Making the Call is Making Progresswith Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
It’s so easy to punt on something; to say, “let’s wait until we have enough information to make the perfect decision.” Perfect decisions don’t exist, putting things off makes them pile up, and you’ll end up getting absolutely nowhere. Very few decisions are set in stone. So, make calls as quickly as possible. Don’t wait around for the perfect answer.
- 06:33 - Disagree and commit (Wikipedia)
- 07:37 - Six-week cycles (Shape Up)
- 15:13 - HEY World
- 18:19 - Performance indicator (Wikipedia)
- 18:29 - The Tyranny of Metrics - Jerry Z. Muller
- 19:14 - Notes from Underground - Fyodor Dostoevsky
- 20:41 - Gary Vaynerchuk
- 20:51 - What’s the ROI of your mother (garyvaynerchuk.com)
The Full Transcript
Shaun Hildner (00:01): Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m your host, Shaun Hildner. This week, we’re talking about making decisions and as always, I am joined by Basecamp’s co-founders and the authors of Rework. Jason Fried, how are you?
Jason Fried (00:15): Good, Shaun. How are you?
Shaun Hildner (00:16): Wonderful. And David Heinemeier Hansson, how are you?
David Heinemeier Hansson (00:19): Good. Good.
Shaun Hildner (00:20): I think to start off can you go over this mental acrobatics you have to do to switch from let’s think about it to let’s decide on it?
Jason Fried (00:29): At some point, usually sooner than later, it’s time to make a decision for most things. Some things do require extended deliberation, discussion, thought. Most things do not. And I think reserving the extended for the difficult makes sense, but otherwise it doesn’t. And one of the things we will do though, sometimes is if we’re sort of debating something, we’ll like, we’ll just say, let’s sleep on it and make the decision tomorrow morning. So you’ll kind of extend it by a day, but with the purpose of making that call tomorrow and using sleep and distance as a tool. So not just like, well, let’s keep talking about it tomorrow, but let’s sleep on it and then make a call tomorrow is one technique we’ve used to get to done with something.
David Heinemeier Hansson (01:11): The other technique is to simply let the arguments run their course. And when there are no new novel arguments emerging from those things going back and forth, it’s time to make a decision. The data’s here, the viewpoints have been expressed. You can just sort of like, maybe we’ll come up with something. Yeah, often not. Just find a way to make a decision. And we talk about that as though that’s sort of easy to do, which in some ways it is, but it requires a shift of mentality that most decisions can be and are temporary.
Shaun Hildner (01:46): Yeah.
David Heinemeier Hansson (01:47): You can make a decision today and then you can change your mind if not tomorrow, the next week or next month as more data comes in. In fact, one of the best ways to inform a decision is simply to make one and then see what happens and then consider, well, that was the trial run. And if we picked the right path, well, great. Let’s just stay on that. And if we pick the wrong path, we’ll just switch to the other one now.
David Heinemeier Hansson (02:12): You’re not stuck with the vast majority of decisions that you make, particularly around the product, or pricing, or anything else, most things you get a second, or even third, or a fourth, or a fifth go at it. They don’t have this level of permanence that most people give them. They’re not sunk into concrete. No, a few decisions are. And it’s actually funny that notion of concrete is a term we occasionally use around technical decisions that do have that nature. That if we go this way now we’re pouring some concrete that will be difficult to undo later. It’s always possible as we would say, it’s just code.
Shaun Hildner (02:51): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (02:52): It’s just code. You can change whatever you want, but it gets more expensive to change it. But there’s just so many decisions that aren’t even that expensive to change your mind on later. But everyone is acting as though, okay, really got to be right on this one. This is our one shot. And if we miss it, well, I don’t know, calamity.
Shaun Hildner (03:10): Yeah. What are the problems with waiting for the perfect solution, with waiting for more information? What ends up happening if you just keep putting stuff off?
Jason Fried (03:18): You don’t get anywhere. That’s the one thing that often happens. The other thing though, is that it tends to dull what you’re doing. If you just kind of keep putting things off and waiting for more information, and waiting for more feedback, and waiting for more perspectives, you actually end up watering things down, I think. And I’ve always felt like the best way to be uncertain about something is to ask one more person what they think. There’s this notion that you get more opinions, that more opinions will make it clearer. I don’t think it typically does.
Shaun Hildner (03:48): Right.
Jason Fried (03:48): At some point, the people assigned to making the decision just need to make the call and move on. To David’s point, most of these decisions are temporary and you can change them if you have to. Of course the ones that you can’t, you should put more energy into, but most of them are not that way. And so sort of stop taking everything so seriously is a nice way to think about just moving on.
