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Tear up the business rule book

Published on Friday, 21 May 2010
Illustration: Bay Leung
Book: Rework - Change the Way You Work Forever
Authors: Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
Publisher: Vermilion

In any business, whatever the size or structure, it is easy to get locked into accepted rhythms and rituals almost unquestioningly. There are, for example, the weekly sales meetings that drag on for hours, the planning sessions to plot years ahead and the mission statements about "living our values".

Along with that comes a whole boxed-set of assumptions and behaviour. Before they know it, executives find themselves adopting the mindset and language prevalent in most modern organisations. Conventional wisdom leads them to believe that continuous growth is essential, the customer is always right, and delegation is the sign of a good manager. And all too often, they simply swallow these old maxims with scarcely a second thought.

Instead of letting that happen, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson want people to stop and think. Their book Rework advocates rejecting many of the practices and procedures that consume time, stifle productivity, ignore realities and repeat easily avoidable errors.

The authors base their views and advice on experience gained running a successful software business. Starting out as a three-person Web design outfit in 1999, it has evolved into an enterprise making software and selling online tools mainly to help small companies do things "the easy way".

A decade or so of finding out what works and why has helped them return consistent profits, and given the confidence to skewer long-held beliefs that other companies still cling to.

Using a declarative style which doesn't waste words, the authors dive straight in. Their professed aim is to "throw out the traditional notions of what it takes to run a business", and to emphasise that a new reality now exists in the broader business world. Largely, this derives from the application of technology, but it requires a fundamental re-think of workplace priorities and behaviour.

From the perspective of smaller business owners, basic topics include getting started, improving productivity, hiring and culture. In quick-fire chapters, these boil to a series of simple rules for success that kick at convention and can hold true for any size of enterprise.

For instance, the authors query the corporate obsession with growth and state that "long-term business planning is a fantasy". The way they see it, the right size for a company may be five people, or any other number. Being small can be "a great destination in itself" and "ramping up" doesn't have to be a goal. Similarly, they point out that most forward planning, for all the time and attention it gets, is little more than guesswork. Writing a detailed plan might make you feel in control, but too many factors - the market, competitors, customers and economic variables - will intervene.

Furthermore, sticking too rigidly to a long-term plan limits flexibility, innovation and inspiration - some of the very qualities a company should do most to encourage.

With deliberate directness, the authors take aim at what they view as pointless exercises and pure misconceptions. Learning from mistakes is overrated, they conclude, meetings are toxic, delegators are dead weight, and companies should focus on their own performance and not worry endlessly about the competition.

They instead recommend an approach that puts practicality above process, remains nimble and accepts that it's fine if some solutions are just "good enough", because what really matters is "how to actually get customers and make money".

Rework is a quick and easy read. It won't change the world, but it should give young executives some useful food for thought.



  • Decisions and quick wins help to generate momentum
  • Don't be afraid to say no to customers or let them outgrow you
  • Resist the urge to keep matching the competition
  • Make everyone spend time on the front line
  • It's a mistake to create rigid rules and treat employees like children


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