I've written before about our challenges using Basecamp as we grow. To me, Basecamp is akin to Democracy: It's not great, but it's the best thing out there. (If anyone knows of better project management solutions, please post them as comments on the other thread -- Basecamp is getting very long in the tooth and while I'm hoping for a significant overhaul, I'd switch to something else if I could find another solution that addressed our pain points, as 37 Signals hasn't given any indication that one is coming.)
In response to a comment on that post, I'm posting below the "How To Basecamp" guide we've created for our employees. This guide was created by Christine, our Wordsmithstress at Socialize, so thank you Christine for putting this together.
Note: there are some videos & screenshots in the internal document we use that are private and aren't in here. I've done my best to replace them with blurred out versions.
Basecamp is a project management tool created by 37signals that creates an accessible digital trail that email can't. There's a bit of a learning curve with Basecamp, but you'll soon get comfortable with the system the more you use it.
Once you've made an account, to access Basecamp, you can login at http://[your_domain_here].basecamphq.com. We recommend that you bookmark your to-do page (and choose the timeframe,this week, today, in the past, etc.,that works the best for you). With that bookmark, you'll always enter Basecamp through the view that's most important to you: all the tasks you have to do!
Keep in mind that Basecamp will remember your navigation. What does that mean? Well, if you were previously looking at Christine's to-do's for the week, the next time you click on "To-Dos" on the Basecamp navbar, you'll see Christine's to-do's. You can navigate out of this view by changing the parameters in the right hand corner. Keep in mind that Basecamp will also remember your navigation through projects. To switch out of a certain project, you can click on "Switch to a different project" to change project views or head back to the dashboard to shake it clean (y'know, like an Etch A Sketch).
Sometimes the terminology can be a bit confusing. Here's a rundown of Basecamp's different levels of organization.
To-do's are the building blocks of Basecamp's project management system,these are your day-to-day tasks.
If you would like someone else to take on a task, you must create a to-do for them. The task creator is responsible for making sure the task is created properly. The to-do must fulfill the three following requirements: (1) it is a separate to-do (not a comment in another to-do/task), (2) it has an owner (the person responsible for accomplishing the task), and (3) it has a due date. If you task someone in a comment thread of anothe rto-do, they will not be able to find this task under their to-do list. Create a separate to-do (and even link the original conversation) so that they can easily find the task.
To create a to-do, you must be within the desired project. From the dashboard, find the appropriate parent project. From this page you can either add a to-do to an existing to-do list or create a new list as the to-do's home.
Sometimes, a task is ongoing and has no real due date. In this case, the task can become a to-do list or it can be labeled as ongoing (e.g. "[O]" as a type of recognizable nomenclature). Try not to use the messages functionality, as for some reason Basecamp implemented messages in a way that doesn't allow people to be added/removed in later comment threads-- very annlying. Ideally, you want to-do's to be both measurable and actionable. Meaning that it's hard to measure the success and endpoint of a to-do like "comment on blogs",a more quantitative to-do would read "comment on 5 blogs" and be dated for a week away.
It's possible to hack the system a little bit. Basecamp is great for managing various deadlines and tasks, but sometimes you want a repository for suggestions or ideas. 37signals offers other tools for this purpose (like Campfire), but you can manipulate Basecamp for this purpose as well. Create and designate a to-do list for messages and ideas. As these items become actionable, they can be dragged into a different list to become real to-do's with owners and dates.
Tl;dr? Here's the basic gist:
1. Task creators are responsible for assigning the to-do on Basecamp.
2. Don't task someone in a comment.
3. All to-do's need a owner and a date.
4. Don't use the messages functionality.
It can be hard to search on Basecamp, and there's no advanced search option/filters either. This video is an overview of searching (spoiler alert: use shortcut Cmd+F to help you find the keyword in question).We suggest searching through projects (rather than across all of Basecamp) to narrow down your scope. And, you know, you can always admit defeat and just search through your email as well since Basecamp will always email you when you've been tasked or included in a comment.
Tips and Tricks
Do you have other tips on "How To Baescamp?" Please post them as comments below. I'm especially interested in any 3rd party services that address some of the main pain points we've been having.
Here are some Basecamp Pro Tips for those just getting started with it:
The worst thing about Basecamp:
Basecamp is awesome in so many ways. But there's one thing about it that's just terrible: The way it handles email alerting. By default it's spammy, and the way it works is confusing.
So take three minutes to understand Basecamp's weakness in this area so you don't fall victim to it.
1) When you start a new discussion on Basecamp, by default, everyone on the project is notified. This means if you have 20 people on a project that 20 people will get an email. Here's where to look for that:
2) BUT, when you select a subset of all people on the project for new message alerts, here's what you need to know: The thread will inherit that hierarchy! That means that if the original poster of the message decided that only 5 out of 20 people should get an email alert about the original post, when you reply to that message, only those same 5 people will be alerted via email when you reply. This is tricky! Here's how you can tell who's going to get your reply if you reply via email:
If you are replying via email: In the email you'll see a section saying who was notified. When you hit 'reply' only the same people will be notified. Unfortunately you can't change who gets notified via an email reply. So if you want different people to be notified, you have to click on the link to go to the actual Basecamp thread:
Thanks Zach. I'll forward your kudos to Christine, our Wordsmithstress at Socialize. She's great with this type of stuff.
