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  • January 27, 2011

An Open Letter to 37signals

Good day to you, Signals!

Basecamp has greatly enriched our work life. It deftly reduces the incredibly complex noise of a large, busy project with many moving parts into exactly what each of us needs to get our jobs done. It has allowed us to isolate and document critical conversations, and therefore collaborate with our clients and each other more effectively. Decorative Illustration Smooth integration with e-mail makes it possible to respond at the speed of thought. And the recent integration of accounts makes hopping between the many different Basecamps in the Happy Cog universe a breeze.

When you launched your recent promotional site, we paid attention. On the site and in your book, Rework, you told us how meetings are broken; how people are usually unprepared for them, and agendas are sometimes too abstract; how difficult personalities send group discussions flying off the rails. And perhaps most importantly, the high time and therefore cost of meetings, which unflinchingly devour project hours, is rarely justified against their tendency to fracture productive stretches of time when work could be getting done.

But here’s the thing. We like meetings.

We’ve come to rely on meetings as a way of building consensus between our different practices. We’ve used brainstorming and other collaborative activities to ideate, resulting in innovative approaches that we could have never stumbled upon by working alone at our desks. We’ve enjoyed the camaraderie and mutual respect that comes from getting together to apply ourselves to a difficult problem. And, on more than one occasion, we’ve had a heckuva lot of fun doing it.

There are four kinds of meetings that come to mind that have immeasurable benefit for what we do.

  • Kickoff meetings are something of a specialty of ours, so much so that we’ve shared our thoughts on this genre of meeting before. Most of why we think kickoffs are important is in that link back there, but perhaps the biggest benefit is that if we hit the ground running hard enough, we actually build enough trust to eliminate other meetings farther down the line.
  • An interesting gathering we’ve used in the last year or so is something I like to call “the rumble.” We have five distinct areas of practice at Happy Cog, but we’ve found that five heads can be better than one when addressing the most unique problems. These open invite brainstorming sessions are attendance optional, but always packed. The wireframe sketches, editorial tone, art direction concepts, and strategic decisions that come out of these highly detailed agendas are invariably better than what we used to accomplish by trying to bounce ideas back and forth asynchronously via e-mail, instant message, or other written communication. Simply put, we cannot always form quite the same Voltron online as we can in person.
  • Critiques make us design and build things better. We respectfully beat the crap out of each other’s hard work until we find the best possible outcome. Looking someone in the eye, amongst your peers, and stating the best case you can for a design choice or revision makes us better presenters and communicators. It also helps keep us in business; if we can’t sell our design thinking, we’re dead in the water.
  • Post mortems can be tough, but the time we spend owning our mistakes keeps history from repeating itself. The shared acceptance, and even occasional celebration, of our failures reminds us that we can always be better, and it’s important to examine the risks we took to discover those improvements.

By asking us to boycott meetings, even for a day, you are asking us to forego a tool that may be imperfect, but has played an immeasurable role in our success. A role not unlike Basecamp.

We’d love to hear more about what makes meetings go well, and how to make meetings even less of a waste of time, from you or anyone else who would like to tweet or blog their thoughts below.

Sincerely and respectfully,
A Happy Cog

P.S. If one were curious about improving that first meeting, the kickoff, one might be interested in some sort of virtual seminar; one you could register for right now.

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