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July 6, 2010 - 7:58pm

The first book that I'm going to give to my learning and technology team is Rework, by the guys from 37Signals.

288 concise pages - or less than 3 hours in unabridged audio format. We need more books to be this good and this short.

37Signals is best known for its simple, cloud based project management tool Basecamp. I'm a Basecamp client, and have been using the tool productively for a few years now. If you have ever had to do a project with MS Project, or solely by e-mail and spreadsheets, than you will appreciate the simplicity, elegance, and flexibility of Basecamp.

The founders of 37Signals developed Basecamp to manage their own internal projects, only then realizing they had a service on their hands that other small teams would find useful. Basecamp requires no support from your central IT organization, no local hardware, and no expertise in project management. You can be up and running with a free 30 day trial in 60 seconds. Plans start at $24 a month.

Basecamp is not just a product but also a philosophy. Less features well done are better than many features that complicate a product. Offer services that are lightweight and agile, and resist the urge to meet the needs of every customer. Let your customer outgrow your product. Basecamp is the physical (or digital?) manifestation of the philosophy of work that 37Signals is selling in Rework. The company prides itself on keeping operations lean, costs down, working arrangements flexible, and paid marketing to a minimum. If you work for 37Signals you don't attend many meetings, don't write many strategic plans, and don't give many internal presentations. You are expected and encouraged to carve out quiet time for productive work, to share your work product early and often, and to be open to criticism. What you are not expected to do is work insane hours, sacrifice family or sleep time, or set unrealistic deadlines or goals.

It could be that 37Signals got lucky with Basecamp, and are falling into the fallacy of assuming that their work culture is an optimal culture because it produced Basecamp. The other products from 37Signals, Highrise (contact tracking), Backpack (Intranet), and Campfire (code sharing) have not enjoyed nearly the same level of success as Basecamp. We know from Leonard Mlodinow's book, The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, that we all under-estimate the role of chance in our successes and failures. Nor is the advice in Rework particularly original. Experts like James O'Toole have long been recommending more flexible and less hierarchal workplaces.

What is different about Rework is that the founders of 37Signals are pitching their ideas at a level that can work with small teams on the sorts of projects and tasks that we all do. Anyone in charge of rolling out and supporting new learning technology services will benefit from reading Rework. You don't need a top-down re-org or permission from your leadership to make our products and team interactions more like those of 37Signals. We are all in some measure complacent in meeting cultures , reliances on committees, and the putting off of "shipping" new services until that mythical time the platform meets everyone's needs.

Rework should provoke a good discussion of how your team does things differently from how the team at 37Signals approaches tasks. In the end you may not decide to adopt all of the recommendations in Rework, but I guarantee that this book cause you to take a hard look at how your group operates.

Any Basecamp users want to jump in on the service? What do you think about the idea of writing a short book like Rework that spells out your work culture philosophy and the thinking behind the services you offer?


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