A number of years ago we bought a new bath tub for our master bathroom. The tub looked something like this:
Man it looked great in the store. SO GREAT. It was luscious. Just look at it. So we bought it.
We couldn’t use the tub until the full bathroom rennovation was done. But once it was, I remember being so excited to try it out that first night. So I filled it up with piping hot water, tossed in some silly bath salts, and got ready to luxuriate.
The first thing I remember was that I couldn’t get comfortable. The sides were sloped in a way that forced me to slide down, vs sit up. I wanted to sit up, but I couldn’t. Or, I should say, if I put my arms outside the tub to hold on I could, but then only half of my body would be in the water. So I’d have this weird mix of hot and cold. It wasn’t right.
Then I noticed that the water was cooling off quite a bit faster than I’d expected. Ah ha, the tub was wide and shallow which meant a lot of surface area for heat to dissipate. Not good. The only remedy was to fill the thing with scalding hot water so it would stay hotter longer, but I was aiming for a soak, not a burn.
Then I realized what happened. We were duped. We bought something that was in-store good, not at-home good.
This happens a lot. The more sensational the claims, the more features on the box, the more something promises to do, the more likely you are to buy something in-store good. It looks great on the floor, it looks amazing in the showroom, the demo’s impressive, but once you remove it from the perfect setting, the perfect lighting, the “I need it” moment, it fails to deliver when you actally get it home.
Now, wait… Couldn’t I have gotten in the tub at the showroom to get a sense of the slope? Wouldn’t I have noticed I’d have slid down the side? In theory yes, but in practice no. You can’t exactly try a tub at a showroom, unless you take baths with clothes on. A clothed body (esp one with grippy shoes on or a belt that creates friction) hugs a curve much differently than a wet, naked, slippery one does. And the heat dissipation part really had to be experienced to even be considered. It just wasn’t something I thought about.
So, now when I buy things I think about them differently. Whenever I’m driven to make an over-enthusiastic purchase, I stop. Why am I so excited about this? Is it the presentation or the product? How’s this going to transition from showroom to living room? What am I going to be doing with this thing? Is it the same as how I’m experiencing it at the store?
So it’s not that an in-store product is bad. In fact it’s very good! It’s just good in the wrong way and wrong place (for you). Making something in-store good is easy. But we don’t live in controlled environments dripping with psychological, consumerism traps. Aim for at-home good.
A number of years ago, Jeff Bezos stopped by our office and spent about 90 minutes with us talking product strategy. Before he left, he spent about 45 minutes taking general Q&A from everyone at the office.
During one of his answers, he shared an enlightened observation about people who are “right a lot”.
He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.
He’s observed that the smartest people are constantly revising their understanding, reconsidering a problem they thought they’d already solved. They’re open to new points of view, new information, new ideas, contradictions, and challenges to their own way of thinking.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a well formed point of view, but it means you should consider your point of view as temporary.
What trait signified someone who was wrong a lot of the time? Someone obsessed with details that only support one point of view. If someone can’t climb out of the details, and see the bigger picture from multiple angles, they’re often wrong most of the time.
I’ve written about the class I’d like to teach, but what I’ve been thinking about lately is the class I’d like to attend. Not necessarily now, but when I was growing up. In the 6th grade, let’s say.
I don’t know why people ask me this, but I’m often polled for my opinion on the American education system. What’s my take? What would I do to fix it?
I don’t know, really. “It” covers too much ground to be addressed accurately. Education is delivered at every scale, from an individual reading a book, to a 1:1 tutor, to a small home/classroom setting, to a larger university auditorium-sized class, to online classes that can be theoretically taken by the entire planet at once. From one to 7 billion.
You can’t fix anything that’s so big and so varied. You can, however, fix small parts of things. And hopefully, as the small, fixed parts add up, you have a chance at chipping away at a big problem.
So here’s my one small idea: I’d begin to teach iteration. Iteration as a subject, equivalient to math, science, history, language, art, music, etc. How do you make something better over time? How do you return to something that you’ve done and see it with fresh eyes? How do you apply new perspective to an old problem? Where do you find that new perspective? What trails do you follow and which do you ignore? How do you smash the familiar and reassemble something new from the same pieces?
Once you’re done with school, and cast out into the world, your job is likely to involve iteration. No matter what you’re doing, you’re probably going to have to do something over. And often times again and again. You rarely simply deliver something and move on. You’re asked to refactor, to build on it, to “make it better”.
