I recently had my first experience with Basecamp, and it was totally new to me. It was like someone had invented the telephone and electric lights, but they left me shockingly out of the loop. I was introduced to Basecamp when I began working with a group of volunteers. To those of you who are not members of the tech Illuminati, Basecamp is a cloud based software that allows groups of people in different places to organize a project around discussions, timelines, to-do lists, and milestones, and work on past and present documents.
It suddenly made it possible for a group of 10 people to interact in a meaningful way who knew each other only casually. In the midst of fast-breaking events, they needed lots of past information quickly, and they all had killer schedules that took them all over the world. I was proud of myself because I was suddenly thrust into the cutting edge, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. Basecamp debuted in that long ago past era of 2004. It has passed 10,000,000 users and anybody who is anyone in project management uses it as regularly as I pick up a salt-and-pepper shaker. It has long been an industry standard when it comes to project management.
However, it isn’t perfect. Here’s what drives me crazy about Basecamp:
1. Basecamp Generates Way Too Much Information. You strongly encouraged to state your point of view. Forgot your best line and you remembered it in the middle of the night? Don’t worry! You can get up and write it on Basecamp while you’re munching on cookies and milk, watching a late night feed from your local city council meeting. Then you look at the discussion and you panic, because everyone’s said all the things they’d wish they’d said earlier. You’re suddenly 20 posts behind, and know you really should read all those previous posts before sending yours. It’s just more information than a group can manage. In a real world meeting, you’re aware that you need to talk in bite-sized bits, but when you’re posing, it’s easy to say everything you know.
2. In Basecamp, everybody can be somebody–and that’s not always good. In Basecamp, everyone’s idea is now suddenly important. Leaders tend to be coordinators of the group’s opinion. Everyone is congratulated. If I were sitting in a meeting in real time and I brought up a really dumb idea, eyes would roll and someone might just take me on. The dynamic of digital communication is that all of us have said tacky things that we wouldn’t say to a person face-to-face. Basecamp is the opposite. It’s a collaborative instrument where people are not apt to say “We’re taking up too much time here. We’re chasing rabbit holes. This won’t get an outcome.” We wait politely for everyone to reach consensus, and elephants are not named.
3. Group decisions are driven by what gets the most traction at the time. What gets traction is often the most immediate and the most minute. Groups get a sense of accomplishment if they’re moving fast. In the meantime, strategic ideas and numerical goals are kicked down the road, and suddenly there is no time for any of them.
4. What you don’t say and do is more important than what you say and do. Alexander the Great nor Steve Jobs would have been effective members of Basecamp. Bravery, risk taking, and bold action would never be rewarded. Caution with an eye to group perception are highly valued. Scholarship is in, entrepreneurialism is out. There are boundaries and traditions that trump direction and outcome. As Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.
5. The system is clogged by too much in the pipeline. Because Basecamp rewards insights and decisions on what gets group traction, even the issues the group is working on have been worked to deathby so many people that outcomes get slower and slower. Most of the time really bright people are involved, and the goal will be achieved. But often, leadership and innovation are difficult to find within this context.
Still, Basecamp is a basic and useful tool for the 21st Century. It is best suited for a job that is sharply defined with well know parameters. Here are a few reasons it’s important:
1. Schedules demand a tool like Basecamp. There is no way you can manage people with non-traditional schedules, spread out across the world. Another factor is that more and more people are not tied together by the same organization. They have multiple clients with a whole set of different crises, opportunities, and priorities that everyone is managing.
2. Complexity can only be managed by a powerful collaborative work tool. The group I am working with is managing wheels within wheels to organize mailouts, websites, schedules, and marketing issues, and there is a lot of money on the line and no room for serious mistakes. Technical projects that include software developers and project rollouts depend on Basecamp to navigate hairpin curves while work is passed on to multiple people and groups. That coordination has to be as intricate as the workings of a watch.
3. Basecamp pulls data and information together in a standard format. People manage their projects from the back of napkins to Outlook and Excel. Information can be in diverse formats, but unlike the keys to my car, it is kept in the same place.
Teams that use Basecamp, or similar programs, need to understand how the tool will be a part of shaping the outcome. It’s not just a pipeline, it flavors the taste of the water. Basecamp will facilitate a process, but only leaders an shape outcomes. Before using Basecamp, a team has to create the runs of the road, who contributes, how much, what can we delegate, and who makes the final decision. Used wisely, Basecamp is the tool for collaborative work in the 21st Century.