Small Biz 101: Getting Things Done RyanC 17 Jul 2006

11 comments Latest by Jess

Howdy! This is the latest article of my series aimed at helping small businesses. In case you’re new to SvN, my name is Ryan Carson, and Jason Fried invited me to guest blog here on SvN. My wife and I run a small company called Carson Systems.

Alone Time?

Jason recently wrote a great article about the importance of alone time on Vitamin. He talked about how the 37signals team is spread out across the country and how that helps them avoid unnecessary interruptions. This obviously means they get things done quicker.

But what if you already have an office with employees? How do you get that valuable concentration time when no one is bugging you?

Questions Kill Productivity

The problem with working in an office is that it’s perceived as rude to tell someone you’re too busy to answer their question. You know the story. You’re engrossed in an important task that requires your full attention. You’re just getting into your stride and getting things done when New Guy comes over to your desk and says, "Excuse me, um, sorry … where do we keep the blank CDs?".

Now that’s a fair question, as most questions are. But if New Guy had bothered to look around the office a bit (or listened when you told him the first time), he would’ve figured it out himself. (They’re right by his desk on the shelf.)

That is exactly the kind of stuff that kills productivity.

The "Fuck Off" Flag

The way we’ve dealt with this at Carson Systems is by introducing a simple system: The Fuck Off Flag (F.O.F.).

Photo of three flags

Here’s how it works. We’ve purchased a small flag for each person that represents their nationality (my wife is British, our new employee is Welsh, and I’m American). Next, we stuck some Blue-tac (Silly Putty to us Americans) on the top of each person’s in-tray so it’s high enough to see from any desk. The F.O.F. system is now fully functional.

When you need uninterrupted concentration time, you just stick your flag in the Blue-Tac and everyone knows that you’re not to be interrupted. No phone calls, no questions - you’re basically not there. The F.O.F. simply says "Fuck off, I’m busy", but in a much kinder and more socially acceptable manner :-)

If someone has a question for you that’s important, they can either email it to you, or jot it down to ask you once you’ve taken down your flag.

Voila! Alone time when your at the office!

Your Thoughts?

As usual, feel free to share your own ideas below, or respectfully disagree. Thanks for reading!

11 comments so far (Jump to latest)

Simon Dickson 17 Jul 06

Interesting to see the (non) distinction between ‘British’ and ‘Welsh’. Just how long have you been over here, Ryan? :)

Paolo Dona 17 Jul 06

That’s a nice technique, and probably does work with a small team like yours. I used to work in a big open space office with several people around (>8) and questions weren’t the biggest problem. I find ringing phones and people chatting around an even worse distraction source than questions. For me ‘alone time’ means ‘physically alone time’.

Chris Mear 17 Jul 06

Simon, it might be more of a subtle commentary than you think! I often notice that people from non-descript parts of England (such as myself) will identify themselves as ‘British’ to foreigners, while people from Wales/Scotland/N. Ireland will make a point of saying that they’re ‘Welsh/Scottish/Irish’.

Thom Newt 17 Jul 06

Sweet idea but don’t work if the rest of the bunch ignores the phone. Can’t be running a business where all’s fuck off, I’m not here. The poor bastard feeling most responsible for keeping customers happy will, inevitably, gets the least amount of fuck off time and, hence, be the least productive and, hence once more, be the one that’s sacked for being a lazy ass if times gets rough.

Garth Oatley 17 Jul 06

Cute idea, but if I saw a flag go up in a cubicle across the room from me (I wouldn’t personally, I work from home), that would be an interruption to me in itself. What’s wrong with IM presence? If you switch your IM presence to DND (maybe you could set a custom message to F$ck Off if you really had too), distractions could be kept to a minimum. I think education about ‘interruptions and their effect to productivity’ within your own team is probably is the first step to take as prevention to this problem.

Ryan Carson 17 Jul 06

Interesting to see the (non) distinction between �British� and �Welsh�.

Doh. Can’t believe I did that! I should’ve listed Gill as English, instead of British. Schoolboy error!

Jason Liebe 17 Jul 06

Brilliant, I’ve added “Fuck off, I’m busy” as an option in my iChat status menu.

When it comes to work, except for scheduled face to face time, in-person dealings should be a last case communication medium reserved for pressing matters. They’re simply too disruptive on a few levels.

This seems like a new topic but is an age old issue of which everyone is seemingly acutely ignorant, so there is no choice but to protect yourself.

Rest assured there will be that one bloke that will completely ignore your FOF anyway. That’s when the HEADPHONES go on.

Des Traynor 17 Jul 06

“I should’ve listed Gill as English, instead of British. Schoolboy error!”

Yeah, you probably should have got her an English flag too :)

Jeff De Cagna 17 Jul 06

Ryan, I think it is important to distinguish between routine questions and substantive questions when looking at productivity. It is true that routine questions, such as “Where do we keep the blank CDs?” can interfere with productivity. But substantive questions can yield important breakthroughs in understanding that yield new creativity and increase productivity both for you and others.

I realize this point is rather intuitive and doubtless something you and other readers of this blog already appreciate. Nevertheless, I wanted to be sure that it was made explicit since other comments have focused primarily on your F.O.F. solution, which I agree is creative, but also a potential drag on the productivity of others when they realize they cannot get the information they need because you’ve put a boundary around collaboration. Just a different perspective!

pj 17 Jul 06

I worked somewhere that used this idea in 1991 and eventually it was canned because what eventually happened was that everyone had their flag up all the time. It is a nice idea but it needs to be used sensibly and with fore-thought to the knock on impact.
Fine in a small company but not so great in anything larger than 15-20.

Jess 17 Jul 06

I disagree with the comment about the use of such flags being relegated to small companies. We’re in a huge open plan office of several hundred people, and flags get used by some to good effect.

Obviously there needs to be some consensus about what constitutes FOF time.. but it can work.

Post a comment

(Basic HTML is allowed)

NOTE: We'd rather not moderate, but off-topic, blatantly inflammatory, or otherwise inappropriate or vapid comments may be removed. Repeat offenders will be banned from commenting. Let's add value. Thank you.