Making anything better is iteration. When you put something out there, it’ll often land right back in your lap. Sometimes that feedback boomerangs back directly, other times you have to infer the problems by disciphering other people’s behavior when they interact with the thing you gave them. This customer struggled with this, this manufacturing tolerance didn’t line up with that, this printing process looked better on the screen than it did on paper. Or after a certain amount of time passes while working on something, you reflect on what you’ve done and don’t like the reflection.
Either way, someone’s probably going to ask you to take the state of your art, and make it the state of the art.
Now that you’ve got it back, what do you do with it? This is something you have to learn how to deal with. But in school — save for writing a few drafts before handing in the final version — you don’t get to iterate much. You move on from assignment to assignment, rarely getting a chance to revisit your work earlier in the semester. I think that’s a missed opportunity.
So, perhaps for a final assignment (no matter the subject), students should be able to choose something they did earlier in the year and get a chance to improve on it. Make version 2. I think working on four things, and getting a chance to redo one of them would be more valuable than working on five separate things. It would be a better education.
Or another take would be a single assignment for the entire semester. Every two weeks you hand in a new version of it. In time you may slam into diminishing returns, but that’s all part of it too. That would be a better education.
Or maybe you work on something and hand it in. Then the teacher shuffles the deck, so to speak, and hands you back someone else’s assignment. Now you have two weeks to improve on that. And that cycle — improving on someone else’s work — continues for the whole semester. That would closely mirror what work on the outside is really like. That would be a better education.
I don’t know, something like that.
So there, I guess that’s my initial idea to improve the educational system. Teach problem solving through iteration. Bounce things back to people for a second or third try. And then a fourth and a fifth. And so on. Require them to bring new perspectives. Demonstrate how time, space, and chance are on your side — they give you the opportunity to wander around with an idea and take it in new directions. Iteration is evolution. Hopefully what’s next is better than what came before it.
Now you can add [daily, weekly, monthly, yearly] repeating events to the Basecamp schedule. Here’s how it works:
When you add an event in Basecamp 3…
…you’ll see a new option to repeat the event…
…the options include every day, every week day, once a week, once a month, and once a year…
…you can choose to repeat the event forever, or until a certain date…
…the repeat frequency is shown on the event page as well…
This feature has been a long time coming. Thanks to everyone who sent in a request, to Merissa on the support team for championing the push to make this happen, and to Jeff, Conor, Pratik, and everyone else who pitched in to help make it all work. The new feature is live for all Basecamp 3 customers on all platforms (Web, Mac Desktop, Windows Desktop, iOS iPhone + iPad, and Android). We hope you find it useful.
They’re mostly terrible, but there’s room for smart choices.
Last week, DHH skewered the open office floor plan. He was right. But wait, we have an open office floor plan. And we’ve done a respectable job figuring out how to make it work. Maybe I should share something about that.
First off, an open office is appealing from a few perspectives:
It makes economic sense. Building out separate private spaces for everyone is costly. Yes, you could argue people being unable to work out in the open is even more costly, and I wouldn’t fight you on that, but that’s an abstract economic impact. Paying construction bills has a very direct economic impact.
It’s more flexible to remain open. Companies like to imagine growth. If you have 20 employees today, but may have 40, 60, or 80 a year or two from now, it’s very difficult to forecast what you’re going to physically need. If you don’t build enough private offices for everyone, then some people are going to get pissed. If you build too many, you’ve wasted a bunch of space. Open is flexible and flexible is comforting — especially if you’re signing a 5+ year lease.
You need less space. You can pack a lot of people into 5000sqft of open space. You can nudge desks together, you can squish people in a few feet, etc. I’m not suggesting these are good ideas, but they’re practical and workable. But if everyone needs private offices, you’re going to need a lot more space, which means a lot more rent. That’s expensive.
So it’s not hard to see why open offices make sense from a purely practical, economic perspective. They’re also easier to clean and maintain, too. But like DHH, I don’t buy the collaborative benefits. Not for a second. That’s a mask used to obscure the real reason — cost savings. Open plans are cheaper to execute, period. And the people who make the decisions about how the office is designed are usually the ones that make the financial decisions.
Ok, so given all that, if you do go open, how do you make open work?
Walk into any library in the world and you’ll notice a few things. One, they’re generally open spaces with a number of desks and surfaces scattered throughout — similar to an open floor plan office. And two, they’re quiet. There are few things as culturally consistent as library design and library behavior. At Basecamp we call these Library Rules.
Libraries are full of people working, reading, thinking, studying, writing, contemplating, designing, etc. Yet they’re silent. People are heads down doing independent work. In our opinion, this is the model business, the model office. We pattern our way of working around Library Rules.