Shaun Hildner (04:08): Yeah.
David Heinemeier Hansson (04:08): I also think that there’s just a level of confidence that should go with the people who are assigned to make decisions, that that’s part of that role, if you’re a team lead, or a product manager, or CEO or whatever you are. If part of your brief is to make decisions, you really got to be able to do that.
Shaun Hildner (04:29): Yeah.
David Heinemeier Hansson (04:30): Now you also got to be able to recognize when you’re wrong and hit back the other way, if reality shows that you made a bad one. But a key attribute of someone who can drive something forward is their capacity to make those decisions and then live with the consequences that if the decision is wrong and it needs to be amended, okay, that’s a thing that happened. And then you learn something from that hopefully, and you carry on and your aim is you’d hope a little better the next time. That’s just how it goes.
David Heinemeier Hansson (05:00): And I think that’s the other part of it, is the more decisions you make, the better you get at it. We’ve made thousands of decisions, particularly on the product over the years. And you’d like to believe that the 1000th decision was a little easier than the first three. So get into the habit of just shooting at these decisions you need to make. And then you can get better at it and you can learn the skill.
Shaun Hildner (05:27): Yeah.
David Heinemeier Hansson (05:28): It really is to make decisions. Now, some of this also comes with the skill of deciding when that decision’s going your way and when it’s not. I mean, Jason or I will have these debates where decision needs to be made and we are not necessarily just like lockstep on the same page about where it needs to go from the moment we start talking about it. Sometimes the quote unquote right decision, the decision we agree on emerges quickly through conversation and other times it doesn’t, and the decision still needs to be made. And usually there’s either the decision falls in one camp or the other. If it’s about design or product direction, well, Jason is going to be the authority on that. If it’s about something technical, I am.
David Heinemeier Hansson (06:11): But also sometimes the authority falls to who cares more. I think we’ve talked about this concept before, but we delegate often the power to make the decision to the person whose most passionate about that particular decision. And then we disagree and commit. That like, Hey, I’m not there yet. Right. Like I don’t see the data or the arguments the same way, but we got to make a decision either way. Like the worst thing you could do is disagree and don’t commit. Then you’re just stuck in some landlocked place where you’re not going to make progress on other things either because it has a way of sort of bundling all the other decisions up behind it.
David Heinemeier Hansson (06:48): While we really got to solve this one first, we can’t move on to the other things. That’s the thing about making decisions. It really unblocks the pipeline of decisions that need to be made because there’s so many of them and then they just keep coming and coming. So if you take all the time in the world on just one of them, well, now you have a traffic jam here of decisions pending to be made,
Shaun Hildner (07:09): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (07:09): And the longer you sit there, the longer it gets. That’s not healthy. So just except too, that not all the decisions that need to be made, do you have to agree with.
Shaun Hildner (07:18): Now you talk about momentum a lot, especially when building something brand new. And if making decisions is making progress, how important is keeping that momentum up, keeping that fire lit like we talked about last week?
Jason Fried (07:30): I think it’s important, which is one of the reasons why, not the only reason, but one of the reasons why we focus on these six week cycles. The shape up process that we says basically every six weeks, you work on some new stuff. And sometimes you wish you maybe had a little bit more time and sometimes you give it a little bit more time, but most of the time it’s more than enough time. And you just, you’re on this repeating momentum march, basically to keep delivering new things and it’s not exhaust, it shouldn’t be at least. It’s just like, this is the pattern, this is the path. That builds momentum. And before you know it, you look back three or four cycles and you’re like, man, we did a lot of work. We did a lot of great stuff. Our customers got a lot of great things.
Jason Fried (08:13): Our product got a lot better versus if you sort of, you spend as much time on things as they need. And before you know it, you could spend four months on one thing when you could have done six or seven things. So I just think that march is really important. That’s just one version of making decisions about what we’re doing, making decisions about what we’re shipping, making decision about what we’re designing, how we’re coding and all those things. It just constant decisions. It sort of trains us to make calls. And I think that’s been a really fruitful approach for us.
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:41): I think it’s also one of those structural repeating incentives that you need, because this is actually quite hard. It’s far easier to procrastinate making a decision. It’s far easier to go like, eh, we can’t quite agree. Let’s just punt.
Jason Fried (08:57): Yeah.
David Heinemeier Hansson (08:58): But if you have a clock that says six weeks and you got to be done by the end of that, then that forces that momentum on you even if you kind of don’t really want to.
Jason Fried (09:09): Sure.
