It’s Ok to Focus On What You Do

Starting a company is excruciatingly difficult. I am convinced you have to have a predisposition for risk and punishment. No one cares, until they all care, and even that is short lived – nothing more than a blip on the radar in retrospect.

That being said, running a company is in a different sphere in it of itself. By far, the hardest part of it is managing people, more specifically the people dynamics, expectations and emotions.

I can almost guarantee that no one starts a company thinking, “my goodness, I just can’t wait to enact these new human resource policies, or I cannot wait to jump head first into social debates…” The sad reality, however, is that in today’s reality, if you don’t have the fortitude to block out the noise you will need to plan for it.

Bravo Jason, David and BaseCamp for Leading the Charge

We’re living in a hyper-sensitive era. What was once taboo, is not common place. There are no moderate views, mostly extreme ones and it’s all amplified by this need to silence or cancel something we don’t agree with. Very meta.

This week, Jason and David from Basecamp released an article highlighting some of their latest company changes. In it, they highlight the following points:

ChangeTLDR Description of Change
No more societal / political discussions on internal accountToday’s social and political waters are especially choppy. Sensitivities are at 11, and every discussion remotely related to politics, advocacy, or society at large quickly spins away from pleasant.
No more paternalistic benefitsBy providing funds for certain things, we’re getting too deep into nudging people’s personal, individual choices.
No more committeesNo big working groups making big decisions, or putting forward formalized, groupthink recommendations. No bureaucracy.
No more lingering or dwelling on past decisionsWe’ve become a bit too precious with decision making over the last few years. Either by wallowing in indecisiveness, worrying ourselves into overthinking things, taking on a defensive posture and assuming the worst outcome is the likely outcome, putting too much energy into something that only needed a quick fix, inadvertently derailing projects when casual suggestions are taken as essential imperatives, or rehashing decisions in different forums or mediums.
No more 360 reviewsAssigning peer surveys started to feel like assigning busy work. Manager/employee feedback should be flowing pretty freely back and forth throughout the year. 
No forgetting what we doWe are not a social impact company. Our impact is contained to what we do and how we do it.

When I read this, I could hear the proverbial sigh of relief from countless founders and business executives. Someone finally said what many whisper over drinks or in virtual hallways of the company.

Twitter, on the other hand, responded exactly as I would have expected. With horror and disdain for Jason and David. Mind you, while I am not their biggest fans, they have done more for software and business than most realize over the past two decades.

They have been at the forefront of breaking, and going against, group think in a number of areas, from remote work to how web applications function. Oh, and they have been transparent and open about the whole process (the good and ugly as highlighted here).

But even that won’t save them from the onslaught that comes from the socially correct world that is Twitter. It was not long before it was a race thing, before it was two middle-aged white men that just don’t get it. Before it was time to cancel their products, regardless of the positive impact it has on people and companies. Before it was another example of poor leadership from founders that don’t know how to lead.

Why? Oh, because they are choosing to focus on what they do and not take on the worlds challenges.

Looking Beyond the Twitter Noise

While I don’t use your products, I want to take a minute to applaud you for doing what you have always done – think for yourself.

Here are my thoughts on each change:

ChangeTLDR Description of Change
No more societal / political discussions on internal accountThere was a time, before social media, where social issues were taboo in the workplace. Same as religion. Why? Because it’s exceptionally personal and almost always goes down a personal, emotional and, sometimes, violent path.

It creates distraction and what I call noise in the workplace.

Mind you, do I believe there are some people that are just wired differently and carry the world’s problems on their shoulders? Yes. Do they need an outlet? Sure. But for as many that carry this burden, there are just as many that don’t. Should those that aren’t be subjected to it?

When I personally build a team, I look to remove distraction and noise. People can do as they please on their own time, or privately, but there is probably no worse place to debate politics than in internal, public, forums (just look at Twitter, that’s exactly how it goes down internally as well).