So this is the first lesson: Embrace Library Rules. Open offices work all around the world every day. They’re called libraries! And the more you treat your office as a library of work — rather than a chaotic kitchen of work — the better an open floor plan is going to work. Making an open floor plan work is a cultural decision.
Library Rules means keeping to yourself, keeping your voice down in hushed tones, not distracting one another. If you do need to talk to someone at normal volumes, grab a room. A key to making open floor plans work is also having private rooms scattered throughout the space. A place where a few people who need to discuss something in real time can jump in, talk it up and work it out without bothering anyone on the outside.
At our office, we call these private spaces Team Rooms. Here’s what they look like:
BTW, eliminating distractions doesn’t just mean physical distractions. It increasingly means virtual distractions. Real-time chat rooms/channels are basically open offices — and worse in many ways. So even if you’re fortunate enough to work remotely, or in an office with private rooms for everyone, if you’re forced to follow multiple real-time conversations all day long, you’re effectively working in open plan office too. Sorry!
What’s worse than an open floor plan? An open floor plan loaded with hard surfaces! And given that many open plans are housed in old warehouse/loft-like spaces, you’re materially at a disadvantage. All that wood and brick and glass looks great, but it sounds awful.
Our office space started as a 10,000sqft concrete and glass box. It was a former furniture factory, and a present day echo factory.
A big part of our office design was acoustic design. For example, we built a huge volume in the middle of the office that’s wrapped in stacked felt. The felt serves as a sound absorbing material, and the irregular stacking helps deflect sound. The material and application looks like this:
We also lined one long wall with an acoustic material used in recording studios to help absorb and deflect sound.
Carpet tiles lines the floor of the open work area to further reduce echo and sound transmission when people are speaking openly:
And even the team rooms themselves — rooms designed for collaboration and normal volume communication — have been designed with acoustics in mind. From the acoustic ceiling tiles, to the stacked and slotted cork walls to deflect sound and kill echo, each decision was deliberately made to keep sound from traveling where it shouldn’t.
And because we can’t help ourselves, we even installed neoprene grommets between any team rooms that shared the same glass wall. It’s hard to see this in the photo, but there’s a slight gap between rooms where the glass passes across an inner wall. The neoprene expands to fill that space and kill sound transmission between rooms.
We also built a separate sound proof (room inside a room) recording studio for recording our podcasts. It’s also lined with the same material we had on that long back wall.
Desk dividers out in the open office are made of another acoustic material made from recycled plastic:
And finally, anyone who needs to make a private phone call (personal or business), can duck into one of three phone rooms. The rooms are sound proof and lined with the same material we use for the desk dividers. There’s also an IN USE sign that lights up whenever someone’s inside — reminding everyone that someone’s in there.
Density and desks
Aside from acoustics, there’s another consideration which plays a large role in keeping an office quiet a calm — density. Packing people on top of each other is a form of induced stress. Desks face each other (but dividers keep people from seeing one another), and there’s about 10 feet of space behind each person’s desk. You never have to worry about rolling your chair back and hitting someone.
Further, our desk layout is arranged so no one is looking at anyone else’s screen. Knowing people are looking over your back — even unintentionally — is a really uncomfortable feeling. We’ve eliminated that with our layout.
Last, the desks are lined up along huge windows to make natural light a full part of everyone’s day. Natural light is especially calming, and independently operated shades help with the rare glare based on the season.
Open’s a choice
Yes, an open floor plan is a choice, but it requires a cultural commitment to respect and quiet. Luckily everyone already knows how to do that since everyone knows how to behave in a library. Beyond that, it also requires a capital investment and deliberate office design choices. Even if everyone’s quiet, tossing a bunch of desks in an echo chamber isn’t going to get the job done. If you want to keep things quiet, you have to think about what you’re designing. Every decision has an impact one way or another.
And it’s all optional!
We did the best job we could designing an open office (and a culture) that allows everyone to work in focused peace and quiet every day. But even that’s not good enough, which is why no one is ever required to come into our office. Basecamp is a fully remote company of 54 people, and even the 14 people who work in Chicago work remotely from home most of the time. Walk into the office on any given day and you’ll see 3–5, if you’re lucky. Yes, it’s a tremendous waste of space most of the time, but that’s a concession we’re comfortable making.
When do we do our best work? When we’re excited about something. Excitement morphs into motivation. We do our best work when we’re motivated. A great way to stay motivated is to work on something new. No one likes being stuck on a project that never seems to end.
The typical project
The typical project starts out great but then our motivation and interest wanes as time goes on. It’s natural. Staying interested in a project over a long period of time is a challenge for anyone. The longer the project the thinner the tail. You’re not going to do your best work in the tail.
