How to stop it being crazy at work

10 valuable lessons from the folk at Basecamp

Sometimes you have to read a book more than once to capture its value.
I’ve recently finished reading It doesn’t have to be crazy at work by Jason Fried and DHH:

They argue that work does not need to chaotic and stressful, and the book attacks the culture of long hours and excessive workloads.

I knew before I read it that I’d most likely be on board with it’s ideas. I was reading it to support my own beliefs and give me more confidence in them. (Hello confirmation bias. *waves*) And I also hoped I might learn some new ideas about how to put those beliefs in practice.

The book is really easy to read, and it is full of quotable material — as this thread of over 50 quotes from the book shows:

A thread of 50+ quotes from the book

One of the problems with pithy expressions of opinion is how their value fluctuates. A well-chosen aphorism, used at the right moment, can feel like gold. (We talk about ‘nuggets’ and about ‘pearls’ of wisdom.) But use too many of them, and they become less valuable. They start to sound cheaper, less meaningful, and more hollow. And that maybe explains why I felt like I did at the end of the book. Some of the advice felt priceless. But much of it hadn’t felt particularly valuable.

Maybe it’s just a question of how value is relative — what holds value for one person may not for another. As I’d been reading the book, I’d latched on to some bits, but by the end they’d been so many of these little titbits, that ultimately the book had kind of washed over me. I wasn’t sure what I was taking away from it, it felt a bit inconsequential.

I wasn’t happy with this. I knew they’d been things in the book that I had found valuable as I had read them, both things I was familiar with and things that were new to me. So I went back over the book to remind myself of and to capture the bits that I had found most valuable.

You know when you read a second-hand book and you see the scribbles the previous reader has left? The bits they’ve underlined, the bits they’ve highlighted, the notes they wrote in the margin. Well, here are my digital scribbles from the book— the 10 ideas I found most valuable.

Ideas the book confirmed for me

1. Don’t try to change the world

“If you stop thinking you must change the world, you lift a tremendous burden off yourself and the people around you. There’s no longer this convenient excuse for why it has to be all work all the time.”

I totally believe in the importance of purpose at work. But it’s also important not to feel too much pressure from that purpose. I take work seriously and I can easily get caught up in work, and forget to play. As a coach once helped me to understand, the biggest impact you have in the world might come from looking after yourself and the people around you.

“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 all!) about changing the world.”

This isn’t to doubt that “a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world,” as Margaret Mead put it. But you don’t need to try to boil the ocean. You can step away from the pressure of trying to change All The Things. Maybe start by improving your small corner of the world first. Try doing little things to improve stuff around you, to help people around you. Small changes compound and it can be amazing how far you can go that way.

A message from Michael

2. Effective > Productive

“Productivity is for machines, not for people. When people focus on productivity, they end up focusing on being busy. Filling every moment with something to do. And there’s always more to do!

Instead of trying to be as productive as you can, try being effective. Do the things that are most worth you doing, that will make the biggest difference if it’s you that does them.

3 . You can’t outwork the world

“You can’t outwork the whole world. There’s always going to be someone somewhere willing to work as hard as you. Someone as hungry. Or hungrier.”

You might be willing to put in 50 hours a week. Someone else will put in 51. You might be willing to put in 60 hours a week. Someone else will put in 61. And so on…

Ploughing on like that is a sure way to overwork yourself and burn out. Working excessive hours is not going to get you ahead or help you find calm.

4. Organisations and businesses are not families

“Companies love to declare ‘We’re all family here.’
No, you’re not.”

I’ve always been put off by executives who talk about how their organisation is like a family. (Thankfully, I’ve never worked with one!) But I’d never really thought why. Here they suggest that it’s because it is an emotional appeal, a creepy way of asking that you sacrifice things for the organisation. “By invoking the image of the family, the valor of doing whatever it takes naturally follows. You’re not just working long nights or skipping lunch to further the bottom line; no, no, you’re doing this for the family.”

Better to put your actual family first.

Nile Rogers knows about family. And he wasn’t talking a business.

5. They’ll do as you do

“It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters what you do.”

As a leader, you set an example through your actions. People working with you watch how you behave. No matter what you say about the behaviour you value, if you behave differently, people will follow what you do.

6. The word of the boss weighs a ton

“When the person who signs the paychecks mentions this or that, this or that invariably becomes a top priority.”

Someone once told me our CEO had said that X and Y were the two most important things for the organisation to do. I nearly went straight to my boss to report this Important News. But I pulled myself up: we had an agreed set of priorities, recently signed off my the CEO. There was no need to scatter our attention and focus.