Also, please feel free to add your best-practice thoughts on this comment thread.
Awesome resource for any business. We have a similar process, but nothing is put in writing. We'll probably come back to this next time we need to coach someone on BC's use internally. Thanks again.
William, I agree that there are specific tools that work better than others, for example our use of Pivotal Tracker is something Basecamp would never do.
But what I'm looking for is something that can be used as a general-purpose project management tool by anyone with a set of tasks to get done.
6/26/11 Update: Our company internal "How To Basecamp" instructions now posted by user request.
We've been power Basecamp users for several years. Basecamp is a minimalist-style project management system created by 37 Signals. While Basecamp has had its shortfalls, my view has traditionally been that Basecamp is much like democracy: It may not be perfect, but it's the best thing out there.
Recently, though, our company's internal communication needs have been causing Basecamp to creak and groan under the weight of larger-scale use. Employees have started to complain, and they're right: The way we're using Basecamp hasn't been ideal.
I've taken the initiative of evaluating Basecamp vs. other tools for our company, and as part of that role I'm going to publicize the main gripes we have about Basecamp to see if anyone out there has suggestions or best-practices to help us make good decisions for growth.
6/26/11 Update: Our company internal "How To Basecamp" instructions now posted by user request. We've been power Basecamp users for several years. Basecamp is a minimalist-style project management system created by 37 Signals. While Basecamp has had its shortfalls, my view has traditionally been that Basecamp is much like democracy: It may not be perfect, but it's the best thing out there. Recently, though, our company's internal communication needs have been causing Basecamp to creak and groan under the weight of larger-scale use. Employees have started to complain, and they're right: The way we're using Basecamp hasn't been ideal. I've taken the initiative of evaluating Basecamp vs. other tools for our company, and as part of that role I'm going to publicize the main gripes we have about Basecamp to see if anyone out there has suggestions or best-practices to help us make good decisions for growth. I'll also send this blog directly to the folks at Basecamp, but I'm not expecting much: 37 Signals is typically not super interested in listening to customer feedback unless it's on their terms. If I do get any responses from them, I'll post them in the comments section below. In this post I'll lay out several main points: What we love about Basecamp Problems we're seeing with our use of Basecamp What we're doing to mitigate these problems What we love about Basecamp: Basecamp is in many ways a magical tool. We first fell in love with it when doing projects with external partners. We've used it with partners ranging from Microsoft and other Fortune 500 clients to local design firms. The main thing Basecamp does well is offer relief from email-based project management: Everything gets put into a web app with "just enough" functionality without being overbearing, and email can still be used to get alerts and respond to threads. It balances the use of email well, while removing the main problems email presents, like the lack of a threaded history across all participants over multiple messages, the lack of accountability and tasking and difficulty creating knowledge repositories. Jason Fried and the other folks at 37 Signals also obviously put just as much thought into what features not to include as those they do include. For example, back in 2005 Jason wrote on a blog "We all have ideologies. Yours includes an absolute necessity for Gantt charts. Ours doesn't. We just have different opinions of what is required for good project management." And that's fine with me -- most software is so feature rich users have no idea where to start and never use most of the functionality. 37 Signals definitely does a great job of revealing functionality over time when the user is ready to utilize it. I'm also a heavy Highrise user and this is apparent in Highrise as well. So let me be clear: What I am asking for is not necessarily an increase in features. In fact, I don't know what the answers are to the issues we're having. What I do hope, however, is that folks at companies like 37 Signals can re-think their systems based on some of the frustrations we're having and present solutions to these problems. Problems we're seeing with our use of Basecamp I am wording the issues we're having with Basecamp as "our use of Basecamp" on purpose: It's become obvious to me that our company staff (myself included) are not well trained on the use of Basecamp. We're not disciplined with the tool, and that's causing problems. Some might argue that users shouldn't need to be trained if the tool is good, and at some level that's probably true, but at this point I'm expecting that no matter what tool we end up using, we're going to have to implement a "best practices" guide at the very least, and possibly institutionalize a level of discipline in using the tool that we don't have today. So with that in mind, here's our list of specific issues, ordered by pain level: Searching for content is difficult and inconsistent. As you can see from the screenshot at left, we are putting a lot of content into basecamp. Each bubble shows the number of comments attached to that task. We're often getting to the point where items have 30+ comments in them, with some topping 100. Basecamp's search functionality is very limited -- it's picky about how search terms are entered, and when it returns results, it vomits up a long list of items, with messages, to-do's, milestones, comments and media all intermingled. We've resulted to trying to memorize keywords from posts to find them later, and in some cases even putting nonsensical words into the post so we can do keyword searches for that content later. (what does the word "flamingo" have to do with the project? Nothing, except that it's an easy word to search for later!) There