David Heinemeier Hansson (09:09): I find it’s a little bit, at least for me like working out. I need to have appointments to work out otherwise you could think like, well, you could just get up in the morning and start working out. Like, what’s so hard about that? Well, everything in human nature and unless I have these appointments that like, I have to be a certain place at nine o’clock because that’s when we do it. And if I miss that, like I’m missing an appointment and that kind of feels serious. That’s what gets me into it. And I think most people need these kinds of nudges, and guardrails, and drag alongs to do the things they know is true.
David Heinemeier Hansson (09:45): This is the other thing. You can say this thing, and you can agree with it. Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. Let’s make decisions. And then next week you sit bog down in some meeting for the sixth hour discussing the same thing you discussed last week and you forget all about it, but momentum creates its own momentum too. That’s the other thing that’s wonderful about it, is once you do get on a roll and as Jason says, you look back upon the work that you’ve created, that is a powerful structural incentive in and of itself, because anything you’re doing now gets compared to that inevitably. You look at like, oh, did you see all the stuff we did last cycle, the last six weeks? And then you look, Hey, it’s week three, we’re still stuck in this thing. What are we going to have to show for this cycle in comparison to the one we just did? And like few people enjoy sort of regressing on that,
Jason Fried (10:30): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (10:30): At least materially or repeatedly. Yeah. You need sometime a little bit of a kick in the ass to get it out the door, make some calls and keep moving.
Shaun Hildner (10:39): Like you were saying, it is scary to think that a decision you make today is set in stone, you’ve poured concrete. But what I’ve found is that the moment, like all that fear is about making the decision and the moment a decision is made right or wrong, all of that fear leaves. Like is that a more of a psychological trick to just, Hey, make any decision and at least you can move on?
Jason Fried (11:02): I think that can be helpful. I also tend to think of decisions, like when I make a decision, I’m thinking about how’s it going to feel a year from now? Because I think sometimes you make a decision in the moment and whatever the moment is, its difficult, stressful, whatever. It’s really not about right this seconds. That’s not really what the decision’s about. It’s typically about like later, because in the moment it’s hard, like David says, it’s very hard to make these decisions sometimes. And there’s a lot of pressures and whatnot, but time has a way of sort of clarifying things.
Jason Fried (11:33): And I’m just thinking like a year from now will I look back on that and be glad I made that decision? That’s the only way to make really hard ones, I think otherwise your sort of, you’re pretty stressed out about the immediate short term impact because most decisions come with change, a degree of change.
Jason Fried (11:50): People aren’t really comfortable with change, most of the time. Sometimes they are, if they make it. But if it’s forced upon them, they’re not. And people have opinions and things change on people and they’re not ready. And it’s tough. So it’s like a year from now, will people feel good about this? Or will people forget about this or whatever it would be, will they not care as much as they care now is a good way to think about it. Or like, will they be really happy that we made this decision on this call? Like all those things, the way to, in my opinion, to frame difficult decisions, is to think about them down the road.
David Heinemeier Hansson (12:22): I think another tactic here is to make it clear almost as you go into making this decision, who’s making the decision, whose call is this actually? Whose role is this? Whose hat does this belong under? And that the discussion is a way of primarily informing that person about all the trade offs and perspectives as you see them. But in accepting that, I mean, as it’s often said, great decisions don’t come out of committees. They come out of individuals who are on the hook for that decision. And they should be well informed, they should be taking counsel, they should all those things, but then in the end, it should fall on a person. For example, with the projects that we have designers at Basecamp often play that role of the project manager in shipping a feature and in the detailed work of it, that is the person that has to make a call on like, what should this screen look like?
David Heinemeier Hansson (13:24): Now they can pull in all sorts of other people. They can ask Jason, they can ask another designer, they can ask a programmer, they can ask support or QA, whatever, but you’re responsible for making momentum here. And I think that really just sort of helps clear it because sometimes you can fall into like, Hey, there’s four people sitting around discussing this thing. Like we all have an equal vote or voice in this. No, we don’t. There’s someone who has the responsibility of making the call and moving forward and we shouldn’t dull ourselves into believing that this is actually a democratic thing. There’s lots of things in companies that just aren’t democratic things. Companies are hierarchies in most cases, some are not, and they’re fascinating, but not widespread. But most companies are hierarchies for a reason. And I think that ability to make decisions, move forward, and have someone who’s like on the hook for something is a key part of it. And it’s a feature, not a bug.
Shaun Hildner (14:21): Are there any decisions or types of decisions, I guess that you probably should wait for more information before making?