A casual observation or a hypothetical suggestion from a boss soon gets taken by others as a instruction or mandate. Every comment can be taken as carrying great weight.

It can be hard as a leader not to keep lobbing ideas out at people. I’m not always great at this and sometimes have to restrain myself. I have a ‘bright idea’, I see someone doing something great, I read about something I find exciting, and I want to share it. But every idea you put out there causes ripples, and if you’re a leader it often it leads to someone doing some work. The result can be people doing a lot of work on lots of different things, people running in different directions, or people feeling confused because your priorities are no longer clear, and they’re not sure what the really important things are.

No wonder great leaders keep repeating the same small set of priorities over and over again.

7. Launch & Learn

“If you want to know the truth about what you’ve built, you have to ship it.”

You can debate internally for a long time about whether the thing you’ve produced is as good as it needs to be. But the only way to find out for sure is to give it to the people who are going to use it.

You can test it, you can re-work bits of it to try to improve it, you can consider different options. But the sure fire way to find out, the only way to get a true sense of its worth, is to put it out there. From there you can iterate, based on real insights.

Which is why it’s better to work in small incremental chunks.
You’ll find out things faster and can avoid a lot of wasted work and worry.

Ideas that were new to me that I plan to follow up

8. Office hours

We have so many different ways to communicate nowadays. We can easily ask a question of almost anyone at anytime. In many ways this is great.

For some people, however, who get lots of requests and lots of questions from lots of different people about lots of different things, it does not work very well. And it can add to a sense of work being crazy. The interruptions can seem never ending and add to a feeling of overload. Messages can get buried below other messages. And it can be hard to know how best to get in touch with someone.

At Basecamp, they’ve borrowed an idea from academia to try and help with this: office hours. This is a period of time (say an hour a day, or an afternoon a week) when a person commits to being openly available to other people. I remember this concept from my professors at university. And it has been a big hit a Basecamp, because it has given people more of a sense of time and control, with “longer stretches of uninterrupted time to get stuff done, and planned moments when they can enter a more professorial mode and teach, help and share.” I’d never thought of applying this concept in an office environment, but it sounds like an idea that’s worth trying out.

9. Calm goodbyes

When you dismiss someone from work, other people are naturally curious about what happened to their colleague. They have lots of questions. They want to know what happened. They can be anxious. They can be suspicious, and the fact that they don’t know for sure what happened can make them more anxious.

“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.”

This is something I have experienced. As a manager, knowing how and when to communicate the decision to let someone go can be really hard. This is partly because there can be an information asymmetry. The manager is often going through an HR process and is tied by confidentiality. The person leaving might in theory also be bound by the same confidentiality, but they are often disgruntled and don’t care and so they tell their story about why they’re leaving.

At Basecamp they handle this by sending out an immediate goodbye announcement companywide, written either by the person leaving or their manager. Most people who leave chose to write their own. If the message doesn’t explain clearly why they’re leaving, “their manager will post a follow-up message the following week filling in the gaps. When someone is let go, we often have to clarify once they’ve gone. It’s important that the reason are clear and no questions linger unanswered. That’s how you have calm goodbyes.” Sounds worth a try.

10. Disagree & Commit

One of the sources of frustration and confusion at work can be how teams take decisions. Some teams seek consensus between different views and revisit a subject many times, which can take an age. Some teams avoid taking a clear decision, and different people can believe different things have been decided and communicate different messages. In other teams the boss takes all the decisions, and other folk don’t feel encouraged to express different views. I’ve seen all three.

It’s healthy for people in teams to disagree! It’s important people on the team are allowed to express different opinions — hearing a diversity of views avoids group think and can lead to better decisions. And yet:

“Companies waste an enormous amount of time and energy trying to convince everyone to agree before moving forward. What they’ll often get is reluctant acceptance that masks secret resentment. Instead they should allow everyone to be heard and then turn the decision over to one person to make the final call.”

In Buffer, in order to encourage different viewpoints, not slow things down by seeking consensus, and conclude with a clear decision, they use an idea that was made famous by Jeff Bezos: ‘disagree and commit’.

In this model, conflicting ideas can be openly expressed but the disagreement does not prevent the team from quickly committing to a clear course of action. Everyone explains their position as openly, precisely and fully as possibly. At the same time, they commit to really hearing the viewpoints of others. Then you get out of the way, have one person make the best decision they can, have that person explain the decision, and all commit to it.

Reading this, I was reminded of Lencioni’s work on team dynamics.

I’d heard of “disagree and commit” before, but I’d forgotten about it, and I’d like to try it.

Senior Director @ElsevierConnect doing product strategy implementation & performance. Mainly writing about getting from A to B, & digital stuff. Personal acc’t.