Thoughts on the Future of Productivity: An Interview with Brent Frei

03/03/2015 04:49 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

Employees at both large and small organizations struggle to get work done more efficiently. Sure, cloud computing is here and many IT departments have loosened restrictions. More than ever, productivity apps are flooding organizations. If it seems like there's an app for everything these days, you're right. What's the perfect or right tool?

Many folks suffer from paralysis by analysis, a theme in my forthcoming book, Message Not Received: Why Business Communication Is Broken and How to Fix It. I recently sat down with Smartsheet co-founder, chairman, and chief marketing head Brent Frei to learn more.

PS: I've been hearing for 15 years that true enterprise-collaboration technologies are coming. 

BF:: It feels a lot like we're experiencing the "Goldilocks of Business Productivity" right now. Many Project Management tools are too hard and complicated for most to use. Social Collaboration tools are too soft, and not critical in tracking and driving work. Task Management tools are typically too narrow, and inflexible to adapt to the unique ways many like to work.

And when teams don't agree on the one best tool for their use, they often resort back to the old ways of working, in emails and spreadsheets. But those surely aren't 'just right' either. With the advent of the cloud, how could it possibly be innovative to go backwards?

PS: Do we need collaboration tools to be productive?

BF: Collaboration in the context of executing work, yes. But we all know the person that has mastered the art of looking busy by sending those long emails or pontificating on social channels. I'd argue these folks are covering up for not doing meaningful work, which ultimately drags down the productivity of the whole team.

Remember group projects in school? Everyone hated them because one or two people would do the work and some blow hard would swoop in at the last minute, present it well, and take credit. Same thing happens in many businesses. Having the biggest megaphone doesn't mean you're the most productive.

The most productive people in organizations talk less and do more. They're the ones who are moving the ball forward for your company - the doers. What's unique in how they work is that there is structure wrapped around their communication and interactions.

As the team at Constellation Research says, it's "purposeful collaboration" - and it's this type of collaboration that helps them get their jobs done. They don't post long messages for insights on a particular process. They send a targeted "what is the status of x" or they create a web form to collect requests, assign owners, and alert the parties involved.

PS: The market seems really crowded.

BF: No kidding - talk about the definition of insanity! There are literally hundreds of project tools, and even more variations of task management, file sharing and social collaboration tools. Everyone's creating a slight variation of a tool that's been done before, expecting a different outcome. But none have been big market winners in the enterprise.

Why? Because they're forcing you to learn something new and organize your work the way their structured application wants. The software architects are hoping you want to structure your work the way their tool functions, but everyone knows finance departments don't want to use a work management tool that marketers do, and sales reps won't use the same tool as operations.

That's why if you walk into any organization on the planet, you'll find people "collaborating" by tracking work in spreadsheets and sending them around in email. Spreadsheets are simple to set up, familiar to everyone, and for the most part, work the way you want them to - but they're not built for today's work collaboration needs. For instance, they don't remind me when things are due, I can't easily roll up sheets into a dashboard, and they don't keep my files or documents associated with tasks.

PS: What does the future of productivity tools look like?

BF: I believe the spreadsheet user interface is the future for work management tools. We believe that it nails the first and second biggest challenges that most collaboration or productivity tools have. I'm talking about people's reluctance to learn new tools and not allowing people to work the way they want to work. Like most people, if it takes minutes or hours to figure out how to solve my work challenges in a tool, I'm gone. I know spreadsheets, they're not scary nor do they force me to learn a new paradigm.

And there's not enough time in the day to learn multiple tools to get my work done. The "there's an app for that" approach isn't necessarily a good thing anymore. There's a palatable and nagging sense of app fatigue in businesses today.

The cloud presents an opportunity to do more than simply reproduce the desktop in the sky. It's where we can innovate and reconstitute our favorite tools into more useful ones. The iPhone capitalized on broadband speed and screen resolution with an innovation in 'touch', to combine the phone, with computing, music, cameras, and email devices. Similarly, our customers tell us Smartsheet has hit the innovation sweet spot combining the familiarity of the spreadsheet with the essentials of file sharing, project management, calendars, workflow and database.

It's hard to make a tool easy for the novice to pick up and use in minutes, but also powerful enough to meet the enterprise requirements of large scale deployments - with the security, APIs, mobile, and administrative capabilities they need. But we've seen world-class companies like Google, Cisco, Groupon, Pearson, Colliers. and the GSA have huge success with the tool as usage spreads organically throughout their organizations.

What's really exciting now is that we're not only helping people manage work more efficiently on an individual project level, but now management can look across the organization at a high level to see how and where the work's getting done. They now can see who is at the center of driving that work forward for the first time.

PS: Should employees who over-communicate and try to look busy be afraid?

BF: Let's just say it's very telling and motivating when everyone's progress and contributions are transparent. One of our customers coined the term "clear pressure" to describe the notion that Smartsheet helps create a sense of responsibility. Everyone can see if a task isn't delivered on time, and will understand how it will impact others and the project overall.

I like how Terri Griffith, author and chair of the management department at Santa Clara University, advises managers to lead "by letting go." By tapping the right collaborative technologies and providing mentoring, not micromanagement, team members thrive.

This clear pressure and visibility encourages people to step up. It's a great thing, because we as human beings want to contribute and be part of something successful. If Smartsheet can play a role in helping them achieve this, that's super exciting.