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Archive for June, 2010

I came across this book by chance.  I heard of a great website called Basecamp that is used for managing small projects.  They sent me an email to the address I registered with about a book by the creators of the site.  I read some of the literary reviews on the front and jacket and was surprised not only at the names I saw (Seth Godin, Mark Cuban, Tom Peters, Tony Hseih), but also at what they had to say.  I was excited to find out what the book had to offer.

I was initially skeptical.  I was worried this was going to be one of those books where I could find myself relating to it because the ideas offered were pretty generic and could be applied to anything.  I was pleased when they proved me wrong.  There may be areas where I didn’t agree with their viewpoints, but overall I think it was an inspiring read.

Learning from Mistakes

To start however, I disagreed with the authors said the beginning where they discussed the concept that learning from your mistakes is overrated.  Instead, they suggest learning from your successes.

I think you should learn from both as long as they lead to growth and future successes.  They offer some pretty haunting statistics that people who fail initially will continue to do so.  The questions I have that aren’t answered here are:  What if someone with an entrepreneurial spirit happens to fail the first time, are they doomed forever?  What about people like Steve Jobs who has failed in the past but has also succeeded?

Much later on in the book, they talk about under-doing the competition.  They describe what a great product the Flip video recorder is, even with it’s minimal features.  However, Pure Digital Technologies, the company that developed the Flip video recorder, has failed in the past.  They started out by designing disposable digital cameras.  They had the same features as regular disposable cameras, but you could pick and choose which pictures you wanted to save or delete.  They had trouble selling these disposable digital cameras because people seemed to hold onto the ones they bought rather than dispose of them.  Had they not learned from their mistakes and improved, we would have never seen the intuitive Flip device.

Planning is Guessing

“Plans let the past drive the future.”  Plans are inconsistent with observation.  Planning hinders us from picking up opportunities that come along.  They actually recommend working without a plan.  We can pick up as we go along.  To blindly follow a plan that has no relationship with reality doesn’t make sense.

This is one area where I strongly agree with the authors, and one of the main reasons I bought the book since I saw this mentioned on the back cover.  Many projects I’ve participated in have required a ‘plan’.  Many projects I participated in have never met the plan date.  This is probably because…

…Interruption is the Enemy of Productivity

The authors say people who stay late and work weekends aren’t doing it because there is too much work to be done, they do it because they’re not getting enough done at work.  We’re not getting enough done at work because we’re constantly being interrupted.  Most of us get our work done early in the morning or late in the evening when there are less people to bother us.  The rest of the day is filled with monotonous meetings, emails that need replying, and chatty co-workers.

They recommend blocking off ‘alone time’ where people aren’t allowed to get in  our way.  They recommend some crazy rules like “No Talk Thursdays” or blocking off 10am-2pm on your schedule where no one can talk to you.

I say do whatever works for you.  Turn your email off, sign off of instant-messaging, and put your phone on Do-Not-Disturb.  If you work for a company that has multiple offices, pay the other location a visit and hide in a cubicle.  If they’re flexible about working from home, take advantage once in a while and get things done.

Meetings are Toxic

One item they mentioned that I liked was the thought that email trumps meetings.  Have you ever been on a productive email chain where there was back and forth between a group of people, with progress being made, only to have a manager say “instead of going back and forth maybe we should have a meeting…”  But think about it for a second.  Email let’s you think about it and absorb what is being said.  You don’t need an instant reply with half-thought comments.  If email is working, there’s no need to take a group of people away from what they’re working on so they can sit in a room and comment once every 10 minutes.

Some reasons why the authors are anti-meeting that I agree with:

  • They often include at least one moron who inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone’s time with nonsense
  • Meetings procreate.  One meeting leads to another, and another…

They also mention how meetings are like TV shows…regularly scheduled at a specific time each week.  So we set aside 30-60 minutes several times a week even if there’s little progress.  They recommend scheduling 7 minute meetings in Outlook if that’s all the time that’s needed.

Meetings are expensive.  If you invite 10 people to one meeting, that’s 10 hours of work you just lost.  Factoring in mental switching costs, they say it’s more like 15 hours of work lost.  Meetings are often liabilities, not assets.

Workaholism

I also liked what the book had to say about workaholism.  As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I think working too hard has more drawbacks than benefits.  Co-workers tout how many extra hours they stayed late finishing up a project.  The authors call workaholism stupid.  “Working more doesn’t mean you care more or get more done.  It just means you work more.”

