Sunday, October 17, 2010


Are you an entrepreneur? Managing a small software company? Thinking about getting into a start-up? Frustrated by the way your work/life balance is shot to hell?

Then get a copy of Rework, put it in your bathroom, and read a few pages every time you have a few moments. It's full of short, insightful essays, typically a page long, that add up to a different vision of how you can do business, and what a successful company can look like.

Some of it's pretty obvious advice. Meetings are toxic. Don't hire too many people too early. Love what you're doing or it'll show.

Some of it's slightly utopian, and only suitable for certain sorts of companies. Hire people who don't need managers and will just get on with whatever needs doing. It's OK for everyone to work from home, scattered round the world as long as they communicate online every day. Make sure you can do every job in the company yourself. Keep your product really simple.

Well, that's all fine if you're building a small software product, and you only need a few talented programmers to create it and refine it step by step. That doesn't always work so well if you're building a complex product that requires a lot of people working together. Or, come to that, opening a restaurant. Sometimes, you need a roomful of grunts and a manager just to get through the sheer volume of labour and ensure everyone's working effectively. And if they're highly specialised grunts, you can't really expect anyone else to be able to do their job. That, after all, is why you hired them.

However, there are some pieces in Rework that challenge orthodox business thinking, particularly in the modern tech start-up. These are the bits you need to read and think about. The five that stuck in my mind this time were:

Planning is guessing. No plan I have ever made for a business has come to reality. And, probably, neither have any of yours. All those optimistic budget forecasts, sales forecasts, hiring plans, release schedules, marketing plans - all bollocks. They looked impressive, and people signed up to them, but the truth is they were my best guess, nothing more, and they all turned out to be wrong. Hell, I can rarely even plan for what I'm going to do next week. Things change too fast in modern business. So, they advise, stop wasting your time making pointless plans, set some goals, and just do the damn job. Or, if you do have to make a plan, make sure you and everyone else knows they're only a guess.

Don't write down the procedures. Forget sheets of diagrams and documents explaining you do everything in the company. You won't stick to them anyway. A release checklist or similar, fine. But don't waste your time writing down stuff that either everyone knows, or which will be ignored in the heat of the moment.

Don't plan for an exit. This one's anathema to investors. After all, you only build a company so you can sell it, right? Well, that's one view of business. Alternatively, you could build a company that you can stick with for ever, and do it because you love it.

No to-do lists. Actually, I don't agree with this one. I'm a to-do list person. But I do like their suggestion not to waste time going through and prioritising everything 1, 2 or 3, and giving everything a target date, importance, and so on. Instead, just pick the most important thing, put it at the top of the list, and do that. Then, when you've gone as far as you can with that, pick the next most important thing, and do that.

Don't be a hero. If you're the guy working until 11pm every night, you're not doing anyone any favours. You're going to be tired and unproductive, and guilt-tripping your colleagues into working longer hours isn't going to endear you to anyone. More to the point, if what you're working on is really taking that much effort, then you should seriously consider whether you're going about it the right way.

The main themes of Rework are that in most companies we waste too much time on unnecessary management, and we'd all get a lot more done if we just got on with what was most important to delivering a great product to our customers. As I said, not all of this applies to everyone, but it should certainly get you thinking about how you and your company could work more efficiently, get more done, and spend less time doing it.

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