My latest biz book read was It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work, written by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the co-founders of Basecamp. Basecamp is a company that started out life as 37Signals, but changed its name in 2014 when it narrowed its focus from a suite of products to a single project management tool. In Crazy, they say that, yes, indeed, it is possible to create a successful product and, at the same time, prioritize flexible schedules, remote work situations, and the creation of head space for team members to do uninterrupted and productive work.
So, first, I should admit that, on some level, I already drank the Kool-Aid. I’m a big fan of Basecamp for managing creative projects. When I first started working with French Press back in 2013, I recommended we implement Basecamp for project management, and we’re still using it successfully today.
The simplicity of Basecamp and its low barrier to entry mean that people are both able and willing to use it; and, if you need it, vendors and even clients can be added to projects easily and can figure out the workflow without much training. I see the fact that it’s less customizable than some other tools as a plus in a lot of situations — we can’t make it harder to use and understand. A collaborative project management tool only has value when people are actually using it, and, when managing creative work and creative people, it can be a lot easier to get people to use Basecamp than some of the other more complex tools.
That said, I haven’t always loved Fried and Hansson’s books. I mean, they’re fine, but I don’t loooove them. They’re simple, like Basecamp, so they’re easy to understand and they get their point across quickly, but they aren’t really packed with fresh new insights. They feel more validating than informative. Their books have always seemed like the Happiness is a Warm Puppy of business books to me — a pleasant feeling washes me when I read them, but the lack of detail and depth mean they don’t stick with me for very long. I loaned out my copy of Rework, it never got returned, and I didn’t mind. I wanted Remote to be the book I handed to every potential employer to convince them that I should be able to work out of my home office four days a week, and it just wasn’t deep enough to do that kind of heavy lifting.
All that said, reading Crazy has been a pleasant experience. As I mentioned before, Fried and Hansson do a great job of validating things I already think. Everybody likes that, right? They describe a process for developing products that seems a bit like Agile-lite, likely with fewer scrums and much less talk of pigs and chickens. It seems like a reasonable way to do things.
And I have bumped into a few surprises and ideas that were intriguing. For example:
- Nobody at Basecamp can see or book time in anyone else’s calendar. Since Basecamp is strongly against meeting culture, I see how they can make this work, but it’s hard to imagine this sort of shift happening without a big fight at a lot of (most?) companies.
- Office hours for subject-matter experts. If you can’t just book those important people into meetings, you’d come to rely on those office hours quickly. But, wow, I can already feel how that lack of access might make some people panicky.
- They chose to avoid per-seat pricing in order to get rid of any reliance on big clients. No matter how large a company is, it pays the same price for Basecamp, so no single account ever becomes that giant account that the company must work the hardest to keep. Thus, they are able to focus on how the product works in general and they aren’t tempted to optimize it for a single client.
But would their suggestions actually work for the rest of us? Fried and Hansson admit that all their methods won’t work at every company. At a creative services company, creating the kind of calm atmosphere they are touting would require different approaches, and a lot of expectation setting with clients. And, unfortunately, some clients would walk away from agencies who tried to set those types of boundaries.
Of course, creative work really benefits from a calm atmosphere in the office. I’d love to have a conversation with any of you doing creative services work about what you do to bring the calm when working with clients. Let me know!