I heard that the guys at 37signals were Tim Ferriss fans, and as a result I was a bit leery of their book ReWork. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. The book is full of folksy, practical wisdom for small companies and small group leadership. Much of it is extensible to larger product teams. I loved the book despite a few claims that are just not true in my mind.
I think there are three great themes throughout the book that make it a must read for executives, product managers, managers and engineers. The first is that you can always do less. We all simply try to build too much worthless crap into our products. As a result costs go up, deadlines are missed, morale tanks and budgets are blown. Striving to do less is a great idea when developing products. Small, evolutionary changes beat the big bang in our experience as well.
The second great point is that one should grow profitably and try to avoid taking outside money. Being the master of your own destiny and beholden to no one except your customer makes work so much more enjoyable than trying to please customers and shareholders. Cash is king – just make money! Be profitable. Don’t measure yourself by employees – measure yourself by profits.
Their third point is the notion of work life balance. Sleep is essential to creativity and productivity. Burnout is the enemy of companies, culture and people. The new world order includes working across geographies, from home, and from different hours that fit the needs of great employees. I couldn’t agree more.
While I loved the book and could go on about some of their other good points, I believe it’s also important to address a few flaws. The authors say that learning from mistakes is overrated and cite a HBS/HBR article indicating that successful entrepreneurs have a higher success rate on successive tries at new companies than entrepreneurs who have failed. I don’t doubt this statistic, but as it applies to learning from failures it does not pass the nonspuriousness test; there are other potential and even more plausible explanations for this statistic. Success begets success, attracts other people who are likely to be successful, attracts better funding and advice, etc. Academic research shows that we do in fact learn from failures – as long as they are the “right type” of failures and as long as we process them correctly. Whether you learn or not is an individual characteristic. I doubt this is a Stanford vs. Harvard issue – we all know we can find information that backs our points if we look hard enough. The point is that you can learn a lot from failure – both your failures and the failures of others.
I also do not believe that their wisdom in its totality is extensible to all businesses. Generally this is true of any “wisdom” – but they would seem to believe that what makes them successful as a business will make everyone successful. Quite honestly, they are successful at least partially because they are in a market segment that is underserved and simply unattractive to many other companies. There’s nothing wrong with that – in fact it’s a great business opportunity and I would love to have their business. But some companies need capital (especially hardware companies) and need larger numbers of employees to capitalize on market opportunities that might otherwise be taken by competitors. Can these companies be even more successful by employing the 37signals approach? I believe so. But the competitive dynamics are different and the 37signals approach needs to be tweeked as a result.
Lastly, I simply do not agree with their view on workaholics. The authors seem to claim that workaholics are intellectually lazy. I haven’t found this to be true in all or even most cases. Some of the smartest people I know work quite a bit and they aren’t intellectually lazy at all. Some people (like me) who aren’t so smart use commitment to make up for their lack of IQ. I do agree that we shouldn’t expect people to be workaholics, but to say that they are intellectually lazy seems a bit overboard to me. No doubt that the authors have had bad experiences with people who are overly committed – or perhaps they simply haven’t seen people who work both hard and smart.
In summary – this is a great and easy book to read.