Three’s company

Three is lucky enough.

At Basecamp, three is a magic number.

Nearly all product work is done by teams of three people. A team of three is usually composed of two programmers and one designer. And if it’s not three, it’s two or one — not four or five. We don’t throw more people at problems, we chisel problems down until they can be tackled by three people, at most.

We rarely have meetings at Basecamp, but when we do, you’ll hardly ever find more than three people around a table. Same with conference calls or video chats. Any conversation with more than three people is typically a conversation with too many people.

What if there are five departments involved in a project or a decision? There aren’t. Too many dependencies. We don’t work on projects like that — intentionally.

What is it with three? 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 two too many. And six, seven, or eight on a team will inevitably make simple things more complicated than they need to be. Just like work expands to fill the time available, work expands to fill the team available. Small, short projects become bigger, longer projects simply because all those people need something to do.

You can do big things with small teams, but it’s a whole hell of a lot harder to do small things with big teams. That’s a disadvantage of big teams! Small things are often all that’s necessary. The occasional big thing is great, but most improvements come as small incremental steps. Big teams can step right over those small moves.

Three keeps you honest. It tempers your ambition in all the right ways. It requires you to make tradeoffs, rather than keep adding things in. And most importantly, three reduces miscommunication and improves coordination. Three people can talk directly with one another without introducing hearsay. And it’s a heck of a lot easier to coordinate three people’s schedules than four or more.

We love three.

New in Basecamp 3: Message Types

One of the best ways to improve a product is to look at hacks and workarounds your customers have come up with, understand the why behind the how, and then figure out how to turn those little innovations into full-blown features so everyone can benefit from them.

That’s exactly what we’ve done with a brand new feature we launched today called Message Types. And whose hacks and workarounds did we model this feature on? Ours!

How we’ve been doing it

At Basecamp, we’ve been prepending many of our message board posts with emojis to classify them as this type or that type. For example, when we write up announcements everyone should know about, we put the 📣 emoji in front of the title like this:

Or when we pitch big ideas to one another, we prefix the subject with a trusty 💡 lightbulb:

And when we write up heartbeats (our internal term for detailed project updates), we use a heart ❤️ like so:

Prefixing subjects with emojis like this really pops the purpose of the post. At a quick glance, you know what type of message you’re about to read. It also helps different types stand out when browsing a long list of subjects.

Now this pattern is built into Basecamp 3!

Now everyone who uses Basecamp 3 will have an easy way to mark their messages as being this kind or that kind. We’ve decided to start folks off with our default set of message types (Announcement, FYI, Pitch, Question, and Heartbeat), but everyone is free to create their own.

How existing customers can enable the feature

While new customers have this feature turned on by default, we’ve made it opt-in for existing customers. If you’re an existing Basecamp 3 customer, and you want to turn on message types, go to Adminland (from the top right corner of the Home screen) and click the “New: Set up message types for this account” under the “Because you’re an administrator, you can…” section.

Look for this to turn it on.

Once it’s on, when you go to post a new message, you’ll see a new option above the title to select a type. It’ll look something like this:

“Something else” is pre-selected. If you don’t want to pick a type, just leave “Something else” selected. If you do want to select a type, just click the appropriate one. If you want to edit the available message types, click the “Edit message types” link in the top right corner.

And when the message is posted, the emoji will appear at the beginning of the title in both the index view and the message itself:

Create your own conventions

One of the great things about this feature is that it gives customers (a) room to personalize and (b) establish conventions within their own team. “Hey if you find a bug, go to Basecamp and hit the ‘💩 Bug Report!’ type.”

We think you’re going to find message types really useful. We’re eager to see what customers do with them.


Can we set default message types for every new project? 
Yes! The “Set up message types for this account” link in Adminland lets you create your own set of defaults that’ll be the default for every new team or project you create.

Can we change them on a per-team/project basis?
Yes! Go into any team or project, click into the message board tool, click the green “Post a message” button, and then click the “Edit message types” link in the top corner. You’ll see a screen like this that lets you change the types for the specific team or project you’re on:

Can we filter a message board by just a specific type?
Not yet, but this is something we’d like to add down the road. We agree that it would definitely be useful to just show announcements or just show heartbeats or just show pitches. It just didn’t fit into this release, but it’s certainly something we’ll be evaluating moving forward.

