Book Review: It Doesn't Have to be Crazy at Work
Upon a recommendation from Mike Berkman, I read It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeir Hansson. It's an extremely easy to read book, and I finished it in two sittings. The chapters are mostly two or three pages long, with a lot of whitespace between paragraphs and full spread illustrations between major sections. While it clocks in at 225 pages (excluding bibliography), it's not actually a lot of words to read.
The book is a collection of insights, reflections upon decisions and their consequences, and some hard-won wisdom the authors have gained from their nearly twenty years building and running Basecamp. A great deal of the contents of this book have been shared in blog posts, Tweets, and elsewhere for years, so there's not a lot particularly new or novel in this work if you've been following the authors online. But this is a handy, concise collection of thought provoking things, and a good introduction for people not already familiar with the authors or their work.
The authors share their unconventional ambitions, and how they've intentionally and proactively worked to build a calm company. They are small, and work hard to stay small, so they can focus on the things they choose. Basecamp is a very different company from most, and the decisions they've made might not work well for everyone. The authors are clear about that fact; but they are trying to encourage people at all levels of employment to be more intentional about making work a sane, healthy, safe place that puts human beings first.
The book starts with a strong assertion: “an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost sets towering, unrealistic expectations that stress people out.”
I took a lot of notes from this book. Some of the quotes are very profound, some are decidedly myopic. The headers below are the chapters from which each quote was taken.
Your company is a product
This was a strong start to the book. In exactly the same way that products develop through choices, experiments, and feedback, so too do companies. Thinking about the operations of the company from the perspective of a user using a product is an interesting thought experiment.
"Do people know how to use the company? Is it simple? Complex? Is it obvious how it works? Are there bugs?"
Basecamp has a very narrow focus on their product, and the aren't aggressively trying to get bigger. This chapter quickly explores the language commonly used in business settings today: "capture market share", "destroy the competition", etc. They have a clear focus on what they want, and don't feel any pressure to expand solely for revenue purposes.
"To get ours, we don’t need to take theirs. "
"The opposite of conquering the world isn’t failure, its participation. "
Don’t change the world
"Set out to do good work. Set out to be fair in your dealings with customers, employees, and reality. Leave a lasting impression with the people you touch and worry less (or not at al!) about changing the world."
"Companies love to protect. ... They guard so many things, but all too
often they fail to protect what’s both most vulnerable and most
precious: their employees’ time and attention. "
"Companies spend their employees’ time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing."
"Work ethic is about being a fundamentally good person that others can count on and enjoy working with. "
This was an interesting chapter. It talks about the concept of a "trust battery", a concept coined by the CEO of Spotify. Interactions with some people recharge your trust battery, and interactions with others might deplete it. I might get energized talking to one person, and that same person might completely exhaust you.
"The worst thing you can do is pretend that interpersonal feelings don’t matter. That work should “just be about work.” That’s just ignorant. Humans are humans whether they’re at work or at home. "
Don’t be the last to know
This chapter was mostly targeted toward people leaders and executives. It starts with a bold assertion: "When the boss says “My door is always open,” it’s a cop-out, not an invitation. One that puts the onus of speaking up entirety on the employees."
"If the boss really wants to know what’s going on, the answer is embarrassingly obvious: they have to ask!"
The authors offer a couple of concrete suggestions of the kinds of things to consider asking:
- “What’s something nobody dares talk about?”
- “Are you afraid of anything at work?”
- “What advice would you give before we start on this big project?”
"Posing real, pointed questions is the only way to convey that it’s safe to provide real answers."
Low hanging fruit can still be out of reach
This was an especially helpful chapter for me. Not knowing how to do something makes it supremely easy to undervalue the complexity of that that.
"Declaring that an unfamiliar task will yield low-hanging fruit is almost always an admission that you have little insight about what you’re setting out to do. And any estimate of how much work it’ll take to do something you’ve never tried before is likely to be off by degrees of magnitude."
"Respect the work that you’ve never done before. Remind yourself that other people’s jobs aren’t so simple. Results rarely come without effort. If momentum and experience are on your side, what is hard can masquerade as easy, but never forget that not having done something before doesn’t make it easy. "
Hire the work, not the résumé
This chapter dealt with Basecamp's hiring practices. They hire people from all walks of life. They don't have any formal education requirement. They often times contract applicants in the final stages for specific projects, paying them for their work, in order to get a real world experience of how the person does the work.
"We do better work, broader work, and more considered work when the team reflects the diversity of our customer base. “Not exactly what we already have” is a quality in itself."
"Great people who are eager to do great work come from the most unlikely places and look nothing like what you might imagine. Focusing just on the person and their work is the only way to spot them."
Nobody hits the ground running
The title of this chapter is the takeaway from the chapter. Just because you hire a Senior Designer from a company doesn't mean they'll be immediately productive in your company, even if the two companies are the same size and serve similar markets. Every company is unique, with their own processes, cultures, and practices. Teams inside companies are also unique. To think that hiring a high ranking person will result in immediate success is folly. This holds for managers and individual contributors alike.
Ignore the talent war
"Stop thinking of talent as something to be plundered and start thinking of it as something to be grown and nurtured, the seeds for which are readily available all over the globe for companies willing to do good work."
