Decisions are Temporarywith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Co-founders of 37signals, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson discuss decision making within an organization. Small businesses have the advantage of being nimble and able to change course quickly, so there’s no reason to get caught up in the “what ifs.”
- 0:47 – Avoiding overthinking and overcomplicating issues
- 1:47 – Getting rid of the “what ifs”
- 4:30 – Making decisions as small as possible
- 5:45 – The advantages small business have when it comes to being agile and nimble
- 8:30 – Getting comfortable with uncertainty
- 11:00 – Calculations and projections in decision making
- 13:50 – Deciding when to pivot on a decision
- 15:20 – The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Z. Muller
- 18:04 – The 37signals Guide to Making Decisions
- 19:05 – The 37signals Guide to Internal Communication
- 20:20 – Using instincts in decision making
- 22:01 – Maverick by Ricardo Semler
- 23:14 – 37signals upcoming technical blog
Kimberly (00:00): Welcome to Rework a podcast by 37signals about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Kimberly Rhodes, and if you’ve been following along with the podcast for a bit, you know that recently we’ve been diving into the essays and chapters from the book Rework. The podcast has been going through the book in order. But for today’s episode and some future episodes, we’re gonna be skipping around a bit so we can bring you content and discussions that are incredibly timely. I’m joined by 37 Signals co-founders, Jason Freed and David Heinemeier Hansson to discuss an essay from their book, Rework. Title Decisions are Temporary and we’re also gonna explore how they make decisions at 37signals. So let’s dive right in. Jason and David, one of the first sentences of this essay really struck me, which is, Don’t make up problems you don’t have yet. Tell me a little bit about that.
Jason (00:47): Yes, so many problems are self-imposed and a lot of 'em have to do with overthinking things, making something complicated that shouldn’t be. Generally we kind of feel like most things are are simple until you make them complicated, which is very much tied in with that particular line. And we have a bunch of ways of dealing with this at work. You know, it comes, when it comes to product development, there’s a lot of features that you can build that can take 12 months or six months or three months, or three weeks or three days, like every, there’s different versions of all these things. And if you make everything a 12 week version or the 12 month version or whatever, you’re, you’re just gonna make things hard on yourself. So the idea is how do you figure out what the, what the essence of something is and do the simplest possible version of that. And that eliminates all the time where other problems can creep up, where other problems can be created. And you kind of squeeze all that stuff out. And all you have is room just to do the, the, the simplest, basic thing that has the fewest amount of problems. I think that’s one way when it comes to product development to handle that situation.
I think the other aspect there is to get real as quickly as possible, because all of these what ifs they get to live in the space before you’ve launched. Once you’ve launched, there are no what ifs, there are just only what ifs. And that is such an easier reality to deal with because it actually is reality. There are real people out there. Is this a problem? Is you’ll hear about it. If it’s a problem, they’ll write in, they’ll complain, they’ll do whatever. And if it isn’t, there’s just silence. And I think we’ve actually, unfortunately,
(02:48): And we thought long and hard about this. We had the discussions and debates over the policies and the content moderation, and some of that got heated and it got a little actually uncomfortable. And for what, right? In reality, once we put it out and it was put out in a way where only paying customers have access to this thing, it was just not an issue. Literally in the two years, I think we’ve been running Hey World, I can remember one, maybe two complaints ever being filed about something being written on there that was not worth the discussions, the machinery, the policy, right? The attempts to design the product around this possible ma future of Hey world being used for terrible things, right? But here we are. We got sucked into this and we’ve had similar cases of that in the past where it’s so easy to scare yourself out of doing anything. There are always a million things that possibly could go wrong, could go even terribly wrong that will induce you not to do stuff. Do you know what you, you gotta, you gotta do? And then decisions are temporary. You do, and you find out, holy shit, this is actually terrible. This is actually a really bad idea. You get change your mind.
Kimberly (04:02): So on that note, my question is, for small businesses, how do you backtrack? Like if you make a decision that you’re like, this is not a great idea, what’s the easiest way to, you know, change your course without it being disruptive?
