Focus vs Coordination
Teamwork is a dance between focus and coordination.
The fundamental unit of focus is action. If a perfectly focused individual is in “flow”, a perfectly focused team flows like a well-oiled machine. Teammates work perfectly in parallel to produce maximum efficiency on the whole. These teams are completely silent in their work, but extremely loud in their results.
By contrast, unfocused teams spend their days scrambling from one thread to the next. They end those days exhausted, only to ask themselves “what did I even do today?". The answer is often to stay in late to get “real work” done, but overtime is not enough. As days without rain create droughts, days without focus lead to missed deadlines, production incidents, and low-quality products. Exhaustion plus failure leads to burnout. Unfocused teams face higher costs, more stress, and less output.
But focused teams don’t assemble themselves, nor do the products they assemble. To direct and capture the value that focus creates, we need coordination.
Teams are like cloth-makers. Focus creates threads that coordination weaves into a cohesive whole. Seamless products are the result of perfect coordination.
Although focus is killed by communication, coordination is borne from it. Whether through chat, email, docs, stand-ups, all-hands, plannings, or groomings: communication coordinates. If the fundamental unit of focus is action, then the fundamental unit of coordination is information.
And perfectly coordinated teammates have perfect information. Small meetings establish plans, large meetings share plans, and regular syncs maintain them. As new information is discovered, coordinated teams adapt quickly and effectively. A perfectly coordinated team has neither secrets nor surprises between its members.
But project-based coordination only scratches the surface. Like an elite military unit or world-class sports team, perfectly coordinated teams are connected on a human level. When it’s time to focus, the fewest bits of information keep these teams in sync. These teams feel understood and fulfilled in ways that isolated focus can’t provide. Each teammate collaborates with, complements, and supports one another; and each member is made to play a vital role in the team’s success.
On the other hand, if a coordinated team is like a complex engine, then an uncoordinated team is like a dryer with a brick thrown in it. Sure, the machine spins… but each spin chips away at the integrity of the team and their product. Initial plans are absent or unclear, progress is made in conflicting directions, and releases are halted by statements like “wait, I didn’t know we were doing it like that!” Coordination failures disconnect us on a human level. Uncoordinated teammates suffer from either conflict or indifference; they either feel at war with their teammates, or like cogs in a useless machine.
Teams need both focus and coordination to thrive. Teams without focus are unproductive, while teams without coordination are counterproductive. A team without focus may be on the same page, but that page never turns. A team without coordination may turn many pages, without ever stopping to ask if the book makes any sense.
The problem is that there’s a tension between our needs and our capabilities. We cannot focus and coordinate at the same time. Focus demands attention towards problems, while coordination demands attention towards people. Focus and coordination are opposing forces, pulling on the single thread of attention. This tension creates the focus-coordination tradeoff.
If you’ve ever tried working during a meeting, you’ve personally felt the pull of this tension. There’s either work or a meeting – never both. The switch away from work to the meeting is always followed by a panicked prayer that we can catch up on the conversation. In the other direction, the switch back from the meeting to work is always met with a few dumbfounded seconds of “okay, what am I looking at again?”
It’s hard enough to focus in isolation without distracting ourselves. And it’s hard enough to coordinate, with everyone in the same room, without communication breaking down. As individuals, focusing and coordinating at the exact same time is simply impossible.
The problem is actually worse than that: we can’t even focus and coordinate near the same time. When we context-switch between focus and coordination, our minds stash mental bits from the previous task to free up resources for the next. Like computers, these stashing-and-loading costs add up when we frequently switch between tasks. But for computers, context-switching is merely slow…
Human context-switching is like a child cleaning their room. Some toys seem to fall down a black hole, never to return, while other toys remain scattered across the floor, ever in the way. We forget some things and fail to forget others, and both faults prevent us from fully attending to the task at hand. So while focus and coordination in parallel are impossible, context-switching between them is only deceivingly possible.
Thankfully, focus and coordination are not binary categories: they’re colors of a spectrum. On one side of the spectrum, there’s focused, isolated “deep work”. On the other side, there’s all-hands meetings, where plans are shared, questions are answered, and excitement builds in anticipation of what’s to come. But between these extremes, there’s a variety of work that mixes focus and coordination in different ways.
Pair programming is an example of “coordinated focus”. Rather than working in parallel isolation, pair programming has two coders tackle the same problem at a single computer. These sessions are a classic exchange of focus for coordination. The most focused pairing session is one where both partners agree on every decision without discussion; but in that case, pairing was not very useful! The pair would have achieved the same result, and more, by working in parallel. But if the pair disagrees on every decision, their energy is spent resolving differences instead of moving forward on the problem at hand. The more energy we spend exchanging information, the less energy we have to put that information to use.