Jason Fried (14:27): Well, there might be stuff that’s like, data is coming in, in three weeks and we’ve been struggling with something. We’re not sure where to go with it. And this thing that’s being compiled right now will provide insight that we didn’t have. Like, there’s some of that, but the problem with that, I mean, it’s not that there’s a problem with that. That could be useful, but I’ll still say it. The problem with that is that there can always be some other future thing that you don’t have and you can keep saying like, well, we need to wait for this, we need to wait for that, we need to wait for this, we need to wait for that. I think the, actually the example David brings up a lot is the HEY World blogging feature that we built into HEY.
Shaun Hildner (15:01): Yeah.
Jason Fried (15:01): Where everybody uses HEY, gets a personal blog. And we had all sorts of concerns about what would people publish on these public blogs? And what would it look like if someone says the wrong thing and like all this stuff, and it turned out like not to be a problem, but we put a lot of energy into imagining the problem, which is not a bad exercise,
Shaun Hildner (15:20): Right.
Jason Fried (15:20): But it needs to end also. We need to go like, we’re either doing this or we’re not doing this. We can’t just keep coming up with reasons why we should not do something or like we need to make a call. And so we could’ve waited and in fact, that’s what we actually did, is we shipped it without this X and waited to see if Y would happen, turns out Y never happened. So you can also make a decision and still wait and see what happens.
Shaun Hildner (15:43): Yeah.
Jason Fried (15:43): And it turns out in that case, like nothing happened. So we didn’t have to go through all the exercise of being afraid of the things that weren’t going to happen. So sometimes the waiting is still making a decision and the waiting for more information.
David Heinemeier Hansson (15:56): I think that’s sort of scaffolding where you built something up that isn’t really going to support this feature, if the thing you’re afraid of actually comes to pass, but like it’ll soften the blow just enough that you’ll have time to actually fix things, is a huge power move in terms of being able to cover great distances very quickly. And the earlier you are in the product cycle, the more important this is. When we were building Basecamp one, just essentially less than a handful of people working on it. We had to make tons of these scaffolding decisions all the time because there weren’t an army of people to implement everything to the nth degree. But that is the blessing of being a small company with few customers. You get to run with scissors a little bit. If you trip, it’s not a big deal.
David Heinemeier Hansson (16:52): The consequences of shipping something that’s not quite right or people use in a way that you sort of thought, well, there’s a off chance that they’ll do this. And then they did it. What’s the impact? It’s few people, right? This is why larger organizations get so lethargic. Facebook ships something that’s not quite right and first of all, there’s about five million people. They’ll write them in about that, right? Like, ah, this is right. They might face all these other consequences and all these other things. Scale has a way of just slowing everything down.
David Heinemeier Hansson (17:23): So this is why the idea of making decisions is something you need to learn and embrace as a superpower when you’re a small company, because it will never ever get this easy again. The more people you have, the more customers you have, the more complex your product is, the harder it’ll become to make those decisions. So if you don’t train those decision making muscles in the beginning, there won’t be anything to help you when you really need it and it really gets tough. And there’s actually a lot of weight now on it and you can’t just push it away.
Shaun Hildner (17:57): I think that’s a great place to stop. We have a few minutes left here. Do you want to switch to listener question?
Jason Fried (18:03): Sure. Let’s try it.
Chris (18:05): Hi Jason and David. This is Chris from Chicago. There’s a pervasive idea in corporate America that you can’t improve what you don’t measure, which seems to have led to KPIs and the constant need for metrics. Seems like a reasonable assertion, but I’m wonder what your thoughts are on that idea.
Jason Fried (18:21): I saw David just nodding his head. So take it.
David Heinemeier Hansson (18:24): There’s a great book called the Tyranny of Metrics, which actually the thing I like most about that book is the title. The book itself is fine. It’s just about 20 times too long. It’d be a great couple of blog posts, but the tyranny of metrics is a really wonderful point in the sense that there’s so much stuff that’s really important. You can’t measure. There’s no way of doing that. There’s no way of finding the numbers. There’s no way of setting up the experiment, but that doesn’t mean it’s not crucially important. And the problem is if you buy this bullshit notion that what you can’t manage what you can’t measure. You only manage what you can measure.
Jason Fried (19:05): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (19:05): And that is, Dostoevsky would say like one 20th of life, right? Like in his Notes from the Underground about rationality, that that is just a fraction of all the decisions we have to make at a company, and all the considerations we have to take. The stuff that we can actually measure is a vanishingly small part of it. Now that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can measure. We’ve made a bunch of changes for example, to marketing pages over the years where we thought like, oh, this is much better. And then you do the AB and you go like, well for whatever reason, and this is the frustrating thing about metrics often, is that they don’t actually provide answers. They just provide conclusions. Oh, A was better than B. But why? I want to know why. I want to have a theory here. I want to have an explanation for why that is, but you can’t get that from metrics necessarily. It’s a great way of leaning on them for all sorts of hypotheses, but they don’t provide you with those kinds of answers.