Jason (04:14): Well, see, I think it starts with the decision itself because the bigger the decision and the longer you take to make it, and the more people that are involved in making it, the harder it is to reverse course. So you, you’ve gotta kind of start from the beginning, which is to make decisions as small as possible. Because once they’re really small, and this doesn’t apply all the time, but more often than not, you can probably make things quite a bit smaller than you think. And once they’re small, they’re just sort of inconsequential. It’s not that big of a deal. It’s like taking two steps forward. You take two back, that’s not a big deal. If you walk four miles and you have to backtrack, it’s like, oh, that’s a big trek, right? So, and I know like it’s hard to talk about this stuff in a, in a concrete way in a sense, cuz these, it’s like, well, how do you make something small?
(04:58): Well, we can talk a bit about that, but fundamentally it has to begin at the beginning, which is to make the decision as small and tight and sort of atomized as possible. And then, then you can, you know, backtrack, it’s, it’s just a lot easier. I think a big part of this too is about risk. So figuring out, you know, how to take risks without putting the company at risk. I think a lot of small businesses, when they’re making big decisions, they’re, they’re thinking about betting everything or, or, or game changing decisions or, or putting the company at risk decisions. Those are very hard to back away from. You can, but they’re much harder. But if it’s just a lot smaller and you make maybe six or seven instead of one or two, it’s just, it’s just easier to walk away from small things.
David (05:39): I also think this is one of the unique areas where small businesses have the best advantages because the consequences are just not likely to be as big. You’re not rolling this out to, as we say in the asa a hundred million people, right? If you have a hundred million people using, you think you’re not a small business, you are a large enterprise, you might have hundreds or thousands. So in some cases even fewer, right? And when you’re dealing with fewer people and you have less process, you’re just more agile. That comes with the territory. This is the blessing of being a small company, is that you are nimble, is that you can take two steps forward and then one back and go in a different direction. Imagine the number of meetings of coordinations departments, directors that have to line up in a large corporation for anything to materially change.
(06:30): When you are a small or even medium sized business, you have that luxury to change your mind. And then so what a lot of the fear, I think, too comes from, well, I don’t wanna be seen as have been, been wrong, right? If I’m changing my mind, it meant that I made a mistake, I I I did it wrong. And you’re like, you gotta get over that. I’m sorry. You gotta get over that. You’re never gonna get good at making decisions if you don’t make a bunch of mistakes with it too. Now that’s not a celebration of mistakes per se. I sometimes find that just boring too, when everyone like, Oh, the way you do anything, you should, should make a bunch of mistakes. That’s not the point. The point is not to make a bunch of mistakes. The point is to make decisions.
(07:09): The point is to make progress and to move forward some mistakes along the way is the natural consequence of making decisions. And you should factor it in and you should say like, Hey, I make a hundred decisions. Like, do you know what 10 of them are gonna be wrong? Which one of them are gonna be wrong? Or whatever it is. Hopefully it’s a minority. If you keep making decisions and they’re all mistakes, I mean, yeah, you’re gonna go outta business, but I think that impetus and injecting that into the business is so much easier for a small business. I mean, I feel like it’s gotten harder at 37signals to keep up that pace of making decisions quickly and making them small as we’ve gotten larger compared to when we were 10 people. Like this is just a natural expansion and difficulty of running a larger operation is that this decision making processes get more difficult. So embrace the fact if you are small, it will never be easier to make decisions and move forward and treat them with temporary and retreat than when you are small.
Kimberly (08:10): So Jason, David, you recently posted on YouTube, the two of you talking about some recent pricing changes that we’ve made at Basecamp, and one of the things that you said that I thought was interesting that as a company we’re extremely comfortable with uncertainty. And so I’m curious how uncertainty kind of comes into play with decision making.
Jason (08:29): Well, part of it is related to what we just talked about, which is if you make the decision relatively small, it’s like you can back out of it if it doesn’t work out or you can change your mind. And, and that’s where you get comfortable with uncertainty. Like, we don’t know how this is gonna pan out. So this, this pricing thing we’re talking about is we’re trying a new pricing experiment for new customers on Basecamp. We’re not affecting existing customers. So that’s one example of already making the decisions smaller. So we’re not affecting the tens of thousands of paid customers we already have. Only people are coming in the door today, tomorrow, the next day. And we know that we’re gonna give it a period of time. We’re gonna give it till the end of the year to explore this and see what happens.
