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Basecamp founders Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson are known for their provocative writing, in books on management such as It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work extolling the seemingly crazy notion of not having goals as well as their liberal political blog commentary. So they caused a storm recently when they publicly released a set of unusual guidelines for their digital project-management company that seemed to reverse some of their previous thinking. It’s worth paying attention to – because it forces us to think about our own organizations.

Their rules:

  • No more societal and political discussions at Basecamp
  • No more paternalistic benefits
  • No more committees
  • No more lingering or dwelling on past decisions
  • No more 360-degree reviews
  • No forgetting what we do here

The most controversial item internally was the ban on political discussions, which was narrowed fairly quickly to commentary on the Basecamp project-management main account – staffers could still individually comment politically on their own account or elsewhere.

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Mr. Hansson explained it this way: “As cliché as it may sound, these are very difficult times in many places of the world, and in America in particular. We’re constantly confronted with terrible tragedies, pulled into polarized political fights, and egged on by social media to engage. There are many places to be involved, exposed and engaged in those conversations. Basecamp shouldn’t be one of those places. Basecamp should be a place where employees can come to work with colleagues of all backgrounds and political convictions without having to deal with heavy political or societal debates unconnected to that work.”

That sounds sensible. But it misses the backstory. The company, as revealed by writer Casey Newton on The Verge tech-news site, had become bitterly divided over discussions that were political – but also clearly connected to their work, stemming from a list built over the years that poked fun at customers’ names, some Asian and African, and seen as racist. That led to a questioning of the corporate leadership, which knew but allowed it to happen. Many workplaces these days are separated into camps on issues of racism and sexism. But the discussions are certainly related to work when they’re about internal failings on diversity and, arguably, societal wrongs and systemic racism.

At the same time, the discussions can be cutting and divisive, perhaps even counterproductive and usually not closing any philosophical gaps. Mr. Hansson argued in a subsequent blog post that if you believe a diverse work force is desirable, you need guardrails on internal discourse.

“My belief is that the key to working with other people of different ideological persuasions is to find common cause in the work, in the relations with customers, in the good we can do in the industry. Not to repeatedly seek out all the hard edges where we differ,” which can be left to smaller groups of willing participants, he wrote.

But how do you do that, in a relatively small company like Basecamp (even smaller now, after about a third of its 57 staffers took buyouts over the matter) or a large corporation? Basecamp’s guardrail is actually a ban. Some people thrive on the political connections at work, of like-minded souls or even the good-natured sparring and ribbing between those with different viewpoints. But those discussions intermingle with status and power, and we can forget how a seemingly innocent comment can be deeply wounding to somebody different from us.

There are no easy answers here. And the issue, once raised, can draw inordinate attention – as it did here, diverting attention from some of the other announcements. For years, Basecamp offered a fitness benefit, a wellness allowance and continuing-education subsidies. “They felt good at the time, but we’ve had a change of heart. It’s none of our business what you do outside of work, and it’s not Basecamp’s place to encourage certain behaviours – regardless of good intention,” Mr. Fried wrote. So staffers are receiving the full cash value of benefits and a 10 per cent profit-sharing plan to offer more money they can spend on whatever they prefer.

Traditionally free of committees, Basecamp has seen them spring up in recent years – including one on racial issues – and will be eliminating them as part of the new rules. Decisions will be made by those hired for that task, the founders noted. Before you shout “hallelujah,” consider the culture change that might require in your organization and training of leaders to consult properly outside of committees so all interests are understood before a decision – particularly touchy ones, including those involving gender and race.

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Otherwise, this idea takes us back to the discredited “great man leadership” notions of the past, as innovative management consultancy NOBL Collective has warned. Employee performance reviews will be similarly straightforward, without peer reviews, which the founders felt had become useless busywork. Again, a valid point. But will the reviews now be as fair?

Mr. Fried’s explanation of not lingering on decisions may ring some bells for you: “We’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 … It’s time to get back to making calls, explaining why once, and moving on.”

Basecamp is not a social movement, as it sometimes seemed to be from the founders’ writings. It’s a software company, and they are underscoring that. In an era when many leaders are trying to elevate their work – struggling to find a larger societal purpose that might engage staff – Mr. Fried and Mr. Hansson are saying it’s noble in itself to produce project-management software that helps millions of people to do their job more easily. And it is.

Two lessons they missed, but that the controversy revealed: No matter how brilliant and acclaimed you are, unilateral action often backfires. Consultation and even committees have a purpose. And as NOBL points out, those who have historically felt the least discomfort in organizations – including leaders – should probably expect to feel more discomfort as discussion around equity and inclusion ramp up.

Cannonballs

  • More effort is wasted doing things that don’t matter than is wasted doing them inefficiently, observes writer James Clear.
  • To connect their small team working remotely and keep spirits up, the Kingston Economic Development Corporation has been publishing monthly bingo cards with fun to-do categories such as using a new cooking ingredient, listen to a local musician or learn to say hello in five languages.
  • When Bobby Riggs lost his 1973 Battle of the Sexes tennis match against Billie Jean King, he jumped the net to congratulate her, declaring, “I underestimated you.” The lesson Ms. King says we should all take away from the moment: Never underestimate anyone for any reason – be it gender, race or anything else.

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