Solving the Productivity Paradox

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A few years ago, advertisements for a software service named seemed to be suddenly everywhere online. This ubiquity didn’t come cheap. An S.E.C. filing revealed that the product’s developers had spent close to a hundred and thirty million dollars on advertising in 2020 alone, which amounted to roughly eighty per cent of the company’s annual revenue. The resulting blitz generated more than seven hundred and twenty-two million views on’s YouTube channel—an audience larger than the preceding four Super Bowls combined.

This outsized investment makes sense when you consider the changes that have taken place in the productivity-software market. claims to help knowledge workers collaborate better: “Boost your team’s alignment, efficiency, and productivity by customizing any workflow to fit your needs.” This objective might sound dry in our current moment of flashy social apps and eerie artificial intelligence, but helping organizations manage their workflows has proved to be surprisingly lucrative. Trello, one of the early success stories from this category, was launched in 2011 as a side project by an independent software developer. In 2017, it was purchased by Atlassian for four hundred and twenty-five million in cash and stock. Another workflow-management service, named Wrike, subsequently sold for $2.25 billion. For its part, went on to leverage the user growth generated by its advertising push to support a successful I.P.O. that valued the company at over seven billion dollars.

What’s striking about this new generation of productivity software is not so much what it does, but what it doesn’t do. Until recently, most business applications focussed on providing faster and more powerful versions of the tools that knowledge workers were already using to accomplish their daily tasks—electronic spreadsheets were better than paper accounting ledgers, e-mail is better than fax machines. The new productivity services, by contrast, can’t be used to directly execute work. Their purpose is instead to help better organize these efforts. allows you to arrange “items,” described by various properties such as “status” or “percentage complete,” onto “boards.” You can then visualize the work described by these boards in various useful formats. Trello offers something similar, capturing items on virtual cards that can be dragged around into different vertical stacks. One stack might contain the tasks a team still needs to handle, while another might contain those already accomplished.

To understand the importance of this shift from work to workflow, it helps to understand two competing philosophies about how technology impacts productivity. The first argues that technology improves productivity by directly improving the tools that we work with—the waterwheel, the electric motor, and so on. A less-discussed but equally important philosophy broadens the definition of technology to include the more general systems by which work is organized. It argues that some of the biggest productivity breakthroughs come not from better tools but instead from smarter ways of arranging what you’re already doing. A canonical example is Henry Ford’s continuous-motion assembly line, developed at his automobile factory in Highland Park, Michigan. The assembly line was a productivity miracle, decreasing the worker hours required to produce a Model T by nearly a factor of ten. Its effectiveness, however, had less to do with ingenious new inventions than it did with an ingenious new insight about how to rearrange the manufacturing process: bringing the car to the worker instead of the worker to the car. “Be ready to revise any system, scrap any method, abandon any theory, if the success of the job requires it,” Ford explained.

The change of focus in the business-software space from tools toward process-based productivity can be explained, in part, by the acknowledgment that the existing strategy of making applications increasingly powerful has stopped making us better at our jobs. During the past two decades or so—a period of rapid technology innovation, which produced laptops, smartphones, ubiquitous cloud computing, and Google—American productivity growth has suffered a sustained slowdown. We gained access to an armada of supercharged workplace tools, and yet we’re not getting much more done.

There are many explanations for this paradox, including, notably, the theory that these tools counterbalanced new capabilities with new distractions. (E-mail is faster than a fax machine, but its spread also created a world in which we end up checking our in-boxes constantly.) Regardless of specific causes, what is clear is that this general failure of new technology to deliver results in the workplace presents a problem for software developers. If employers no longer believe that these products are significantly boosting their employees’ productivity, they’ll no longer pay top dollar to keep up with the latest versions. In the nineteen-nineties, Microsoft made a fortune from companies willing to invest in expensive standalone releases of their densely featured Office productivity software. Today, these same companies, less enamored with such tools’ productive potential, might instead settle for cheaper online variants. Why spend two hundred and forty-nine dollars for a single copy of Microsoft Office 2021 when business subscriptions to Google’s Web-based workplace tools start at six dollars per user? (Perhaps reacting to these pressures, Microsoft now offers a free Web-based version of its once vaunted Office software.)

In this context, the move in business software toward process productivity comes across as a reasonable strategy. It presents a new and exciting pitch for the professional market—“It’s not the tools that matter, it’s the process!”—and new and exciting pitches are often better able to attract significant investment. If Microsoft Word was the waterwheel, in other words, maybe can be the assembly line. This development should be received as good news. The process-centric philosophy of productivity had been largely missing from the world of office work. Whereas other economic sectors have long cared a lot about how effort is organized, knowledge-work managers, for a combination of historically contingent reasons, have traditionally left these details up to individuals. It wasn’t until the rapid expansion of the knowledge economy in the second half of the twentieth century that productivity suddenly became personal.

This myopia is a mistake. Keeping productivity as an individual obligation, and focussing only on offering increasingly powerful tools, didn’t lead to a more efficient and relaxing workday, but instead enabled us to take on even more tasks, pursued with even more frantic intensity. It doesn’t have to be this way. More structured rules for determining who should be working on what, and how collaboration should best be organized, could walk us back from our current moment of always-on overload.

It’s here that the rise of process-centric productivity software might generate its most lasting impact. If tools like, Trello, and Wrike continue to spread, they will carry in their wake an emphasis on the importance of process productivity. Whether or not these particular applications stick, this new mind-set might, and if it does, it would be a welcome transformation for a knowledge sector exhausted by the focus on tools over systems. These well-funded software companies, competing aggressively to become the next Microsoft, might just provide the strong push needed for the managerial class to realize that there’s more to productivity than simply giving their employees the latest spreadsheet and messenger software. It’s in rethinking how we organize our work, not just in how fast we can accomplish it, where the real improvements are to be found. Perhaps we’re finally ready to learn this reality. ♦


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