Book Review: “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

My favourite business book of 2018 is It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. The reason why people work crazy hours is not that there is

[…] more work to be done all of a sudden. The problem is that there’s hardly any uninterrupted, dedicated time to do it. People are working more but getting less done. It doesn’t add up – until you account for the majority of time being wasted on things that don’t matter.

The authors call out working crazy hours for not being “a badge of honor” but “a mark of stupidity”. Yes, it’s good to hear this from people who know what they are talking about. Jason is the CEO and David the CTO of Basecamp, which they have been running very successfully since 2003. They describe in the book how – at Basecamp – they replaced crazy at work with calm at work.

Chapter “Curb Your Ambition”

“Normal” companies want to increase their revenue by 17% per year, their profit by 11% per year and their market share by 25% per year. They want to destroy their competition. They have quarterly goals, annual goals, mid-term goals and long-term goals. All these goals have one thing in common: They are mostly arbitrary and create unnecessary stress for employees and companies.

Special companies like Basecamp have understood that making plans for more than 6-8 weeks ahead are mostly wrong anyway. This is in line with what Agile tells you about planning. Plan one Sprint ahead in detail and plan another 2-3 Sprints roughly. Planning further ahead is a waste of time, because the plan will change.

What Basecamp calls “Make It Up as You Go”, is Agile’s inspect-and-adapt approach. Make small decisions and small steps that are easy to change, because “the best information you’ll ever have about a decision is at the moment of execution”. Basecamp waits “for those moments to make a call”.

Chapter “Defend Your Time”

Three years ago, I had to work in an open-plan office for five months – together with 25 (!) other people. There was a constant stream of interruptions: phones rang and beeped, people talked to each other, people went to the loo, to the canteen or to a meeting room. So, I did what many other people did: I put on noise-cancelling headphones. I was paid well, although I didn’t get much done. I kindly declined the company’s offer to continue working for them.

Even a private office doesn’t protect you from frequent interruptions. Instant messaging like Slack, Skype or WhatsApp make sure that you are never undisturbed. They make you instantly available all the time. People don’t try to find an answer to their question but just message you, because it is convenient. If you dare not to respond immediately, they’ll follow up with a phone call within five minutes: “Didn’t you see my message?” – Deep breath!

Companies spend their employees’ time and attention as if there were an infinite supply of both. As if they cost nothing. Yet employees’ time and attention are among the scarcest resources we have.

“Modern-day offices have become interruption factories”. The consequence is that “work doesn’t happen at work” any more. People come in early, stay late, work from home or work on weekends to get the actual work done. Eventually, people just go through the motions or quit.

Basecamp implemented several methods how to give people more uninterrupted time. The most successful method is the introduction of office hours.

All subject-matter experts at Basecamp now publish office hours. For some that means an open afternoon every Tuesday. For others it might be one hour per day. It’s up to each expert to decide their availability.

Scheduling a meeting at Basecamp is cumbersome on purpose. A one-hour meeting with six people costs easily more than one full working day. So, “[m]eetings should be a last resort, especially big ones.” Basecamp also abolished status meetings. Team leads put their weekly or bi-weekly status reports on a Wiki, on Confluence or on Basecamp (the software) for others to read at their convenience.

Instant messaging is reserved for very, very, very important things. The standard way of communication is asynchronous – by email or through Wikis. Receivers “get back to you whenever” they see fit, because “[a]lmost everything can wait. And almost everything should.”

Chapter “Feed Your Culture”

If leaders of teams, departments or companies want to change the work culture, they must live this culture themselves. Eating your own dog food is not only good for improving your product but also for improving your work culture. Leaders are important role models for the people they lead.

The Trust Battery. Trust is the most important ingredient for a positive work culture. If team members trust each other, the team will achieve more than the sum of the individual achievements. The authors use the metaphor of a “trust battery” to assess the work relationships between people.

[T]he trust battery is the summary of all interactions to date. If you want to recharge the battery, you have to do different things in the future. Only new actions and new attitudes count.

The trust battery is low, if the interactions between two people have been mostly bad. A conflict lurks or has been going on for a while. Conflict resolution means recharging the trust battery with positive interactions. This takes a lot of work.