The ideal series of projects
When you do a series of small projects, or break a single big project into smaller individual projects, you stand a better chance at maintaining motivation and rekindling interest. When you have a pile of tiny projects you get the chance to work on something new more often. We do our best work when we’re excited about starting something new. That’s why the bulk of our projects fit into cycles that last 6-weeks or less.
Credit for the waveform concept goes to Jim Coudal.
Be careful not to throw your weight around without knowing it.
Yesterday I was in a board meeting for a company I advise. Great group, strong business, profitable, all the good stuff. But the owner-CEO was stuck. He felt like he’d laid out a pretty clear vision and direction, but people’s priorities kept shifting. This thing was important, then all the sudden it was this other thing. Lots of bouncing around, not quite enough focus. He didn’t know what was causing it, but it turns out it was him. But how?
We dug into it. As we went, I recognized the problem.
As much as we’d like to pretend we’re just one of the crew, the owner is the owner. And when the owner makes a suggestion, that suggestion can easily become high priority. It’s rarely what the owner intends, but it’s often how it’s received. When the person who signs your check says this or that, this or that can quickly become the most important thing.
It’s like the old EF Hutton ad “When EF Hutton talks, people listen.”
So something as minor as “Are we doing enough on Instagram?” can shoot Instagram to the top of the marketing priority list. It was a mere suggestion, but now it’s a mandate. “Why would he be talking about Instagram unless he really thought Instagram was super important?”
What’s worse is when the owner finds him or herself in the weeds. Meddling too much in this problem or that problem. If that’s where they’re spending their attention, people assume it’s top priority. It may be a mere curiosity, but that’s not the impression it makes. If she’s looking over there, then we should be looking over there. The owner’s presence in a problem area can re-prioritize the organization’s plate without intending to.
And that’s just one example. But owners like to lob ideas all over the organization, and often many at the same time. You can think of them as tiny pebbles being tossed into a pool. When the pebble hits the surface, it radiates small waves. If you’re in that pool, you’ll be affected. A splash over here sends waves this way, a drop over there sends them in another direction. Before you know it, the stillness is broken up by intersecting rings of water. It can get chaotic pretty quickly. And after a while, it’s unclear where all the action started, it’s hard to trace. It’s just busy, churning water. It takes a long time to settle it back down again.
So if you own the place, be careful what you say and when you say it. Most of the time your word carries more weight than you wish. Reserve that weight for when it’s really necessary.
How to spend your time when there’s nothing left to do?
This morning something happened that reminded me of an important lesson re: time well spent.
Three of us are working on an illustration project for our forthcoming book, “It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work”. In our previous books, we had an illustration per essay. This time we’re going in a different direction. Rather than an illustration per essay, we’re aiming for ~15 full page spreads spaced evenly throughout the book.
We’re going to be illustrating historical and contemporary figures with work methods that line up with our point of view on work. People who’ve done big important things without pulling all nighters, working crazy hours, or forgoing leisure for the eternal hustle.
Here’s an early example of a spread:
We like the direction, and so does our publisher. We’re going for it. So now we’re off to find interesting subjects to illustrate and feature. It’s research time. That means there’s going to be some design downtime — a gap in the project for the designers.
Now, back to what happened this morning… The designer leading the layout charge offered to continue to explore layout concepts while we look for more subjects to feature. He wanted to tweak the layout on the right, add some more details to fill out the space, etc. We’re happy with it, but could we be even happier with it? The tweak muscle yearns to be flexed!
That’s a perfectly natural reaction. Certainly there’s always room for improvement. And there is always more to explore. Always.
Always is the problem.
The always option is where you turn time well spent into time wasted. That time could be used on other projects that need attention, rather than projects that desire attention. The layout above is perfectly fine — it doesn’t need tweaking now. The designer may desire to tweak, because designers love to design! There’s a tendency to keep pushing the thing you’re on because you’re already in the middle of it. Natural. But it’s on us to inject a sense of enough so we don’t sink good time into something that doesn’t need it. Going from 99% to 100% is expensive. I’d rather we spend that 1% going from 0% nothing to 1% something (or 50% on the fence to 51% conviction) on something else.
So I gently reminded him that we’re all good here. He did great work, the layout looks great, and there’s even a risk of fucking up a good thing (it’s always easier to fuck up a good thing than to fix a bad thing). There’s more to do elsewhere, and his time would be better spent on those things.
He agreed. We’ll come back to the layouts once we have new subjects to illustrate and design. And maybe then we’ll see a different way forward once we have more examples in front of us. Now isn’t the right time to continue to tweak. Let’s wait to see if new ideas pop up via new work that has to be done rather than revisiting what we’ve already done.
