The 37signals Guide to Making Decisions

A company is essentially two things: a group of people and a collection of decisions. How those people make these decisions is the art of running a business. This guide shows how we do it.

Rules of thumb, and general philosophy

Below you’ll find a collection of general principles we try to keep in mind at 37signals when making decisions. They aren’t requirements, and this isn’t a comprehensive checklist we go through whenever we’re faced with a choice, but they serve as frames, considerations, and shared practices to draw upon when we do the one thing that we need to do all day, every day: decide.

  1. Why are we deciding anything at all? Does a decision actually need to be made here?
  2. Is the right person making this decision? Not the right role, but the right person with the right information, context, and insight? Who’s merely chiming in?
  3. If we remove the immediate impact, how do we think we’ll feel about this decision a year from now?
  4. Why hasn’t this decision been made already? Why didn’t we decide before?
  5. What’s taking so long to make this decision? Why are we hesitating? What does that reveal?
  6. Why would someone else make a different decision? What’s the other side — or two or three — look like?
  7. Can we make this decision smaller? Can we take one big decision and turn it into three smaller ones?
  8. How easily can we reverse the decision?
  9. What was our first instinct on this decision? Are we now just walking around in circles trying to justify that gut reaction with data?
  10. What would happen if we just didn’t make the decision?
  11. What happened the last time we made a decision like this?
  12. What are we looking forward to after the decision is made? What are we afraid of?
  13. How can we make this decision easier? What parts can we eliminate from consideration?
  14. Is there even a wrong decision?
  15. Do we anticipate making a different decision if we wait until tomorrow morning to make it?
  16. Is any decision better than no decision, or is no decision better than any decision?
  17. What other decisions will be impacted by this decision?
  18. Will this decision eliminate the need to make other decisions, or will it create the necessity to make even more decisions?
  19. What missing information would lead to making a different decision?
  20. Will this decision make more work for people that don’t have extra time for that work? Or will it eliminate work?
  21. Could this decision be a good one for someone else to practice making?
  22. When do we have to decide?
  23. Will this be a one-and-done decision, or will this be a repeating decision?
  24. Is anyone outside the company depending on this, or is this a decision of our own making?
  25. How does this decision impact customers vs. impact us?
  26. Is this primarily a data-based decision, or an intuition, gut-based decision?
  27. Would another opinion help or hinder?
  28. If we were forced to make a decision right this second, what would it be?
  29. Where do we think we’d be today if we made this decision 90 days ago?
  30. Is there anything in this decision we’d regret if we didn’t take X, Y, or Z into consideration?
  31. Do you even care which way this goes? If not, why are you involved?
  32. When and how will we know whether the decision was the right one, or if it even mattered?
  33. When the consequences of our decision appear, are they likely to be visible with the naked eye or do they require a microscope to detect? If the latter, does it even matter?
  34. What principles are we bending if we make this decision?
  35. Are we asking multiple people to make a decision that one person should be making?
  36. Is the return on effort worth it?
  37. What gets easier if we make this decision? What gets harder? Will easier remain easier in the long term, or is it short-term easy but long-term hard? And vice versa.
  38. In the end, is this about money?

Other resources

Closely related to decision making is internal communication. Our “37signals Guide to Internal Communication” details how we think about how we communicate with each other.

We’ve detailed the pros and cons of chat vs. long form writing in our infamous “Group Chat: Group Stress” guide. We definitely recommend checking it out.

You’ll also find a detailed explanation of how our teams work day-to-day on software projects in “Shape Up: Stop Running in Circles and Ship Work that Matters”.

Basecamp-exclusive Hill Charts help us see where projects really stand without having to rely on inefficient status meetings, daily standups, or regular in-person check-ins.

The Basecamp Company Handbook is also worth checking out. It explains how we’re structured, how we define titles and roles, our full benefits package, our company values, the responsibilities of individual contributors, managers, and executives, and other essential bits.

And of course, the products of all our work: HEY for email and Basecamp for project management.


Anything else?

We hope this guide was useful, but we’re sure we’re missing something. What questions do you still have? What did you hope to learn that you didn’t? Was anything more confusing than clarifying? What would have made this guide more helpful? It’s a work in progress, and we’ll update as necessary based on your feedback. Please send questions, suggestions, and thoughts directly to the author, Jason Fried, at jason@37signals.com. Thanks!