The worst thing you can do is pretend that inter-personal 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. When bosses want to know what’s really going on, they must leave their offices and ask “real, pointed questions” to get real answers. Waiting for people to come to their offices (“My door is always open!”) doesn’t work.

Don’t cheat sleep. “Sleep-deprived people aren’t just short on brains or creativity, they’re short on patience. Short on understanding. Short on tolerance. The smallest things become the biggest dramas […] Being short on sleep turns the astute into assholes.”

Out of Whack. Work-life balance must be lived both by the company and its employees. “If work can claim hours after 5:00 p.m. [or on weekends], then life should be able to claim hours before 5:00 p.m. [or on weekdays.] Balance, remember. Give and take.”

Hire the Work, Not the Résumé. Basecamp hires the people shortlisted for an open position for one week, pays them $1,500 and works with them on a sample project. Basecamp’s reasoning: “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.” – The résumé doesn’t help.

Ignore the Talent War.When hiring people, Basecamp looks more at potential than at past achievements: “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 would become.”

Don’t Negotiate Salaries and Benefits Who? Basecamp pays equal salaries for equal work and equal seniority – no matter where people live. Benefits are geared towards keeping people out of the office instead of in the office. Basecamp pays the holiday trips of their employees. They have “three-day weekends all summer”, “30-day-paid sabbaticals every three years”, “1000$ per year continuing-education stipend” and many more perks.

Library Rules. Open-plan offices become places of uninterrupted work, if people stick to “library rules”. They become quiet and calm. If “someone’s at their desk, we assume they’re deep in thought and focused on their work. That means we don’t walk up to them and interrupt them. It also means conversations should be kept at a whisper […]”

Chapter “Dissect Your Process”

The authors explain how they improved the processes at work to achieve the great work culture sketched in the previous chapter. Here are my favourite tips.

The Wrong Time for Real-Time. The authors explain why real-time communication or chat isn’t a iota better than open-plan offices. Chat makes everything look equally important.

All chat all the time conditions you to believe everything’s worth discussing quickly right now, except that hardly anything is. Almost everything can and should wait until someone has had a chance to think it through and properly write it up.

Hence, Basecamp uses chat only for emergencies and slower, asynchronous communication for the rest.

Dreadlines. Basecamp’s attitude towards deadlines is very similar to Scrum’s. In Scrum, the Product Owner defines which stories go into a Sprint (scope). The team estimates how long each story takes (time). If the scope is too big for a Sprint, the Product Owner must reduce the scope. Neither the Product Owner nor the team must define both scope and time.

The authors describe this fittingly.

A deadline with a flexible scope invites pushback, compromises, and tradeoffs – all ingredients in healthy, calm projects. It’s when you try to fix both scope and time that you have a recipe for dread, overwork and exhaustion.

Don’t Be a Knee-Jerk. You have a great idea and spend considerable time to prepare a presentation. Just two minutes into your presentation, someone interrupts you and derails your pitch. “That’s no way to treat fragile new ideas”, depletes your trust battery quickly and is bad for the company.

Basecamp gives ideas a fair chance to blossom by slowing down the process.

When we present work, it’s almost always written up first. A complete idea in the form of a carefully composed multipage document. […] And then it’s posted to Basecamp [the software], which lets everyone involved know there’s a complete idea waiting to be considered.

Considered!

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 […]

That’s how you go deep on an idea.

Commitment, Not Consensus. When you make decisions based on consensus, “[…] you’re in for a war of attrition. Whoever can keep arguing the longest stands the best chance of winning. That’s just silly.”

Someone in charge has to make the final call, even if others would prefer a different decision. Good decisions don’t so much need consensus as they need commitment.

In his 2017 letter to shareholders, Jeff Bezos gave this approach a catchy name: disagree and commit. “What’s especially important in disagree-and-commit situations is that the final decision should be explained clearly to everyone involved.” People accept decisions more easily, if decisions are not cast in stone but can be changed for good reasons.

Be Pragmatic. This is my title for the sections Compromise on Quality, Narrow As You Go, Why Not Nothing?, It’s Enough, Have Less To Do and Know No.