(09:06): And we’re gonna look back after that and see what we learn, see what we want to do next. And the n we know that we can decide to do something else. We can continue, we can continue with on a variation, we can pause, we can do all the things. We have all the options. And when you have all the options in front of you and you know how long it’s gonna take and you’re not affecting your current customer base, while there’s a lot of uncertainty there around, we don’t know what’s gonna happen, it’s all within our control and we can change our minds. We can go in a different direction. And that’s how you get comfortable with the uncertainty, which is that, you know, it’s just a few months. This is not gonna sink the business. It’s not gonna swim if if this thing rocks, it’s not gonna like change the line right now. You know, this is about finding something out and then making more decisions after that. So I think that’s how we tend to sort of minimize the, the, the mass of the decision. And then in that, in that way we become more uncomfortable with the uncertainty that we’re playing with while we’re making that
David (10:04): Decision. Which goes back to Jason’s point about not putting the business itself at risk when you have everything all in. Yeah, it’s hard to get comfortable with that level of uncertainty that if the uncertainty is like, it didn’t work, you’re out of business. Yikes. I wouldn’t want to have to deal with a lot of decisions like that, but you can strap out this kind of safetyness as Jason talked about, like swinging on a trapeze from one platform to another. Not a big deal. If you know that when you fall you’re just gonna bounce, right? You have to climb back up. You’d rather have caught the trapeze and gone straight over. But it’s not the end of the world, right? Certainly not the end of your world. So strapping out that safety in terms of it’s, it’s temporary, it’s compartmentalized, it’s a, a small of a decision as we can make means that we don’t have to try to predict the future because this is the other way people try to counter uncertainty is to emulate the future up front.
(11:02): Can we run more tests? Can we run more calculations? Can we run more projections? Those things are all fake, right? Getting to real, getting to putting something in front of customers or, or whatever your decision is about is where the rubber meets the road. And so much of so many of these decisions, like you could have done all the best prep work in the world and you will still be surprised. We were just talking about this before we started recording, Why did this thing we were talking about with the cloud, why did that take off? I don’t know. We can come up with a bunch of different theories. Oh, it’s about the a narrative going on right now. It’s about some small business. I have a lot of theories about do we know? No, we don’t. Does it matter? No, it doesn’t because it worked.
Jason (11:46): Yeah.
(11:47): So I I was just gonna add something to that, which is, which is, and you kind of hit on it, which is so what was uncertain about this decision about pricing? Well, you could say, well we could have surveyed a bunch of people and ask them would they be willing to pay X for Y And you can fake yourself into feeling like you’re certain about what their answers are and if those match up with reality or not. We don’t believe that they typically do because there’s no cost to saying yes or no in a survey. And, and it’s very easy to spend money you don’t have to spend. So we actually think that’s uncertainty is faking yourself into believing something based on a non-reality essentially. So we’d rather put things to the test for real. And that’s how we get to more certain, actually. And I think that’s another way to flip this, which is don’t lean on things you, you don’t know for sure. Find them out and then, you know, and that’s actually how you find certainty not ahead
David (12:43): Of time. And I think part of this is that neither Jason and I have any need to cover our ass, right? Like if our decisions pan out poorly, we’re not gonna get fired. And I think unfortunately in some organizations that’s part of the drag on decision making is that people need to cover their ass because if they stick a claim and say like, we should go over here and we should just try, we should see what reality does, and then reality does not match their hypothesis. They might go like, Uhoh is my job now on the line, right? Like, eh, not so easy to make a a uncertain decision if my job is on the line, at least I wanna make sure the paperwork is in order. Well, we did the test and we did the focus group and we did this and the that and the over here. So I don’t know why it didn’t work. It was certainly not for lack of preparation when our argument is that that preparation is actually not just a waste of time, it’s a misdirection and it’s effort. You could have gone into dealing with reality as it is and being less attached to whether you’re right or wrong and more responsive to simply what is.
