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Rework – Book Review

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.


The 4 Hour Workweek – Stories from a Life Hack

I wish I had come up with the term “life hack”, but I didn’t.  I first heard it from my partner Mike Fisher who applied it to Tim Ferriss during our discussion of his book “The 4 Hour Work Week”.  Wikipedia indicates that “life hack” is a programmer’s term used to describe what we’ve sometimes called a “simple solution to a complex problem”.  I’ve never heard it used that way before, so in my world the credit will always go to my partner Fish and his definition.   A life hack, says Fish, is a person who takes shortcuts through life to achieve personal goals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not jumping on the “I hate Tim Ferriss” bandwagon simply because he is a seemingly overly self promoting, ego centric, self involved individual (fyi – I can’t stand those types of people).  In fact, I think his book has a number of well disguised great points in it.  I also admit that I suffer from a bit of book envy – his has been on the NY Times bestseller list for over a year and the best our book has done is to reach number 256 on the Amazon best seller list for a couple of hours (you should still buy it by the way – it’s calling you – you “need” it)

The first point that I love is that Cash is King, though Tim really doesn’t call it that.  Good job Tim for restating and obfuscating something taught (but ignored) in finance classes the world over.   Way to repackage an important lesson!  Unfortunately, Tim doesn’t seem to understand that if everyone simply goes for the high paying low work “cash today” jobs our last bastion of supremacy – the high tech startup community – would cease to exist.  Name one company that changed the world in terms of products or software that did so without having to sacrifice cash today for a huge shareholder reward tomorrow.  Sure, there are companies like 37 Signals that do an incredible job at balancing their business and personal lives but 37 Signals isn’t going a Microsoft in the’ 80s, an eBay in the ‘90s, or a Google, Facebook or Salesforce in the ‘00s.    It’s a great idea and it fits the needs of many people.  But if absolutely everyone takes the lower risk, high cash route our innovation and startup engines would crater.

I also love Ferriss’ notion of mini-vacations.  Even in the startup community these can be useful to try to keep employees from burning out and keep companies rejuvenated.  Finally, I like his notion of not allowing other people to control your time.  We absolutely all should be looking for simple solutions to complex problems (the Wikipedia definition of life hack) and looking to simplify our lives and eliminate time drains.

My primary concern with Ferriss’ book is the tone and manner of his approach.  At one point he describes his experience winning a kickboxing championship by finding a loophole in the rules that allow him to simply push an opponent out of the ring and win.  He claims that this action is neither immoral nor unethical.  True, they weren’t against the rules – in fact he studied the rules in order to know how to game the system.  In a game whose spirit it is to test skill, he used the rules against the more skilled player.  By “gaming” (note: not “cheating”) the weight system, he put himself at a comparative advantage.  Great – Tim knows how to screw the spirit of the game by using the rules to his advantage.  While I am a huge believer in cutting through bureaucratic red tape and in testing the rules and eliminating or fixing them when they don’t make sense, I would never suggest breaking the spirit of a relationship or system.  There’s an implied consent to abide by the spirit of engagements (such as tournaments or client relationships) regardless of what the “rules” say.   Breaking that spirit doesn’t make you smarter – it just makes you less honorable.  I’ll make a distinction between honor and ethics here.  Honor is abiding by the spirit of a relationship.  Just ask yourself – would you be comfortable doing business with someone like Ferriss, or would you be worried that he might test the limits and boundaries of your contract given his approach to kickboxing?

My next concern with Ferriss’ approach also has to do with spirit; the spirit and tone of his presentation.  He sounds like he is all about himself.  He comes across as a person who loves himself, believes he is a deific gift to mankind and in general reeks of the same self loving stench as some investment bankers (not all of them mind you – but some of the ones with whom I’ve dealt in the past).   As my partner and I have written time and time again – “Leadership Isn’t About You”.  It’s about the team.  If you preach selfishness, as Ferriss does in his book, you by definition can’t be selfless.  If you aren’t selfless in your leadership, you will sub-optimize your results.  This doesn’t mean you won’t be successful – it just means that you won’t reach the maximum potential.

I absolutely believe we should all look for more “life” in our work life balance.  Work from home, get more done in less time, look to bend the rules or eliminate those that don’t make sense, and understand that cash is king.  We should also hope, however, that there are still some enterprising people out there willing to sacrifice to make huge advances.  So too should we pray that there are leaders who understand that a great team led well can equal more than the sum of its individuals and that these leaders are willing to give selflessly in their role.  Finally, I hold out hope that not everyone will violate the spirit of engagements as Tim would seem to preach.  I believe it is this approach and mindset that is at least partially responsible for the corruption that we see in corporate America, the real estate and dot com bubbles and the failure of the banking industry.  Don’t be a life hack.  Work smarter, play more, get more done – but don’t be a blemish on the face of humanity.

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Architecture and Work

Want to think big, abstract thoughts? Try sitting in a building that has high ceilings. Have to focus on detailed work? Maybe you should be in an office with lower ceilings. That is according to Joan Meyers-Levy, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota. Her concepts are part of an article How Room Design Affect Your Work and Mood in Scientific American. “Ceiling height affects the way you process information,” Meyers-Levy says. “You’re focusing on the specific details in the lower-ceiling condition.”

Another interesting concept covered in this article is the affect that natural surroundings have on people, especially children. The article cites a study by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells that found that children who moved with their family to a home with more views of natural settings, such as a garden, field or forest, made the most gains on a attention test. Another study from the University of Illinois found similar results in children with attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week has an indoor garden that his office overlooks.  He uses this space for relaxing, inspiration, and taping episodes of Random with Kevin Rose, founder of Digg. Perhaps the next time you are struggling with a task, whether that’s balancing your checkbook, coding your latest feature, or coming up with a brand new business idea, stop and consider the environment that you are working in and how it might be affecting you.

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