We hope you enjoy message types in Basecamp 3! We’ve got more great stuff coming shortly. Thanks again for your continued support. If you aren’t already using Basecamp 3, we invite you to give it a try. It’s free for 30 days, so there’s no risk. After you try it we think there’s a very good chance your business will change for the better.

A picture of a better place

Why a company’s vision really matters (& how to figure out yours)

Last week, I was asked to advise an entrepreneurship class over at the Northwestern Law School here in Chicago. Students pitched business ideas to a panel of mentors, including myself. We were then asked to give feedback on these ideas.

The first team of students presented an idea to use video conferencing technology to better connect legal services with clients. On the first slide of their presentation, it said something to the effect of…

“Vision: To alter the delivery of legal services.”

This caught my attention. The “vision” they’d written was not a vision.

“To alter the delivery of legal services” describes what you’re doing or what you’d like to do. But that’s not a vision. A vision is a place.

Let me explain.

What exactly is a vision?

A vision is a picture of a better place. You see this picture in your head: It’s what you want the world to look like because your product or company exists. In many ways, your company’s vision is your opinion for how you think the world ought to be. A vision answers the question, “What world do you want to create?”

Vision is often misconstrued with other business-y terms, like “mission,” “purpose,” and “values.” But a vision is different from any of those things.

A vision is what you want to create (remember, it’s a place!). The mission of your company is why you want to get to that vision. Your company’s values are how you want to get to that vision.

For the team of law students that I was mentoring, their vision for their company needed to be a picture of a better place. “To alter the delivery of legal services” is not a place.

Instead, a potential vision of theirs could be: “A world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible to anyone.” Or perhaps another take on their vision might be: “A world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services.”

See the difference?

Why does a vision matter?

Knowing the vision of your company is important for two reasons: (1) it’s the vision the ultimate clarifying force in your business decisions and (2) it’s the greatest motivator for your team.

At Know Your Team, I’ve found this to be especially true. When I became the CEO, the first thing I did was write down what I saw as our company vision: A world where people can communicate openly and honestly at work. It has since driven everything we do.

Vision clarifies business decisions.

Take product development, for instance. When we think about our product development here at Know Your Team, we envision that picture of a better place: How can we build a product that creates an environment at work where people communicate openly and honestly?

As a result, we do not allow anonymous feedback in Know Your Team. We believe anonymous feedback is destructive to people communicating openly and honestly. Anonymous feedback doesn’t help us get to that picture of a better place.

We’ve surely lost sales because of this decision. People come to us saying they want an anonymous feedback feature in the product. And when we explain that we don’t offer anonymous feedback and the reasoning behind it, they’ll tell us they’re no longer interested in using Know Your Team.

For us, that’s okay. Upholding our vision matters more to us than turning a quick buck or two. I prefer to sacrifice a sale here and there for the sake of showing others a different way of how the world could be better off. After all, that’s the only way real progress toward your vision is made. When you stick to your guns, the world you want slowly begins to take shape.

Vision informs the product. Not the other way around.

The same holds true for the team of law students I’m advising. Depending on what they determine their vision to be, that will ultimately shape what they will build and who they will build it for.

For example, if they decide their vision is “a world where legal services are democratized and easily accessible by anyone”, they might focus on low-income individuals who typically cannot afford in-person legal services.

On the other hand, if the students decide their company’s vision is “a world where people’s time and money are saved by having on-demand, affordable access to legal services,” their target customer might be busy professionals who need quick legal advice, but don’t have the time to schedule an in-person appointment with a lawyer.

Both visions encompass the “altering the delivery of legal services.” But depending on which vision they choose to pursue, their business will have fundamentally different product directions, target customers, etc.

Vision is the greatest motivator for you and your team.

At Know Your Team, this picture of a better place is what motivates me and gets me up in the morning. I can literally see in my mind’s eye how employees, managers, and CEOs interact when they’re living in a world where they can communicate openly and honestly at work.

But this vision isn’t just motivating to me. When shared, a vision is the most powerful way to motivate a group of people.