My first reaction to the title Compromise on Quality was a resounding “No, never!” At least I wasn’t a knee-jerk and read on. The authors rightly argue that you cannot always write perfect code. “Knowing when to be Good Enough gives you the opportunity to be truly excellent when you need to be.”

You make those parts excellent that really matter and settle for good enough when parts only sort of matter. You do nothing, if some parts don’t matter at all. This is not only good advice for when to compromise on quality, but also when to narrow the scope. “Doing nothing can be the hardest choice but the strongest, too.” And, it can save you a lot of time.

Prioritisation saves you the most time, not time management.

Besides, time isn’t something that can be managed. Time […] rolls along at the same pace regardless how you try to wrestle with it. What you choose to spend it on is the only thing you have control over.

The most effective way to save time is to say “no”. However, “no” is also a good way to start a discussion. In German, “no” is “nein”, which sales people regard as an acronym for “Noch Eine Information Nötig”. This translates to “yet another information needed” in English.

“No” allows you to look at other choices, “yes” prevents you from looking at other choices. “When you say no now, you can come back and say yes later. If you say yes now, it’s harder to say no later.”

Chapter “Mind Your Business”

Whereas previous chapters looked at the inside of a calm company, this chapter looks at the outside. The authors describe how they calmly run Basecamp despite all the crazy competitors and customers around them. The key to Basecamp’s calmness is that Basecamp spurns the growth dictate. Basecamp doesn’t care much about year-over-year growth. They are happy with a good profit and with employees who love to work at Basecamp.

The Good Old Days refer to the early days of a business, when everything was simpler and smaller and when there were less obligations towards investors, customers, employees and shareholders.

When Basecamp (the company) did very well, they gave up all their products except for Basecamp (the product). They also gave up millions in revenues and profits. So, they made their business simpler and smaller and focus on what they loved most and did best. They didn’t follow the siren call of growth, growth, growth … Or, in the authors’ own words:

We decided if the good old days were so good, we’d do our best to simply settle there. Maintain a sustainable, manageable size. We’d still grow, but slowly and in control. We’d stay in the good days – no need to call them old anymore.

Staying in control is the common thread through most of the sections in this chapter.

Calm’s in the Black. If your company is in the red, you are not in control. Your investors or your banks control you.

Profit means time to think, space to explore. It means being in control of your own destiny and schedule.

Without profit, something is always on fire. When companies talk about burn rates, two things are burning: money and people. One you’re burning up, one you’re burning out.

Priced to Lose. If you depend on one or a few big customers, you lose control. Because Basecamp values freedom and control higher than money, they charge every company $99 – no matter how many employees the company has. Basecamp still makes a healthy profit and that’s good enough for them.

Launch and Learn. I have built user interfaces for more than 20 years. I still fret the endless and mostly fruitless discussions with engineering teams, marketing teams, support teams and selected customers. Everyone seems to be an expert in user interface design. I have learnt to ignore most parts of these discussions and pick out the few relevant bits. I feel much less guilty knowing that the authors have a similar point of view.

We don’t show any customers anything until every customer can see it. We don’t beta-test with customers. […] We don’t ask anyone what they think of something. We do the best job we know how to do and then we launch it into the market. The market will tell us the truth. […]

So do your best and put it out there. You can iterate from there on insights and real answers from real customers who really do need your product. Launch and learn.

This is obviously a variant of Scrum’s inspect-and-adapt approach.

Copycats. The authors make a good point, why you shouldn’t get too upset about other people or companies copying you.

When someone copies you, they are copying a moment in time. They don’t know the thinking that went into getting you to that moment in time, and they won’t know the thinking that’ll help you have a million more moments in time. They are stuck with what you left behind.

Chapter “Last”

The final advice of the book is to Choose Calm.

A business is a collection of choices. Every day is a new chance to make a new choice, a different choice […]

No matter where you live in an organization, you can start making better choices. Choices that chip away at crazy and get closer to calm.

A calm company is a choice. Make it yours.

2 Comments

  1. Benedikte Holm
    2019/01/08

    Thanks for the nice write-up Burkhard 🙂

    So many important lessons!

    1. Burkhard Stubert
      2019/01/11

      It’s my pleasure 🙂

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