The SaaS promise of productivity is broken: here's why

Productivity isn't an end in and of itself. Here's how to think about it instead.

Stop me if this sounds familiar: you just signed up for a monthly subscription for a new software tool. It could be a calendar, knowledge base, project management tool, task manager — and it promised not only to protect your team's vital information, but actually help you get work done.

You spend a week or two migrating to the new system, and tinkering with it yourself. Then you onboard everyone, explaining how to set everything up and how much value they're going to get out of it. You're on the brink of solving major issues in workflow, planning, and productivity.

A few months, and then a year goes by. While you did alleviate some of your problems, no magical productivity has appeared. Your team hasn’t suddenly exceeded their goals. And the software, while good, has led you to overemphasize certain actions and metrics, while minimizing others.

Why does this happen? And are we just spinning our wheels, going nowhere? 

How SaaS tools have wrecked productivity

Productivity hacking has become common sense. We diligently optimize our workflows. We strive for inbox zero and meticulously updated kanban boards, and prioritize crossing off every item on the team to-do list.

These things are all helpful, to a degree. But there's a point at which productivity is achieved for its own sake - and that's when it becomes a problem. In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, Oliver Burkeman argues that a fixation on productivity comes from a desperate desire to control an increasingly chaotic and sped-up world.

The technology invented in the 20th Century –– think dishwashers and fax-machines—to help us be more productive and save time, simply made us expect we could get more done every day. Now, we have new bids for our attention like the internet, the ability to work even when you leave the (home) office, and software that promises to optimize everything from global shipping to mental health to personal budgets.

Burkeman asserts that the more we get “done,” the more anxious and busy we feel. This paradoxically leads us back to more productivity techniques and apps to help us feel in control.

The workplace is no exception. Productivity obsession has skyrocketed at work in recent years especially because:

  • Apps offer more tracking than ever. This can lead to managers and leaders demanding certain metrics be met just because they can be calculated (think hours spent, whiteboards made, tasks completed).
  • Progress indicators favor quantifiable tasks over less-quantifiable ones. Software makes us feel like we’ve made progress only when we can see our tasks grayed out, notifications cleared and red dots gone. These visual and audio cues can be so baked into a product that you may adapt your processes just to appease them.  Work that's not easily quantified, such as bringing in new ideas, motivating colleagues, mentorship, learning a new skill, or spotting a problem early are left out.
  • Product gamification means it can be more fun to track productivity than to be productive, meaning we want to get the quick hit from logging things rather than the deeper satisfaction of doing work that matters to us and to the health and future of our companies.

But productivity is not about a crossed-out checklist, a chart of how many tickets you marked as complete, or even the number of docs you create.

How to think about productivity instead

What these features often tell us is that it’s more important to feel productive by measurable standards than to actually be productive in a way that moves the needle on long-term goals.

What really matters: icing vs cake

It isn’t the number of boxes checked that makes an employee a rockstar, a company run well or a product good.

Think of it like icing and cake. The icing is the color-coding, to-do lists and organized spreadsheets. But the cake is:

  • Working collaboratively towards a common goal
  • Tackling hard challenges and figuring out how to move forward
  • Making decisions that are both considered and efficient
  • Being empowered to take charge of your role in building something truly great

These are the things productivity software needs to encourage in the workplace.

What decisions are driving your work?

Our idea of productivity is skewed to completing as many discrete tasks as quickly as possible. But think about the major roadblocks teams face –– often they’re rooted in deeper issues that affect the whole team. It is only once the issue is addressed, and everyone reaches a consensus, that your team can get anything done.

Many tools prioritize features that track task-based "productivity" because that’s relatively easy for a software to do. It’s hard for a software to lead your team to better decision-making. That requires:

  • Trustworthy information: up-to-date, reliable and ready to use
  • Async functionality: for everyone to participate on their own time and to contribute thoughtfully
  • Room for gray areas: features ought to encourage discussion and collaboration, as opposed to black-and-white actions
  • Active or inactive indicators, rather than "fully resolved" or not

Any tool that doesn’t help you make decisions will not ultimately help you get more done, it will just be a color-coded, team-wide to-do list.

Injecting a dose of realism into productivity

The fault for these damaging ideas about productivity lies both with software creators and software users.

As SaaS companies, we need to stop promising the world. We can make things easier and better for customers, but no one tool is a magic bullet that will automate boredom away, streamline every workflow, get rid of miscommunication, or supercharge every product team. We shouldn't be afraid to focus on building the best possible tools that solve user problems, and being realistic about what those tools can do.

As SaaS consumers, we need to be honest with ourselves about what we're looking for from software, and what software can do. It is up to us as team leads, managers and leadership to maintain a healthy perspective. Otherwise we will repeat Burkeman's trap of trying to cram in too much work into too little time because we take every time-saving software as a chance to raise the bar on number of "tasks" completed.

Rather, we need to focus our emphasis on the result of productivity and build team culture around what really matters:

  • The ideas teams generate
  • The products teams launch
  • The relationships teams build
  • The impact teams have

As we continue to build and improve Slite, and as we ourselves want to make our workflow better, we have paid more and more attention to the cake. Making decisions, getting vital information recorded and preserved, and facilitating collaboration towards your end goals— these are the things we consider to be the core of how Slite boosts productivity.

And yes, we pay attention to icing, too. We like things to look and feel polished, and some of us do enjoy color-coding! But that comes as a sweet bonus, the finishing touches after we make the most delicious cake we possibly can.

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