Why? A shared vision gives your team a common place to strive for. When each employee at your company clearly sees that same picture of a better place in their own minds’ eye, each person connects to it and feels that pull of motivation to want to create that place.

This means you can give more autonomy to each employee. Your employees now have a shared destination on the map, so you don’t need to be ordering a series of coordinates instructing them how to get there. No more micromanaging.

A shared vision also helps people get things done amidst disagreements. When people argue over how to grow the sales team or whether to acquire another business, this shared vision is a uniting force that can override seemingly irreconcilable differences.

The key is that this vision is shared. If it’s purely top-down and coming from the CEO, people will see it as such. “Oh that’s just the CEO’s vision…” Now, your company isn’t aligned at all. You want to make sure your company’s vision is a picture of a better place that everyone wants to get to.

How do you create a shared company vision?

For your own company: Is the vision a picture of a better place? And if it is, is the vision shared?

Or, like the law students in the entrepreneurship class, is the vision a bit amorphous? And perhaps a little different for every person in the company, depending on who you talk to?

If it’s the latter, don’t beat yourself up! You’re not alone. When asked to 1,385 employees across 160 companies though Know Your Team, “If someone asked you to describe the vision of the company, would a clear answer immediately come to mind?” 30% of employees answered, “No.”

Here are a few ways to figure out what your company’s vision is, and ensure it’s shared across your company….

Commit to figuring it out.

You can’t expect your company’s shared vision to be some magic phrase that hits you upside the head. A shared vision only emerges after repeated, deliberate conversations and actions toward what it could be. The key is to be genuinely committed to developing one. A shared vision comes from an real desire to cultivate a greater sense of meaning in the work that you do.

Ask your employees what their personal visions are.

Ask each of your employees: What is the picture of a better place that you want to create? A company’s vision stems from the personal visions of each employee. After all, that is what the company is composed of: individuals. Each person must contribute to the vision in some way for it to be truly shared. You should ask each employee: Why are you here? What makes you proud to work here? What’s the most rewarding part of what you get to do? From their responses, you can identify the common thread, and begin to foster a shared vision.

Interact more with those who benefit from the work you do.

Since vision is the end result of what you do as a company, reminding yourself of that impact is key. Your company is (hopefully) making someone’s life better and improving the world in some way. Ask yourself, What’s the impact my company is creating right now? How can we further that impact? What would it look like to help people? To help answer these questions, you should interact more with customers — the very people who are benefiting from the work you do. Hear their stories, how you’ve helped them, and how your company has made their lives better. It can help paint the picture for creating that impact for more people, and sets the foundation for a shared vision.

This isn’t easy to think about, let alone to act on. It’s understandable why fostering a shared company vision is frequently bypassed, or conflated with “a mission statement” or “values.” And among the seemingly thousands of things you need to do for your company to survive, a shared vision can feel more like a “nice-to-have” than a “must-have.”

In fact, trying to distill a clear company vision can feel so daunting that many CEOs I’ve spoken with over years have said a version of this to me:

“You know what Claire, I think it’s okay that we don’t have a shared vision for the company right now. I don’t think it’s mission-critical.”

Don’t settle for that. Your company’s success is contingent on utmost clarity on what you’re building toward. You need a shared vision to make decisions and to motivate your team — and you need that clarity and motivation now.

The clearer and truer that vision is for you, the more easily those decisions and motivating your team will come.

Make sure you have a picture of a better place.

Enjoy this piece? Read more of Claire‘s writing on leadership on the Know Your Team blog. And, check out Know Your Team – software that helps you become a better manager.

Don’t scar on the first cut

Many policies are organizational scar tissue — codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again.

The second something goes wrong, the natural tendency is to create a policy. “Someone’s wearing shorts!? We need a dress code!” No, you don’t. You just need to tell John not to wear shorts again.

Policies are organizational scar tissue. They are codified overreactions to situations that are unlikely to happen again. They are collective punishment for the misdeeds of an individual.

This is how bureaucracies are born. No one sets out to create a bureaucracy. They sneak up on companies slowly. They are created one policy — one scar — at a time.

So don’t scar on the first cut. Don’t create a policy because one person did something wrong once. Policies are only meant for situations that come up over and over again.

This essay first appeared in REWORK, our New York Times Bestselling book about how grow a right-sized company.