero, which then seriously compromises the effectiveness of those interrupted because they can’t stay focused long enough to solve a problem all the way through. They can’t stay in the zone.

There are some things you can do:

  • Invest in noise canceling headphones; they help send a message to others and make it easier to ignore the fray around you
  • Hide out in a meeting room or an inconspicuous empty desk for a few hours, or work from home if that’s permissible
  • Set aside specific times and ask others to use those time blocks; this can be a tough sell depending on your corporate culture, but worth a try
  • Stop answering questions and start mentoring others on how to discover the answers themselves; this takes more time initially but when done well it pays huge dividends for everyone
  • Encourage questions by email or IM so you have more control over when to answer
  • Put common questions in an FAQ and direct people there first; maintain the FAQ by adding new questions as you field them
  • Remember the Golden Rule

Keep in mind that everyone is just trying to get their own job done; folks don’t interrupt their coworkers maliciously. A quick question saves one person time, but it comes at the expense of another’s productivity. Team members have a responsibility to the rest of their team to find the right balance that lets everyone stay productive without leaving someone stuck for an unreasonable period of time.

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