The Great Refactoring: How Crisis Unlocks Productivity

The pandemic is not only forcing us to reconsider how we work, it’s also unlocking gains — and potential efficiencies — we accrued but never fully realized. The implications are far reaching and worthy of consideration.

Scott Belsky
Positive Slope
6 min readMay 14, 2020


No doubt, within teams and organizations, this pandemic has forced us to make tough decisions and has accelerated our adoption of new tech and business practices that enable us to work remotely. A less discussed result of this black-swan event, especially as we emerge out of it, will be the sudden realization of potential productivity gains that we’ve accrued over the last decade but never taken full advantage of. The power of this global forcing function will massively refactor how we work — and reveal the new value of creativity.


Despite how excited we get about new tech (Slack, Airtable, Notion, your favorite new SaaS tool), “agile” development, and modern ways of doing business, there is a long lag between implementing new practices and harvesting the full benefits of the resulting productivity gains. Sure, you may feel a personal productivity bump, but there are always people and parts of the organization that hold us back. These obstacles come in the form of Holdouts — people resistant to change/adopting new tech (and antiquated processes that prevent widespread adoption!) — and Organizational Debt — the forever “pending” decisions and the excess time and resources spent that could otherwise be optimized. Any of these sound familiar?

  • Regularly scheduled meetings go on — and on — even after they’re no longer needed.
  • People hold onto old habits, especially senior leaders with little time or patience for refactoring how they work. These are the folks who email while their teams are on Slack or MS Teams. They insist on in-person meetings — not video — for critical decisions (thus making corporate calendar alignment the long-pole for decisions!). Collectively, they increase the cognitive load of their organizations.
  • We automate business processes but leave the same people staffed on them, rather than reassigning those folks to higher-order tasks.
  • Consulting relationships, commenced years ago without an expiration date, stick around long after they’re no longer needed.
  • Abandoned projects, redundant back-ups, and forgotten testing instances sit in clouds like AWS or Azure, driving up bills but providing no benefit.
  • Required check-ins and approvals slow down progress because nobody has the incentive to question or cancel them.
  • A growing number of decisions that should have been made but weren’t, perhaps due to bureaucratic delays, create “elephants in the room” that slow momentum and alignment.

It’s an unfortunate truth: Amidst the boom of our potential productivity gain, the rate at which we are able to refactor our resources to fully realize this productivity gain is limited…at least in ordinary times. This truth leaves us with a Productivity Realization Gap that represents the resources we could access but aren’t.

The Productivity Realization Gap (made with oil paint in Adobe Fresco — give it a try!)

Frustrating as it may be, I would argue that some of this lag is actually a good thing. Brutally rapid optimization can damage the culture of an organization. It takes time to shift people around, to decide which skills are no longer required, and to sustain an atmosphere of positivity and the “psychological safety” to take risks. If the science of business is scaling and ruthlessly optimizing margin, the art of business is making trade-offs that preserve the culture, nurture long-term bets, and craft product experiences that serve the business over time.


But here we are, and these are no ordinary times. There’s no better forcing function for refactoring how you work than a crisis. Nothing goes as expected (and any working parent juggling homeschooling feels this x100!). Quite suddenly, across every industry still standing, the old ways of doing things (and staffing things) are being inspected, deconstructed, simplified, and then reasserted. In such circumstances, old processes get replaced with nimble ones. Regularly scheduled meetings become quick stand-ups or Slack channels. Those designers who hesitated to use collaborative features like co-editing suddenly try it out of necessity (we’re seeing this in Adobe XD right now). Organizational change that once required cascades of in-person meetings over weeks are now finalized in one day over Zoom.

To be clear, very few companies are implementing brand new technology or practices right now, but they’re suddenly fully using what they have. Amidst the chaos, the Holdouts have finally jumped on board. Organizational Debt has dissipated as people have abandoned niceties, faced inefficiencies, and (finally) made the tough calls — some that have been pending for years! This “COVID forcing function” for refactoring is rapidly closing the Productivity Realization Gap.

But why did it take a crisis? Why didn’t we refactor along the way? Because we didn’t have to. The productivity gains from artificial intelligence and breakthrough technologies have been so great that we’ve benefited enough without stirring the pot. But the pressure to survive in these dire times has prompted years worth of change and decisiveness in just a couple months. Consider, for example, small businesses that knew they needed to get their stores online but always put it off. Recent reports from Square and Shopify demonstrate that they’ve moved en masse over the last 30 days. In Square’s recent earnings report, CEO Jack Dorsey explained, “A lot of these sellers wanted to get online and wanted to sell online, but just didn’t make the time to do so. So this was kind of a forcing function to show them all the benefits of being online.”


When we emerge from this mess (as an unrelenting optimist, I know we will), we will do so as an expedited version of our future selves. The accelerated refactoring of how we work — and purge of what held us back — will have a profound impact that is both exciting and concerning.

On the plus side, we will have harvested a bounty of productivity accrued over years but never fully realized. What will we do with these newly accessible resources? Perhaps margins will increase? Perhaps public companies will redirect these newly liberated resources to R&D or share buybacks? Perhaps we will hire better talent with lower overhead by embracing “remote” teams (after all, every company that survives will be remote-friendly)? Perhaps we will move faster and operate more nimbly than we ever imagined? No doubt, the new normal will be years ahead of its time. Years of inefficiencies rectified in one fell swoop.

But this acceleration also prompts serious concerns, chief among them is the lasting impact on unemployment. Every refactoring reveals inefficiencies, and not all people can be easily redeployed. Will industries forced into massive layoffs ever rehire those displaced workers? Will the step-function gain in productivity be accompanied by a lasting rise in unemployment?

This question brings me to the new value of creativity. I have long believed that creativity is the new productivity — as algorithms and robots commoditize human productivity, we will create value by performing higher order tasks like creative problem solving and creative expression. Just as the virus and its myriad implications have accelerated an increase in productivity, we must use the situation as an opportunity to hasten the development of a more creativity-driven economy. We need to recognize the importance of creative jobs in moving our companies and industries forward and retrain today’s workers — and educate the next generation — to fill those jobs. “Creative literacy” can no longer be confined to a weekly art class! And we must build a new set of creative tools that help all people engage in the craft of creative expression.

We need to dream what’s next and use our newfound productivity to craft the path forward.



Scott Belsky
Positive Slope

founder @Behance, cpo @Adobe, early stage investor and product obsessive; author of Making Ideas Happen and The Messy Middle.