If pair programming sessions are “coordinated focus”, then group planning sessions are “focused coordination”. Great all-hands meetings rarely start with: “alright everyone: what’s the plan?” But transforming dark, cloudy horizons into bright and compelling futures is the explicit purpose of planning sessions. Planning sessions should foster divergent ideas, then converge those ideas into a coordinated plan. But in order to pull off that transformation, these sessions need to be focused. Unfocused planning sessions feel like sprinting in place, with lots of talk and nothing to show for it.
The more people we add to a focus session, the harder it will be to focus. More time will be spent aligning ourselves instead of moving forward, and the more chances there are that communication either blows up or falls flat. Anyone who’s had a stressful but unproductive meeting knows this pain. Conversely, smaller groups are more focused, but their output will be less coordinated. Useful perspectives are more likely to be missing, and more people will need to be informed after the fact. You know this pain if you’ve ever come out of a meeting with an exciting plan, only to learn that important information was missing because critical people were not involved. This tradeoff between moving forward and moving together is just the focus-coordination tradeoff at play.
So, how do we navigate this tension?
To answer that question, two types of communicators emerge: hippies and soldiers. On one side, hippies believe in open communication. They feel that their simple-yet-powerful purpose is to bring people together. Soldiers, on the other side, believe in disciplined communication. They punish distractions, create handbooks, and impose rules. Their mission is to get their team walking the walk instead of just talking about it. Hippies stand for coordination, while soldiers fight for focus.
While hippies and soldiers have their place, neither can win the tug-of-war between focus and coordination. One style does not fit all, because our needs for focus and coordination change across multiple dimensions over time. The best way to navigate the focus-coordination spectrum is to constantly harmonize these dimensions as they dance.
What are those dimensions?
As we saw earlier, group size is a critical dimension of the focus-coordination tradeoff. Group size includes who we invite to meetings, who we send messages to, and who we choose to collaborate on a project. When our teams aren’t turning enough pages, we should limit group sizes in favor of more focused sessions. But when our teams are struggling to coordinate, we should encourage larger group sizes, so that people can figure out how to move gracefully together instead of in an uncoordinated chaos.
Another dimension where focus and coordination vary is people. Some teammates are suited for focus, while others are suited for coordination. The clearest such distinction is between managers and individual contributors (or “ICs”). Managers are explicitly “coordinators”, while ICs are explicitly “concentrators”. A common cause for imbalance is when managers isolate themselves for “focus time”, as their team struggles to get on the same page. The converse mistake is when everyone wants to manage instead of doing the work. Zooming out a bit, this same balance applies across teams of people. We should be worried if our sales team is as silently focused as the engineering team should be, or if the engineering team is as chatty as the sales team should be. The balance between “coordinators” and “concentrators” within and across teams is critical to a company’s success.
We can also balance coordinators and concentrators by rotating coordination responsibilities. A good example of this is an on-call rotation, where engineers take turns being coordinators for a week, so that the rest of the team can focus. Other examples include stand-up leaders, meeting scribes, and release managers. By regularly rotating these responsibilities, we achieve coordination as a team, even though most teammates are fully focused on their problems at hand.
Another important lever we have is how we communicate. In the dance between focus and coordination, communication is our basic step. Ineffective communicators blast trivial messages through large, coordination-heavy channels, or slip urgent messages into quiet, focus-optimized channels. This is where the discussion between synchronous vs asynchronous communication comes in. Effective communicators choose a medium that best balances the focus-coordination needs of their message, their team, and the moment.
Lastly, the critical dimension where focus and coordination vary is time. Healthy teams know which moments require more focus, and which ones require more coordination. Failing teams call meetings when focus is needed and go into isolation when coordination is needed. And even deeper: all of the above dimensions change over time. Teams grow and shrink, personalities come and go, and tools are added and removed from our communication stacks. Our changing focus-coordination needs require us to constantly adapt to the present.
The focus-coordination tradeoff is constant in an ever-changing workplace. Agile vs waterfall, sync vs async, remote vs colocated: all discussions about teamwork sit atop the focus-coordination spectrum. And since the focus-coordination spectrum has several dimensions, which each changing over time, there is not one answer to all these questions, only those that better or worse fit a team’s current context. The answer isn’t just “it depends”: it’s an ongoing discovery of how it depends and what it depends on. As teammates and as leaders, we need to constantly listen to our team’s focus and coordination needs, and adapt accordingly.