For context, I was once pulled into HR because someone was offended by the use of the Pepe icon in a slack channel. Because I saw no issue with it, and told them as such, I had to be given a good talking to.

What many don’t realize is that when you host these types of internal public forums you will, at some point, fall into this weird place of being asked to pick a side. If someone is offended, and you don’t take action, is it right or wrong? If someone feels uncomfortable because of the noise of another, do you put a stop to it?

The reality is, there are non-profits, B-profits, government organization and NGO’s that are focused on fighting the worlds injustices. Small companies can choose to lean into it, but should have as much right not to as well.
No more paternalistic benefitsI actually think this is great. While everyone is attacking them on this point for not caring, it’s actually the complete opposite.

I am personally of the thinking that companies have over steered to defining what is right and wrong for their employees. If they want to improve their lives, great. If they don’t, great. Giving one group a benefit, that another can’t leverage, is actually horrible.

But what’s actually being missed is what they did in return. They didn’t just take, they augmented their pay to make up for what it would have been, and gave it to all. They also introduce an employee option pool so that everyone benefits, all while getting out of telling people what to do with their personal lives, or how to live it.

How wonderful.
No more committeesI truly love this point, especially when you consider the size of Basecamp. Everything is about context. Last I checked, they were in their 30’s?

I once sat in on a committee for a committee for a committee. At the end of the day I asked myself, “Does anyone even know who is doing the work?”

Do you really need committees at that size? I would wager that more often than not, you don’t. Granted, especially when it comes to people issues, it’s probably a good idea to have balanced perspectives and insights to help make the best decisions in the crummiest circumstances. There are not right decisions, only the best ones under the current circumstances.

While I don’t believe in absolutes, and think that it will, at some point, revert to some committees for some things, I love the fact that they quickly realized the impact of bureaucracy. The politics it introduces, and more than likely the impact to progress.
No more lingering or dwelling on past decisionsThere is a really important piece of this change that I’m not sure many are giving my credence too.

When you first start something, you have the luxury of being naïve. When you get a few years under your belt, or start over, you have the curse of experience.

While it’s true that the experience brings wisdom, it also dulls your senses and reduces your risk posture. You approach each new idea with all the things that could go horrible wrong, and for whatever reason it always outweighs the possibilities. Why is that?

And there is a really important leadership lesson here, “own the decision.” Once it’s made, there is no more, “well that wasn’t my decision”, you lean into it and push for the best possible outcome – whether it’s your idea or not.
No more 360 reviewsI cannot recall one person I have worked with that didn’t dread the process of 360 reviews. I whole-heartedly agree in the need for feedback, and I’m actually horrible at it.

I just don’t like structured processes that almost always turn into busy work, and feel fake. I believe in this continuous feedback process that is organic and natural, that doesn’t require a set time and place.

Instead, we should strive to provide continuous feedback, it should be free flowing.
No forgetting what we doI don’t understand why this is last in the list, and, yes, that is presumptuous of me to think that this is in order or importance.

For me, this is the most important piece. While many are attacking them with things like, “oh look, profits, before people..” etc.. I think that is very narrow minded and misses the point completely.

While many will focus on the economics of a business, what they fail to realize is that many of us are focused on a problem we’re trying to solve. For us, the money is a byproduct of solving a really interesting problem.

Does it mean we care any less about what is going on in the world? No, not at all. That we care any less of our people? No, not at all.

They just aren’t our focus, as a company, and honestly, that should be completely acceptable.

So for all those founders and executives that are overwhelmed by the current state of affairs, you’re not alone in your thinking. It doesn’t make you a shitty leader, and it doesn’t mean something is wrong with you; and it definitely has nothing to do with your race.

If someone feels especially passionate about an issue, point them to the external resources available to help them pursue their true passion. Here is an organization that helps a user find a nonprofit that corresponds with an individuals specific interests: GuideStar.

People will be mad. People will cancel their product. People will call you names. People will quit. That’s ok.

We live in a time that demands inclusiveness, but only if it’s aligned with a specific view.

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