David Heinemeier Hansson (20:02): So I think you end up running your business in a very impoverished way, if you believe that everything that’s important to manage can be measured. Again, that’s not an anti-science, it’s not anti-statistics. I’m a stickler for statistically significant measurements when those are the ones that actually matter in the subset of things that you do. But if you look at all the things that we’ve done in 20 years of business, how many decisions boiled down to things we could quote unquote measure? It’s not even at 20th.
Shaun Hildner (20:33): Yeah.
Jason Fried (20:33): Solid. That was good. Nothing more to add.
Shaun Hildner (20:35): No thoughts.
Jason Fried (20:36): No. The only thing I would say is there’s remember Gary Vee used to have this thing where people would ask him question like that and he’d be like, dude, can you measure the value of a smile? Can you measure the value of saying, I love you to your mom? And it’s actually a great point. No, you cannot. But you know that that’s important. You know that that’s valuable, you know that it means something. So that was his answer. I always like that answer.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:00): Also, I love answers that fit on that greeting card.
Jason Fried (21:03): Yeah.
Shaun Hildner (21:03): Right.
David Heinemeier Hansson (21:05): You know your onto something when it could be at CVS in the greeting card section.
Jason Fried (21:10): He’s like, what’s a hug worth? Like it’s a great, of course that’s a little bit flippant, but like it’s still, there’s a really good fundamental point there. That sometimes you just, you do the right thing because it feels right. It is right. It’s whatever. You don’t need to prove everything is worthwhile to do. I think that’s actually, that’s kind of what the data thing is all about, is everyone wants to be certain. That’s really what that’s about. Certainty is, I don’t think it’s worth it actually. Now there are examples probably where it is, but in most cases you’re not going to find it. And the data’s going to tell you what you probably wanted to hear anyway, in some way. You’re going to make almost a gut decision that’s informed by other things, but there’s so many variables that are not represented in that decision. So to suggest that it’s just because of this, that you’re making that call, I don’t think that’s typically the way they’re made. So anyway, that’s a little bit of an aside.
David Heinemeier Hansson (22:06): Yeah. Last point on that is you’re measuring what? There’s about five trillion different things you could measure. You’re choosing to measure five things, two things. Do you know what, that does come at the exclusion of other things. This is one of those issues there are with for example, tying compensation to, I mean the old thing in program was like lines of code produces. You get what you measure in some sense, right? And very often that ends up distorting the big picture because the big picture is comprised of a trillion pixels.
David Heinemeier Hansson (22:37): And if you’re saying, well, only red, that’s the thing we’re measuring, that’s the important thing. Well, you’re going to get a fricking red screen. That is not going to be a piece of art. The piece of art comes together through all these pixels that are all important in ways you don’t even know, you can’t even articulate it, but humans actually know. They’re quite good at those things. It’s one of those things where you’re like, oh hey, we should’ve had self-driving cars from now. Oh, it turns out humans are very good at these ways of taking in all sorts of information that you can’t actually articulate. Implicit knowledge. You run a great risk at totally wrecking havoc at what humans are actually good at doing, if you boil it all down to five numbers.
Shaun Hildner (23:17): Well, that’s perfect. Thank you for your call, Chris. If you would like to ask anything, anything at all of Jason and David, leave us a voicemail at (708) 628-7850 or, and I prefer this method, record a voice memo on your phone and email it to email@example.com. Next week, we’re talking about a chapter that’s very close to my heart, be a curator, as someone who collects way too many insignificant items in his house. So I will see both of you next week. For now, I want to say thank you to David Heinemeier Hansson.
David Heinemeier Hansson (23:53): Thanks Shaun.
Shaun Hildner (23:54): And thank you for joining me, Jason Fried.
Jason Fried (23:56): Thank you, Shaun.
Shaun Hildner (23:57): We’ll see you next week.
Jason Fried (23:58): All right.
Shaun Hildner (24:04): Rework is a production of Basecamp. Our theme music is by Clip Art. We’re on the web at rework.fm where you can find show notes and transcripts for this and every episode of Rework. We’re also on Twitter @reworkpodcast. If you’re following along in the book next week, we’ll be discussing the chapter, be a curator. And if you like the show, I’d really appreciate it if you would leave a review on Apple Podcast, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you’re listening to this. I love you all’s voicemails. This one just made my day
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