Workaholics work harder not smarter.  They throw hours at problems.  They make up for “intellectual laziness with brute force.”  It’s smarter to figure out you can’t do something and ask for help or to give up, than to throw endless hours at a problem.

Workaholics make people who work normal hours feel inadequate.  Now no one is happy because the workaholics are complaining and the normal working people don’t feel good enough.

Draw a Line in the Sand

Here is where I have some respect for the authors.  When I was testing out Basecamp (after dabbling in Microsoft Project in the past) there were features I wish it contained.  (Mainly to give tasks sub-tasks.)  But here they state their reason for not doing so (and leaving out other features that people might request) is to keep the product simple.  Although I may get frustrated when there’s something I want that they don’t do, I like the fact that they stuck to their guns and kept it simple.  They didn’t start adding features that would bloat and complicate the product.

An example from the book is a sub shop in Chicago.  The shop orders bread early in the morning and closes up when they run out.  When asked why they don’t order more, they replied that the bread isn’t as good later in the day.  A few extra dollars isn’t worth selling food they aren’t proud of.  Are  a few half-assed features worth selling a product you aren’t proud of?

Mission Statement Impossible

There’s a difference between truly standing for something and having a mission statement that says you stand for something.  They use an example of a car rental’s mission statement that promises to do all these great things and going ‘above and beyond’ to ensure customer satisfaction.  What really happens when you rent a car, is that the front desk is dirty, the room is cold, and they’re trying to sell you insurance.

I feel the same could be said for bland resume objectives, which I talk about here.  You need to stand by what you say, and don’t just write something fancy that makes you look good.  People will see right through you.

The More Massive an Object, the More Energy Required to Change Its Direction

I really like that statement.  When companies start out, they have less mass.  As they grow, the longer it takes to get things done.  Some items that increase mass that they mentioned:

  • Permanent decisions – Be careful what path you take.  You may make a choice you can’t turn back from.
  • Meetings – Standing meetings are useless.  I wish I could get up and leave when I feel like I have nothing to gain or give to the meeting.
  • Thick Process – You get longer than a couple pages on a process and you’ve lost my attention.  Keep it simple.  Use diagrams.
  • Long-term road maps – Technology changes.  People’s needs change.  Regulatory items come out of nowhere.
  • Office politics – Don’t be fake.  I can see right through it.  And it bothers me.

If you can avoid these things you can change direction more easily.  Huge companies take years to change direction because they talk instead of act, and meet instead of do.

Some Constraints are Good

You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole.  Do a few things really well than a lot of things in a mediocre fashion.  You can’t do everything and do it well.  There is a limit to how much time, money, and resources are available.  Once you push the limits on one, you sacrifice one of the other two along with quality.  Southwest chooses to only fly Boeing 737s.  If something breaks on a plane, they have the parts to repair it.  They keep their costs down.  Less is more.

Throw Less at the Problem

In typical situations, when things aren’t working out, people are inclined to throw more resources (people, time, money) at the problem.  All this does is exacerbate the problem.  Try cutting back instead.  I’ve seen this work in the real world on occasions.  Often people will come to me with a problem.  Sometimes, I delay in helping them right away.  A while later when I ask if they still need help, they told me they overcame the problem on their own.

Doing less forces people to think differently.  They have to base their decisions on the limited resources available to them.  If you keep trying to do more, deadlines will continue to be pushed back and budgets will continue to be exceeded.

Launch Now

Set artificial deadlines for yourself.  If you had to launch your product in 2 weeks, what would you cut?  Once your product does what it needs to do, get it out there.  Those other features can be done later.

I have mixed feelings about the above statements.  I agree small businesses need to get their product out there, but at the same time they can’t ship pure crap.  It has to be of a quality that customers are willing to accept.  Customers should be made aware of what your product does and does not do.  If not, you better have some good persuasion skills.  When a product I worked on first launched, the scheduling module didn’t work and the site was ready for training.  The trainer was a smooth talker, and in a Jedi style move, told the customer, “You’re not even open yet…why would you want to schedule now anyway?”  The customers were convinced, and the software was ready to schedule when they were.  A bold move, but it worked out in the end.

Illusions of Agreement

Another favorite section of mine.  They talk about how the business world is inundated with documents, reports, and processes that do nothing but waste people’s time.  No one reads them.  They take forever to make but only seconds to forget.

Instead of describing a process over 12 pages, write a 1 page diagram that shows the different steps.  Remove layers of abstraction.  If you’re writing requirements, create a picture instead of writing in paragraph form how it is supposed to work.