When we launched Basecamp 3, we introduced a new way for client services firms to work with their clients. We called it the Clientside. It was an entirely separate part of a Basecamp project where all client-facing communications lived. Essentially, it was a mini project within a project — a distinct space with separate tools and a different interface.
Conceptually it made sense, but practically it was inflexible and not collaborative enough. It worked well for some people, but it missed the mark for far more. We fell short of what we hoped we’d be able to create.
So we put our heads together and spent a couple months working on a complete revamp. Today we’re introducing something better.
Introducing Clients in Basecamp!
Starting today, not only can you send messages to clients, but now you can work with clients using all the same tools you already use with your team. That means you can assign clients to-dos, share files and folders, schedule events and meetings, chat around the Campfire, and even ask clients automatic check-in questions! If you can do it with your team, you can do it with your clients. And now it all happens in the same place as the rest of the project — no more separate Clientside. It’s everything you’ve been asking for.
You’re in 100% control of what clients see. Clarity and privacy is at the core of this new feature. That’s why everything in a project is now labeled as “private to our team” or “the client can see this”. Plus, to reduce anxiety and prevent “oh shit, they weren’t supposed to see that” moments, everything in a project starts off as private just to your team. When you’re ready to share something — a message, a to-do, a file — just flip the switch:
Whenever you post something new, you’ll have the option to specify if the client should be able to see it or if it’s private just to your team:
For example, here’s a to-do on a to-do list the client can see. It’s also assigned to Victor, your client:
And here’s a message thread about a revised headshot. The client can see it, and they’ve responded below:
And here’s an email you’ve forwarded in that you don’t want the client to see. It’s been marked private for your team only:
And finally, here’s a combination of files and folders. The client can see some folders, but not others. For clarity, only the ones they can see are labeled with the “The client sees this” tag:
Log-in or email-only — It Just Works!
We all know how hard it can be to ask a client to get used to using a new system. Even an easy system like Basecamp 3. So, Basecamp works even if your clients don’t want to learn anything new. Clients can respond to Basecamp messages right from their inbox, and new email they send you can be forwarded to Basecamp where your whole team can see them. Regardless if whether a client logs in and posts something directly to Basecamp, or they respond to a message via email, you’ll always have everything in one organized place inside the Basecamp project.
Fantastic! How do we turn it on?
Go into a project, click the “Add/remove people” button. This is the same way you’d invite anyone to a project:
2. Then click the green “Add people” button and select “Invite a client to the project” from the bottom of the menu.
Now you’re off and running. Any existing content will be private, and anything new you add to the project will give you the option to mark something as private or visible to the client.
Back to the future?
If you’ve used Basecamp Classic or Basecamp 2, this new setup may ring a bell. You’d be right — it’s based on a similar approach. What’s changed is both the interface and the default privacy setting. In Classic and 2, everything in a project was visible to a client until you marked it private. Problem with that was that you could easily make a mistake and reveal something you didn’t intend to. But then it was too late. That’s why in Basecamp 3 we’ve flipped it. Everything is private by default. You have to expressly give a client permission to see something. It’s much safer this way. Less anxiety ahead.
What if we liked the Clientside?
If you’re an existing customer that used the Clientside in the past, you can continue to use it on any project in your account. It’s no longer an option for new customers, or for existing customers who’ve never used the Clientside before, but if you have, and you still prefer it, it’s all yours. You can even use the Clientside on existing projects and the new way on new projects. Further, if you relied heavily on the Approvals feature, you’ll want to continue to use the Clientside as there’s currently no equivalent feature outside the Clientside.
This is a big change, a big deal. We think you’re really going to like it. You’ll have the power and flexibility to collaborate with clients in true Basecamp style without any of the limitations imposed by the previous Clientside approach. And most importantly, you’ll always have 100% control over what messages, to-do lists, folders, files, Campfire chat, and automatic check-ins your clients can see and participate in. This way you can keep the private work private, and the shared work visible — all in the same project so everything is organized together.
Questions? Comments? Post ’em below. Thanks again for using Basecamp 3!
For years people have been asking us how. How do you design things? How do you code things? Why do you do it this way vs. that way? How do you think about writing? How do you think about what makes it into a product and what does? How do you decide which features to build and which ones not to? How do you stay up on everything that’s going on in your business?
We’ve written about these topics for years — and we’ll keep writing about them — but we want to bring some show to the tell. So we started a new YouTube Channel called Getting Real. To start, DHH and I will be posting occasional videos of actual day-to-day work. Down the road other people at Basecamp may join in.