Lessons learned in Chicago

I mentioned earlier this week that I was traveling to Chicago to take a class with Jason Fried, CEO of Basecamp (formerly 37signals), on how they run their company. I’ve always admired and respected the way he approaches everything about work and business. While Fried’s company builds web-based software, which is not at all similar to what we do at Collegewise, he has customers. He has employees. He wants to be proud of his organization and what they produce. And I think his approach has a lot of application not just for companies, but also for students, counselors, and parents who work in groups to get things that they care about done.

Here are a few of the lessons I took away. To be clear, this workshop’s purpose was to reveal their approach, not necessarily to suggest that these are all appropriate for any organization.

Your company should be your best product.
Your company is the product that produces all the others, so you should operate your company with as much love, attention, and care as you put into building products. Whether you run a private college counseling shop, a high school counseling department, a PTA, or a high school club, they’re all like companies. And even if they don’t sell products, they exist to do something as an organization, whether that’s advising students, unifying parents to help better the school, or producing a high school yearbook. And you can’t expect to produce great results without a great organization.

[If you’re not in charge, see this past post about creating a pocket of greatness.]

Share new ideas with only a few people.
If you have an idea you’re excited about, don’t share it with the entire group right away. Instead, share it privately with a few employees, colleagues, or members. New ideas tend to die in big groups. Too many questions about details that don’t matter yet. Too many worries about problems that haven’t happened yet. Too many “Here’s how we’ve always done its.” A big group slows down the progress before an idea even has a chance to develop. Instead, pick a few people to share your idea with. Have an open but focused discussion and really listen to their feedback. If you can’t get these 2-3 people excited, chances are, your idea wouldn’t have found life in the group anyway. But if 2-3 people have a chance to flesh an idea out first, you might be able to present it together, and do so more effectively.

And here’s a Collegewise alternative—if you don’t need the group’s approval, you might consider our “Here’s what I’m doing” strategy.

Approach big projects in six-week cycles.
A project should always have a deadline to ship (complete it). But big projects have lots of little projects within them, things that need to get completed along the way. When you assign specific deadlines to each piece, you’ll fall behind (and lose momentum) before you know it. Instead, try working in six-week cycles. Once a group agrees to take on a big project—a fundraiser, a new marketing plan, a revamping of an existing system, etc.–start with a six-week cycle and decide what to work on during that time.

For example, a senior class might need to plan a prom. There’s a fixed date when that prom is going to happen. But there are lots of things that need to get done in the months that lead up to it: finding a location, deciding on music and decorations, fundraising, promoting it, selling tickets, etc. It’s a lot to consider at once. So start with a six-week cycle. Decide on the most important things to focus on and who will be responsible for what (more on both of those decisions below). Then dive in and get going. At the end of those six weeks, your project won’t be done yet. But you’ll be surprised by how much progress you’ve made in such a short time. Progress creates momentum. And you’ll be fueled by plenty of what Fried calls “Quick wins.”

And here are a few ideas to try during one of those six-week cycles:

Assign pieces of the large project to small teams of 2-3 people.
You might need a lot more than 2-3 people to pull off a senior prom. But 2-3 people can focus on finding the location. Another 2-3 can focus on fundraising, another small group on promotion, and another on ticket sales, etc. Small teams work well together. It’s easier to communicate and harder for dead weight to coast on the others’ work. And best of all, multiple small teams focused on their own important pieces and parts get more done than one large team focusing on the same thing.

Use the inverted pyramid to decide what to work on now.
Journalists use a method called the inverted pyramid when writing a story. The most vital parts of the story come first. Every subsequent paragraph should be less important than the one before it. Start with the big stuff, then get to the details. If an editor needs to shorten a story, she never has to guess which part of an article to cut out. If your small team is in charge of promoting an event, what are the most important things you need to get done (it’s what Fried calls “Starting at the epicenter“)? Deciding on a date, time, and place, maybe? That’s the top of the pyramid. The color of your poster board for signs doesn’t matter at all if you don’t have an event to promote, so it goes towards the bottom of the pyramid.

I’ve also written about how this concept can strengthen your college applications.

Fix time and budget, flex on scope.
Projects are unpredictable. Not everything will go as planned during your six-week cycle. But a small team never gets to demand more money or time. Instead, they can trim parts of the project off, move them to the next cycle, and finish the remaining portions well, on time, and on budget. This is where the inverted pyramid comes in—you’ll know what to clip and punt to the next cycle. Fried calls this “scope hammering.” It helps you focus on the things that matter. It keeps progress moving and prevents the less relevant details from grinding progress to a halt. A small thing done well, on time, and on budget is better than a large thing done late, beyond budget, or poorly.

Separate by scope, not by role.
If you’re producing the high school yearbook, don’t put all the photographers on one team together for six weeks. Sure, they’ll take lots of pictures, but they won’t know or be able to affect how the rest of the yearbook is coming together. Instead, assign the necessary people to the appropriate project piece. For example, the sports section might have one writer, one ad salesperson, and one photographer—that’s a three-person team. They know their job, they know what each member must contribute, and most importantly, they never have any doubt about the status of the project—the sports section itself—as they approach a deadline.

Take a short breather.
At the end of each six-week cycle, take a breather for a week. Not to sit back and do nothing, but to focus on polishing or improving what you’ve just released. Then jump into your next six-week cycle.

If you’d like to learn more, I highly recommend Fried’s books, especially Rework.