Your Estimates Suck

We have no idea how long something will take.  We estimate based on a ‘best case scenario’.  But somehow they end up slipping.  They recommend breaking up the project into smaller pieces that are more manageable.  The smaller something is, the easier it becomes to estimate.

Long Lists don’t get done

I’m a huge fan of making to-do lists.  For some reason I get satisfaction when I crossed items off.  They say long lists are burdensome, and recommend making shorter lists.  Break a list of 100 items into 10 lists of 10 items.  You’ll be less terrified to get started when you know you only have 10 items to tackle.  Feel free to re-arrange your lists as you complete items.

Be Original

If you copy others all you’re doing is catching up.  Your product will always be inferior.  Be influenced, but make sure you’re doing something different.

This reminds me of the difference between the Wii knockoffs you see in stores.  The Wii knockoffs are direct copies of the Wii Sports video game.  Companies that build these knockoffs make a quick profit but they don’t seem to be around for long.

Another way to prevent people from copying what you do is to inject unique qualities into your company that aren’t easily duplicated.  Zappos.com does this through exceptional customer service.  Customer service reps do not have scripts and have the power to do almost whatever it takes to make sure the customer is satisifed, as I also mentioned in this review of Seth Godin’s Tribes book.

Just Say No

You can’t do everything for everyone.  Sometimes you just have to say no.  Don’t avoid it because it makes you uncomfortable.  The example they used to drive the point is to imagine your a chef.  If a group of customers say your food is too salty or too hot, you make a change.  If a customer asks you to put bananas in your lasagna, you have to turn them down.  “Making a few vocal customers happy isn’t worth it if it ruins the product for everyone else.”

When you do say no, do it in a polite manner.  Be honest.  Explain why you can’t do something for them.  They go as far as to suggest recommending them to a competitor instead.  Better to have them happy with someone else, than miserable with you.  Which leads to the next topic…

Let Your Customers Outgrow You

The scenario they use is to imagine you have a customer that pays your company a lot of money.  In the past, you’ve tried to please them in every way.   You tweak and change the product for this one customer’s request and you start to alienate your original customer base.  Then one day, that customer decides to leave you.  Now you’re left with a product with features that are useless to all of your remaining customers.

They recommend working on features that will help you grow new customers.  If you focus only on your existing customers, you become too tailored to them and stop creating features that would pull in new clients.

The authors had customers give them heat for not adding features to their product.  The customers’ business was changing and the authors’ product wouldn’t work for them anymore.  The authors said no.  Their reasoning was simple:  They would rather have their older customers outgrow their product than never be able to grow into them in the first place.  Don’t add so many features into your product that you overwhelm the new users from ever wanting to use it.

Don’t Write It Down

They pose the question, “How do you keep track of what customer’s want?”  And they answer it with, “Don’t.”  I actually did this test with some people at the company where I work.

If you don’t write it down, you’ll remember the important things.  The things that come up over and over again.  Customers and co-workers will keep reminding you.  If there’s a request that you keep forgetting, it’s a sign that it isn’t very important.  It’s the ones that are constantly presented to you that are really important.

Build an Audience

Companies have customers.  Lucky ones have fans.  But the luckiest have audiences.  An audience comes to you on their own.  Compare the cost of the work involved in trying to attract audiences with that of spending tons of money on advertising and trying to reach the right people.

When you have an audience you don’t have to buy they’re attention, they give it to you.  So start slow.  Create a blog, join twitter, speak in public, whatever it takes to slowly build your audience.  Then when you need to say something important, people will already be listening.

It’s Okay If You’re Not Perfect

They say it’s okay not to be perfect.  It may not seem as professional, but it will seem a lot more genuine.  Personally, I’m a huge fan of this, because it’s what I’d like to see if someone was presenting something to me.  On the flip side, I think you have to know your audience.  If they’re expecting perfection, and you have flaws, you better handle that well.  If you try to hide your imperfections and they see through it, you’re in trouble.

Press Releases Are Spam

One place I worked at emailed everyone in the company a press release as they sent them to customers.  And if I thought our own press releases were annoying, I can only imagine what our customers thought.  (In the book they refer to press releases as being sent to journalists, but I’m reviewing this book as it relates to me.)

They refer to a generic pitch sent to hundreds of strangers spam.  They’re not personal.  Your  introduction to the people reading them is too vague to make a connection.  They recommend reaching out to people via email or telephone instead.  That’ll make you stand out far better than some generic press release.

Resumes are a Farce

Resumes are a joke, filled with action verbs that don’t mean anything.  Responsibilities and job titles are hardly accurate.  In reviewing resumes in the past, I’ve found this to often be true.  You have to be careful with what you put on a resume, because the interviewer can call you out on it.  You better be able to talk about that glorified bullet point.