Kimberly (13:45): So on that note, I’m curious, how do you guys decide if a decision is the right decision? Like how do you measure whether or not you keep going or you pivot
Jason (13:55): It? It depends on the decision and sort of the criticality of it. And can it be measured or, or or is it just a feel like oh, I mean, like for example, writing this decision guide, which I just put up which we can link in the show notes. Like I wrote that in a day. We didn’t go back and forth on it. I asked David what he thought before publishing it. He had a few suggestions, we added a few things and we just did it. Now I’m not looking back at that and measuring traffic, like was it worth doing? I don’t know. It was, to me it took a day. We, we put some stuff together, we put some things out there that are true and that’s fine, right? That’s that kind of decision. And so you, you don’t wanna overanalyze things like that, right?
(14:37): You know, you don’t wanna then go back and go, Oh my God, was it worth it? Let’s see, Well, what does it mean to be worth it? Well we need to get 7,000 people a day reading it. If they don’t, then it wasn’t worth it. It’s like that’s just not, I, that’s not how that works. There are things though that, that, you know, you, you put a lot of money into or you sink a lot of time into that you wanna make sure there’s some return on at some point. Cause if you keep doing that forever, you’ll exhaust all your resources and you, you go away. So it just depends on the criticality, but you cannot apply. I, well, you can, I don’t think you should be applying metrics to everything. And I think you gotta think about like what was the effort you put into it and the lower the effort, the less you need to worry about measuring it is a big part of it as well, I think is how I would
David (15:17): Approach it. Yeah, there’s a book with of which the, the title I love, I don’t love the book itself, but it’s called the Tyranny of Metrics. This idea that unless it can’t be measured, it’s not worth doing. And if you are measuring it, you will find out what the truth is. If you look at the past 20 years of how we’ve run this business, we have measured very, very few things. Things have turned out all right for us nonetheless. And that’s not just sort of a humble brag, as in it could have turned out at all sorts of different levels. We could still be six people running a much, much, much smaller base cam service. And we would probably have gone like, Hey, that’s great. We, we spent the time on stuff we like doing in a way we like doing it. And that could be enough of a, a success.
(15:59): So I think a lot of this momentum, the ability to treat decisions as temporary also comes with a sense of pace, a sense of cadence. The longer you take and the long or the more you invest into that decision, the harder it’s going to be to treat it as temporary, The more precious the decision becomes. So if you just get into the swing of making more decisions of smaller scope more often, you’re not gonna be that attached to any one single one of them, right? And you can just do what, what flows, what feels right in the sense of investing your time and your motivation and your attention. This is the other thing, people often think of investments as like, was it worth the time? To me, there are very few things I measure in time. I measured in attention and motivation because those are the scars resources.
You, I could technically have eight hours and I can totally squander that eight hours if I do not have the attention or the motivation to make the things happen I want to do. So when the attention and motivation shows up as Jason had this idea for the decision making guy and boom, he knocks it out in a single day, that’s because there’s amble attention and amble motivation available. If I was like, Hey Jason, no, it’s been two months since you promised me that decision making guy, he’d be like, Ah,
Kimberly (17:59): Awesome. Well Jason, you mentioned the 37 Signals guide to making decisions that you just wrote. Tell us a little bit about it. Well obviously link to it in the show notes, but why should people read it?
Jason (18:10): Why should they decide to read it? How’s that
Jason (18:14): Well, you know, people ask us a lot about like, how do you decide or what goes into a decision or why’d you make that decision? I mean, this is really kind of a very common theme. And so you know, I wanna put together this, this sort of, this, this series of, it’s not a linear, there’s what, 38 of them right now? I I’ve added a few since I think there’s 38. Yeah. So it’s not a linear thing. Like we don’t go through these steps for every decision, but these are some of the things you think about when you’re making a decision. This is sort of a grab bag of questions to ask yourself, thoughts to inject in your head, in your mindset when you’re thinking about why are we doing this? Is this worth doing? So it’s, it’s, it’s a nice thing to go through.
