Any mistakes are my own. Basecamp is a modern software company that (by many estimates) generates millions of dollars in profit each month.
Promise not to promise
Since the beginning of Basecamp, we've been loath to make promises about future product improvements. We've always wanted customers to judge the product they could buy and use today, not some imaginary version that might exist in the future.
The wrong time for real-time
Chat puts conversations on conveyor belts that are perpetually moving away from you. If you're not at your station when the conversation rolls by, you'll never get a chance to put in your two cents. This means if you want to have your say, you need to be paying attention all day (and often to multiple rooms/channels). ... Chat is great for hashing stuff our quickly when speed truly is important. ... It's also great for watercooler-like banter ... building a camaraderie among people during gaps in the workday.
At most companies, people put together a deck, reserve a conference room, and call a meeting to pitch a new idea. If they're lucky no one interrupts them while they're presenting. (But usually someone jumps in and derails the presentation after two minutes.) When it's over, people react. This is precisely the problem. ... At Basecamp we flip the script. When we present work, it's almost always written up first. A complete idea in the form of a carefully composed multipage document. Illustrated, whenever possible. ... 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.
Work doesn't happen at work
Ask people where they go when they really need to get something done. One answer you'll rarely hear: the office. That's right. When you really need to get work done you rarely go into the office. Or, if you must it's early in the morning, late at night, or on the weekends. All the times when no one else is around. ... People aren't working longer and later because there's more work to do all of a sudden. People are working longer and later because they can't get work done at work anymore!
So we borrowed an idea from academia: 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 a day. ... But what if you have a question on Monday and someone's offie hours aren't until Thursday? You wait, that's what you do. You work on something else until Thursday, or you figure it out for yourself before Thursday. Just like you would if you had to wait to talk to your professor.
Nearly all product work at Basecamp is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. ... Three is a wedge and that's why it works. Three has a sharp point. It's an odd number, so there are no ties. It's powerful enough to make a dent, but also weak enough to not break what isn't broken. Big teams make things worse all the time by applying too much force to things that only need to be lightly finessed. The problem with four is that you almost always need to add a fifth to manage. The problem with five is that it's too many. And six, seven, or eight on a team will inevitably make simple things more complicated than they need to be. ... Three keeps you honest. It tempers your ambition in all the right ways. It requires you to make tradeoffs.
Have less to do
The only way to get more done is to have less to do. Saying no is the only way to claw back time. Don't shuffle 12 things so that you can do them in a different order, don't set timers to move on from this or that. Eliminate 7 of the 12 things, and you'll have time left for the 5. It's not time management, it's obligation elimination. Everything else is snake oil. Management scholar Peter Drucker nailed it decades ago when he said "There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all."
Whatever it doesn't take
"Whatever it takes!" It feels good, doesn't it? It's hard to find three words loaded with more inspiration, aspiration, and ambition than "whatever it takes!" ... Reasonable expectations are out the window with whatever it takes. So you know you're going to grossly underestimate the difficulty and complexity required to make it happen. You almost certainly haven't budgeted time, energy, or dollars for whatever it takes. That's code for "at all costs." When you stop discussing costs, you know they're going to spiral. You probably aren't ready to say no to all the things you'll have to skip out on because you said yes to whatever it takes. Whatever it takes means you'll probably be working at 10pm on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. Whatever it takes means sloppy work in the service of just delivering something. Whatever it takes means if you won't do it, your boss will find someone else who will (endure the abuse). If you're in business long enough, there certainly will be rare moments when whatever it takes is truly called for. A real, honest emergency.
Bad habits beat good intentions
What we do repeatedly hardens into habits. The longer you carry on, the tougher it is to change. All your best intentions about doing the right thing "later" are no match for the power of habits. Yet people deceive themselves all the time. They think they can put in long hours for years "so I won't have to do it later." You may not have to do it, but you probably will do it. Because it's a habit. Right from the beginning of Basecamp, we insisted on a reasonable workweek. We didn't pull all-nighters to make impossible deadlines. We scoped the work to fit a good day's work and then enjoyed a calm evening off. Not by magic, not by luck, but by choice.
Narrow as you go
When we spend six weeks on something, the first week or two is for clarifying unknowns and validating assumptions. This is the time when the concept needs to hit reality and either bounce if it's sound or shatter if it's not. That's why we quickly begin prototyping as soon as we can in those first two weeks. We're often looking at something real within a day or two. Nothing tells the truth like actually experiencing the idea in real life. That's the first time we know if what we have in our heads is actually going to work or not. ... Once the initial exploration is over, every week should lead us closer to being done, not further from it. Commit to an idea. See it through. Make it happen. You can always go back later, but only if you actually finish. Week four of a six-week project should be about finishing things up and ramping things down, not coming up with big new ideas.
Commitment, not concensus
The gold standard for legal deliberations is a unanimous verdict by a jury of peers. ... That's a wonderful idea for a criminal court, but it's a terrible practice to mimic in business. If you only have to make a single decision, and it might literally be life or death, then that's a burden worth bearing. But in business, you may have to make multiple major decisions monthly. If every one of them has to be made by concensus, you're in for an endless grind with significant collateral damage. ... When you get a bunch of people in a room under the assumption that concensus is the only way out again you're in for a war of attrition. Whoever can keep arguing the longest stands the best chance of winning. That's just silly. So what to do instead? It's not like good decisions just spring into the mind of a single individual. They're always going to be the product of consultation, evidence, arguments, and debate. But the only sustainable method in business is to have them made by individuals. 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. Jeff Bezos put it well in his 2017 letter to shareholders:
I disagree and commit all the time. We recently greenlit a particular Amazon Studios original. I told the team my view: debatable whether it would be interesting enough, complicated to produce, the business terms aren't that good, and we have lots of other opportunitites. The had a completely different opinion and wanted to go ahead. I wrote back right away with "I disagree and commit and hope it becomes the most watched thing we've ever made." Consider how much slower this decision cycle would have been if the team had actually had to convince me rather than simply get my commitment.