Crown Business, 2010, 279 pages, C$26.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-307-46374-6
The 37signals blog Signal vs. Noise is an interesting read, one of the few corporate blogs worth reading even if you don’t even want to use the company’s products. 37signals has made its reputation providing simple but well-designed web applications and they take delight in doing thing contrary to fashion. When competitors offer more features, 37signals offers fewer but makes sure that the ones they have are working as well as their customers want. They have stayed small, shared their accumulated knowledge widely and focused on their core expertise rather than branch out too quickly. To put it simply, they do things differently.
So when comes the time to offer advice in the form of a business book, they also do things differently. Rework weigh in at a slim 27,000 words, padded to 279 pages by use of iconic illustrations, big font size, generous line-leading, wide margins and content chunked in nearly 90 chapters. (The original length of the book’s first draft was about 59,000 words, we learn at the end of a passage on why it’s better to build half a great product than a complete product with half of what it needs. [P.70]) But don’t dismiss the book because of its size: Rework is about staking counter-intuitive claims and letting minds free to imagine better business models. A longer, more soundly documented book wouldn’t have been any better. In some ways, this is a book-sized blog post of ninety counterintuitive ways businesses can improve by rejecting conventional wisdom. Holding fewer meetings; ignoring the competition; letting customers go; avoiding being a hero; refusing outside investments; ignoring résumés: Rework tells us that everything we think we know about business is wrong.
Such attention-getting claims are, of course, 37signals’ mode of operation. As long as it has worked once for them, it can become a triumphant new way of doing business from now on. (Perhaps my favourite story from the book is how when 37signals launched their flagship program Basecamp, they didn’t even have a billing system: “Because the product billed in monthly cycles, we knew we had a thirty-day gap to figure it out. So we used the time before launch to solve more urgent problems that actually mattered on day one. Day 30 could wait.” [P.93]) Of course, 37signals isn’t an ordinary company. Free from manufacturing, it can exist as a fully virtual organization, adapt its business process to the online application model and operate on smaller budgets than many other companies. They don’t conform because they don’t have to conform. It’s good to take their self-serving advice with a grain of salt.
But then again maybe not a whole salt shaker: While Rework is best enjoyed as 279 pages of bite-size motivation smothered in special counterintuitive sauce, it’s also a thought-provoking collection of ways in which prevailing wisdom can be questioned. Following all of their advice to the letter is probably disastrous, but by showing ways to think outside the box, Rework’s authors are enabling business thinkers to be less comfortable with the status quo. Much of their suggestions (“Send people home at 5”, “Forget about formal education”) leads to a better, more respectful workplace that places more value on the individual strengths of each employee. Rework is also a refreshing business application of the Unix philosophy of “Write programs that do one thing and do it well”, one that runs counter to the kind of corporatism fever that leads to conglomerates doing too many thing not very well.
It’s also very entertaining. I started reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline at roughly the same moment as Rework, and finished Rework before I was done with Senge’s first chapter. The tone of the book is conversational, compelling, and impossible to put down even though this is a book best read in small doses fit for contemplation. It’s better not to adopt all of 37signals’ advice in all situations, but with Rework they make an interesting contribution to business culture, and their book will impress even those who can’t stomach most business books.