(18:51): It’s very quick. You’ll be able to read it in a few minutes and it will just fill your mind with some, some questions to ask when you’re being asked questions about something else. That, and we also have another one which which we put out called the, the Guide to Internal Communication, which is a similar format. It’s about, in that case it’s about 30 just thoughts and ideas about how to communicate with each other. So these are these general frameworks that we have that are not, again, it’s not a process, it’s not so you can make this hard to get back your initial thing. You can be like, every time we have a decision, there’s a process. And the process is we go through these 22 steps and then there’s a checklist and we ask these questions and we ask all the people. That’s not what this is. This is just a grab bag and things to think about because you can get caught in the decision itself and you can’t step out of it and go, Why are we doing this at all? Why are we making this decision at all? What is the point here? And so that’s kind of what this does. It helps to lift you out of the decision itself and surround you with some questions about why you’re making it and how you’re
Kimberly (19:50): Making it. Let me just jump in. When I read it was thinking there would be 37 of 'em for 37signals, and then I got to 38, which is in the end, is this about money, which is like the mic drop one.
Jason (20:01): That’s how I kind of appreciate that. I mean, there was 36 originally I think, and then I added 37 and I said I had to add one more, the mic drop one. So there might be more though. Overtime. Yeah, it was just, it kind of came out that way.
David (20:11): I think how I like to look at these things is it’s kind of like a gym for your gut. You have to develop a gut sense of instincts that you simply can rely on the next time you’re faced with this decision. And you go, just wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, let’s take one step back. And then if we take just one of this 22, when do we have to decide, right? We’re all fired up right now about the disposition, but if this is not even relevant for another month or two, should we just wait? Because if we do, we’ll probably have more information by the time we have to make our call. I mean, this is actually my sort of positive cast for procrastination. I do not like whenever I’m invited to, to speak or appear on something, I wait until the day before because the day before is when I will have the stuff top of mind that I wanna talk about that needs to, to go out with the kind of fire I wanna bring, right?
(21:07): If I prepare this two months in advance, first of all, I’m gonna be bored by the time the event rolls around and like, well, I’m just reciting something I wrote two months ago. Hopefully I learned something in those two months. Could I present that instead? Another example here is like 27, would another opinion help or hinder, we go into this all the time. Who needs to actually weigh in on this? Is there some crucial information that only one person sits when or actually if we just go like, Oh, we should ask a few more people. Are we just punting? If we just punting? Probably no, we’re not gonna ask any more people. You have the information from you, you’ve heard from the people who are relevant to this decision. Make it, make the damn call and then let’s move on.
Kimberly (21:47): Yeah. One of my favorites in this writeup is number 20, will this decision make more work for people that don’t have extra time for that work? I think in a lot of organizations that is a problem. Yes.
Kimberly, I hope this wasn’t a a, a veiled attack at asking you to host the podcast cuz we love
No, not at all. That was, I did not mean that on number 20 by any means,
David (23:12): Yes. So one of the factors that came up when this post about the cloud took off so much was that there’s a bunch of people who are really curious about how we run things on a technical level at 37 Signals shouldn’t really be a surprise. I mean, we’ve been sharing these things for a very long time. Ruby Rails all sorts of design decisions. We’ve had a long history of sharing, but seemingly there’s still more, there is still more for us to share about how we run things, especially on the operation side. And over the years, the last blog we ran, Signal versus Noise hats, some of that material, but then it kind of drifted and it stopped. Now we’re carving out a separate space on 37signals.com. There’ll be a new blog just for that kind of content. The nitty gritty, deep dives into how we operate our technical infrastructure, how we do software development, how we do operations.
(24:05): We have a wonderful first post coming up about how to optimize something in the database with a bunch of intricate indexes and so on. Written by one of our new employees, Donald, who I just thought it actually, it’s a great example of, of a, a decision here. I read that post the Donald posted on our internal Basecamp and I went like, this is so damn good that it would be an injustice if we kept it just on our own Basecamp. We should publish this somewhere and then everyone would, but where, well, let’s just make a blog and then boom, boom, boom. We’re gonna have a blog that’s gonna be the first post. And I think it’s a great one and I hope we’ll we’ll post a bunch more. So let’s link to it when it’s when it’s up, but it’s gonna be on 37signals.com.
Kimberly (24:49): That’s perfect. And you can also follow us on Twitter at 37 Signals to get alerted when that technical blog is Live. Rework is a production of 37 Signals. You can find show notes in transcripts on our firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find us on Twitter at rework podcast.