I do whatever I want at work and I haven’t been fired yet

A few of us at Basecamp were recently discussing how decisions get made to “green light” new projects, and I came to the conclusion that it boils down a simple rule:

If you can make a decision and you don’t think it’s going to get you fired, just do it.

Basecamp operates without much in the way of formal decision making processes. We don’t have a budgeting process, we don’t have program reviews, we don’t have long term detailed plans. There’s a vision for where we want the company and the product to be going, and a tremendous amount of trust that people will use their time and energy to move us in that direction.

The lack of those formal processes means it’s up to each individual to figure out what to do when they have an idea. The amount of implicit “decision making authority” differs for each person, depending on role, tenure, etc., but the same basic rule-of-thumb applies: if you aren’t worried that making the decision is going to be disastrous, you have authority to make it.

This works out because any decision you make is likely to fall into one of three categories:

  • You made the “right” decision and the company benefited, hurray! This represents the vast majority of decisions that are made at Basecamp, because we hire intelligent people and those people are making these decisions.
  • You made the “wrong” decision and nothing bad happened. No problem: as long as we learned something in the process, even a “wrong” decision is often worth the experience.
  • You made the “wrong” decision and something bad did happen. This is going to be ok too — at our scale, it’s hard for any one decision to be truly disastrous. We don’t have “bet the company” level decisions come up very often.

Our system of granting decision making authority — in which we don’t explicitly grant decision making authority, but let each person assert the level of decision making authority they’re comfortable with — is built on a certain level of trust. Jason and David trust that everyone who works here is smart, capable, and looking out for the best interests of the company, our coworkers, and our customers. In exchange, each of us trusts Jason and David that if we’re operating in good faith, we’ll be ok here even if we make a “wrong” decision.

In nearly seven years at Basecamp, I think I can count the number of times I asked Jason or David for “permission” to do something on one hand:

  1. When I wanted to start running our first paid advertising experiments a month after I started working here.
  2. When I wanted to spend a few hundred thousand dollars on hardware to upgrade our data infrastructure in 2014.
  3. When I wanted to start an internship program (but not when I wanted to do it again the next year) in late 2015.
  4. When I wanted to hire Justin full-time on my team in 2016.

In almost all of those cases, what I really wanted more than permission was advice. Does the way I’m thinking about this problem make sense? Is this course of action one that you think is likely to succeed?

The list of things that I’ve done without permission is much longer: I’ve committed us to tens of thousands of dollars a month in recurring costs to move our data infrastructure to the cloud, invested months of my time in projects that I thought were to the long-term benefit of Basecamp, launched new internal systems, added features to our customer-facing applications, gotten other teams to spend significant time on projects of my creation, and more.

In all of those cases, representing 99% of what I’ve done here, I either wrote up a plan and shared it beforehand, or I just announced what I’d done after it was completed.

This approach to decision making is well articulated by David Marquet in Turn the Ship Around as “Intent-Based Leadership”. Rather than asking for permission to do something, state your intent to do something and let someone object if they have concerns. Most of the time, no one has concerns, because you’re a smart, capable person who is going to make good decisions.

Having worked this way for nearly seven years, I can’t imagine working at a company where I’m asking for permission to do things every hour or every week or every month or even every quarter. Companies that limit decision making authority strictly do so at their peril — they waste their time worrying about who can make decisions rather than executing on them, and they drive away their best talent. One of our designers tells a story about needing five levels of approval to order a new mouse at a previous job; needless to say, he works at Basecamp now instead of there.

As of this morning at least, following this strategy at Basecamp has worked out for me — I haven’t been fired yet. I also didn’t ask for permission to write this post, and I think it’ll be ok.