"We’ve found that nurturing untapped potential is far more exhilarating than finding someone who’s already at their peak. We hired many of our best people not because of who they were but because of who they could become."
I really like that last line. So often we think about hiring people for the role we need to fill now, not the potential a person might provide down the road.
I also really liked the notion of investing in nurturing people, to ensure their continued success.
Don’t negotiate salaries
"We no longer negotiate salaries or raises at Basecamp. Everyone in the same role at the same level is paid the same. Equal work, equal pay."
I first learned about Basecamp's salary practices while working on the CoverMyMeds Technical Career Track. I like it a lot, actually. The authors point out that very few people actually enjoy haggling, so removing the stress of salary negotiations makes everyone's lives a lot easier. They pay in the top 10% of salaries as compared to Silicon Valley, even though not a single employee of theirs lives or works in Silicon Valley.
"Hiring and training people is not only expensive, but draining. All that energy could go into making better products with people you’ve kept happy for the long term by being fair and transparent about salary and benefits."
Basecamp also pays for each employee's vacation. Not just time off, but the actual vacation expenses, up to a certain dollar limit.
"If you don’t clearly communicate to everyone else why someone was let go, the people who remain at the company will come up with their own story to explain it. Those stories will almost certainly be worse than the real reason."
"A dismissal opens a vacuum, and unless you fill that vacuum with facts, it’ll quickly fill with rumors, conjecture, anxiety, and fear."
The wrong time for real-time
The authors have a pretty strong opinion on chat and real-time communication: "Following group chat at work is like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda. It’s exhausting."
I suspect this opinion is a direct result of the market in which they operate, and how they operate within that market. They don't have contracted features to implement, don't chase big accounts, or do a lot of other things that require a significant degree or more communication between teams. Indeed, their project teams are usually only three people.
I did like their general guidance, though:
- “Real time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time.”
- “If it’s important, slow down.”
That last really struck me. At least personally, when something's important I have a physical reaction: my heart rate increases and I want to move faster on whatever the thing is. Slowing down is counter-intuitive to me, but it's likely to be better choice. Slow down, calm down.
“If everyone needs to see it, don’t chat about it.” Give the discussion a dedicated, permanent home that won’t scroll away in five minutes. "
That's also pretty solid advice, I think.
The Basecamp team has found, through experimentation over the years, that six weeks is how long they will spend on a project. They have a firm deadline of six weeks for most things on which they work. But no one dreads these deadlines.
"What’s variable is the scope of the problem - the work itself. But only on the downside. You can’t fix a deadline and then add more work to it. That’s not fair. Our projects only get smaller over time, not larger."
"Humans suck at estimating. But it turns out that people are quite good at setting and spending budgets."
Thinking about work in terms of budgets, rather than estimates, is an interesting idea. I know many teams with which I've collaborated at CMM have had varying degrees of success with estimates.
"A deadline with a flexible scope invites pushback, compromises, and trade offs - all ingredients in healthy, calm projects. "
Don’t be a knee-jerk
This chapter starts with a review of how most new ideas get pitched: someone thinks about it, spends time and energy to prepare a presentation, and shares this presentation with a group. Then that group reacts, rather than reflects. When you get presented with a new thing and are asked to respond, you don't have time to really mull it over. You react.
"We don’t want reactions. We don’t want first impressions. We don’t want knee-jerks. We want considered feedback. Read it over. Read it twice, three times even. Sleep on it. Take your time to gather and present your thoughts - just like the person who pitched the original idea took their time to gather and present theirs. "
As a result, they don't present things to an unprepared audience, ever. The new ideas are written down, verbosely and with illustrations if necessary, and the people who would have been in a presentation are instead invited to read the thing in its entirety and give it due consideration. The responses don't come immediately. They come days or weeks later. (See above: if it's important, slow down.) The six week projects at Basecamp help with this.
Commitment not consensus
Jeff Bezos of Amazon made famous the “disagree and commit” management style in his letter to shareholders (aside: this is a great read in itself). It was good to be reminded of this. I need to remember it more often.
"What’s especially important in disagree-and-commit situations is that the final decision should be explained clearly to everyone involved. It’s not just decide and go, it’s decide, explain, and go. "
No big deal or the end of the world?
This was a funny chapter, and had a very interesting observation.
"People don’t like to have their grievances downplayed or dismissed. When that happens, even the smallest irritation can turn into an obsessive crusade. "
"When you deal with people who have trouble, you can either choose to take the token that says “It’s no big deal” or the token that says “It’s the end of the world.” Whichever token you pick, they’ll take the other. "
When you tell someone "no big deal" they'll often feel insulted and may react way out of proportion. Conversely, if you take their concern with the utmost interest and go out of your way to try to make it right to them, they will often demure with a "it's no big deal." Obviously this doesn't work in every situation, but the psychological play at work here was fun to think about.
As stated above, this was an easy read. I liked it, overall. You can read it in a couple of hours, and have some things to think about. That's a pretty decent return on investment.
I think I'd like working at a place like Basecamp, with an intense focus on doing less for the right reasons, focusing on human beings, and working on creating a great product without external demands like shareholders or high-paying customers. CMM has adopted – either naturally or through emulation – some of the ideas put forth in this book. Our product, and our market, make some of the author's suggestions completely impossible; but an intentional focus on "less is more" from a successful company was nice to read.