People who take the shotgun approach haven’t done any research on the companies they’re applying to and should be avoided.  I’ve talked here and here why the shotgun approach should be avoided.

5 Years Experience Means Nothing…

I have a friend who is hesitant to put his resume online without staying at a job for 3 years.  He thinks 3 years shows loyalty and dedication to the job.  I say you’re sitting around, procrastinating, and stalling.  You have nothing to lose and everything to gain by putting some feelers out.

The authors believe that number of years experience mean nothing.  A baseline experience is required, but after that what difference does 3 years experience doing a particular job have over 2 years and 2 months?  They say it may take as little as six months to learn a skill, but after that the curve flattens out.  The people that want to do well will learn fast.

…The Same Can be Said for Formal Education

Your GPA in college doesn’t matter.  90% of the CEO’s running the top 500 American companies didn’t go to Ivy League colleges.  Moreover, some of the things you learned in school shouldn’t be applied in the business world:

  • In school, the longer a document is, the better.  In the business world, the longer a document is, the more likely it won’t get read.  (Same goes for emails.)
  • In school, using big words looks impressive.  In the business world, you want to keep it simple to make sure all audiences understand what you are saying.
  • In school, the format is just as important as the content.  In the business world, I care more about understanding what you have to say than how you present it.

Hire Great Writers

If ever deciding between more than one person to fill a position, the authors recommend hiring the best writer.  They believe their writing skills will pay off, regardless of the position.  Clean writing is a sign of clear thinking.  Good writers make things easy to understand.  They know their audience.

Test Drive Employees

Some people are pros at interviewing.  Too bad they don’t always work like pros.  In contrast, maybe they don’t interview all that great but they turn out to be great workers. If possible, hire people for mini projects to feel them out.  See how they react to certain situations, and evaluate their work ethic.  If it goes well, you can choose to keep them.

Everyone on the Front Lines

A former co-worker mentioned this in the past and I fully support it.  In the book they refer it it as the ‘front-of-house/back-of-house’ split.  The developers work in the ‘kitchen’ while customer support handles the customers.  The problem is that the chefs never hear what the customers are saying directly.  As an example, they use the children’s game Telephone.  You have a group of ten kids transmitting a message down the line.  By the time it gets to the last person, the message is distorted.  The more people you have between the customer and the developer, the more likely their message will become blurred.

In the book they recommend that everyone in the company interact with the customer a few times a year.  I think it would be awesome if developers took customer support calls or held focus groups that totaled 5 days a year.  It would allow them to see what customers really think of their work.  I don’t think that’s asking for much.

Trust Your Employees

If everything constantly needs your approval, you create a culture of non-thinkers.  It makes them think you don’t trust them.  “What do you gain by banning employees from visiting a social-networking site or watching a YouTube video?”  You will gain nothing.  The time doesn’t convert to work.  They’ll just figure out another way to not do work.

Better Hours is Greater Than More Hours

The real title of this section is “Send people home at 5.”  The dream employee for most companies is someone in their twenties with no life outside of work.  They counter that argument saying it may not be as great as it seems.  It perpetuates the myth that “this is the only way.”

People will work harder at work when they have something (or someone) to go home to.  They will be more efficient because they want to get out of there.  They use their time wisely.

ASAP is Poison

I ignore emails from people if they abuse the use of ASAP.  The authors go into detail here on why people should stop using the term.  Essentially, ASAP is implied.  If you start using ASAP in all your emails, all of a sudden everything is a high priority, which in effect makes nothing a high priority.

If a task doesn’t get done this very instant, more often than not, it will be okay.  It won’t cost you your job, cost the company a ton of money, and it will save you unneeded stress.

You can only do one thing at a time.  Reserve the use of ASAP for true emergencies.  A true emergency is where there are direct, measurable consequences to inaction.  For everything else, there’s time to think it through.

Final Thoughts

Rework is a quick read, and I found it to be one of my favorites.  Their ideas are inspiring and can be used to get the ball rolling if things are feeling stale.

It is mainly geared to entrepreneurs and small businesses.  I don’t think many of their ideas can be applied to large companies as it is too late in the game for them to enact many of the tips in the book.

I would say this is a must read for anyone who has the power or the inspiration to create change. I may have disagreed with their thoughts on failure at the beginning, but I really liked what they had to say in the rest of the book.  I’d say more, but I have a 7 minute meeting to attend.

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