is an option box on the right side where a user can search for items only assigned to them (or find tasks that are assigned to, say, anyone) but get this: If you want to search across all projects for tasks assigned to anyone, you can't do it. In Basecamp's Dashboard view, the search for "anyone" is only for tasks not assigned to anyone, i.e., unassigned tasks, while in a project view it's what you'd expect: Anyone means anyone. Not being able to see a macro view of all tasks assigned to all users is a vexing issue with Basecamp. No auto-save. This is another issue that just drives me up the wall. When you type content into text boxes in Basecamp, you lose it if you close the page. There have been many times I've written notes in a to-do and then lost the content. This is especially difficult because Firefox's private-browsing keyboard shortcut is just one key away from the "switch between tabs" keyboard shortcut, and Firefox closes and re-opens all tabs when you enter private browsing, so whenever I accidentally hit that key, I lose everything I've written but not saved in Basecamp. Messages and To-Do's work differently. I don't know why Basecamp implemented messages and to-do's differently, but the fact that they did has made messages unusable for us. For example, when I write a message the image at left is what I see. I can checkmark certain user's names to decide who should receive an email notification about the message. So far, so good. But get this: If I want to post a follow-up comment about the message, I can't change who gets pinged! Here's what it looks like. (Really astute Basecamp users might point out that technically you can hit an "edit" button in the message to change who gets pinged, but that doesn't count: Most users will never find that, and it's kludgy to use even if you do know about it). To-do's, on the other hand, work differently. Every time you make a comment, you can check off the names of the people you want to receive that comment. This is critical. Being able to select people for email notifications cuts down on "email comment spam." This difference in message vs. comment functionality has caused us to hack Basecamp: We have a specific to-do list for messages, so we can use the to-do system to post messages to each other. But this hack is sub-optimal because it clutters up our to-do's, and we lose the value of the to-do list bucket naming convention. There's a related issue here, too: When users get an email comment notification and hit 'reply,' every user who was originally pinged gets that reply. It's like hitting the 'reply to all' button with a bunch of people in the cc line, which I've blogged about before as being an indication of terrible email etiquette. The only way around this issue currently is to log into the Basecamp page and un-check certain names when you reply with a comment. I'm not sure exactly how this behavior can be improved, but what I do know for sure is that when someone hits reply in an email comment notification, it shouldn't automatically go back out to everyone who was originally pinged. No logging history in to-do's. We have one employee that consistently re-dates to-do's. I wish I had a trail of when the task was originally due so we could have conversations around that issue. Currently, there's no history of due date changes in the task. This would be a very easy problem to fix -- any changes could just be logged as a comment in the task history, or shown on the right side of the task, or similar. It would be really handy to know who changed a due date, when the change was made, and what the previous due date was. While we're on the topic of logging, I'd really like the ability to see who was notified of each comment made. It's hard to move tasks between projects, and impossible to move comments between tasks. Basecamp allows us to create separate projects. The way we use this is to create a project in Basecamp anytime we begin a new initiative. But oftentimes, an employee will create a task in the wrong project. Currently, the only way to move that task is via an itsy-bitsy little button titled "move". The problem is, you can only move an entire to-do bucket list. So if you want to move a task to a different project, first you have to make a throw-away to-do bucket list, then move that task into the bucket, the move the bucket over to the other project, then move the task out of that bucket into the correct bucket, and then delete the throw-away bucket. Yuck. While we're on the topic of tasks, here are two other big gripes: The task owner, task description and due date cannot be changed while in the detail view of the task. Strangely, you have to exit the task to edit the task owner, description or due date. Secondly, in the dashboard to-do view across all projects, the task owner, due date and description cannot be changed. In fact, you can't even click on the task. Instead, you can only click on the to-do bucket list name. Then, you have to find the task in the bucket (which can be daunting in its own right if you have dozens upon dozens of tasks in a bucket) and only then can you edit those items. What we're doing to mitigate these problems Basecamp is growing long in the tooth. It hasn't had a major update in years, and I have to think (hope?) the folks at 37 Signals are aware of most or all of the issues above and are hard at work on an upgrade, like we recently saw for Highrise. Still, I can't base our company's strategy on hope -- especially from a vendor that doesn't communicate with its users on when to expect an update and what functionality it will contain. So, we're starting to explore other options. One very promising one is a new startup called Asana. You can watch a great 51 minute demo video on Asana showcasing its approach to project management. (One note to the Asana folks if you see this: The inability to choose who gets pinged in a "reply" email comment notification appears to be an issue in Asana as well). Overall, the Asana approach looked good. If you know of other Basecamp-like systems, I'd love to hear about them in the comments section. I'm also creating a best-practices and training document for our company's use of Basecamp. Things like "don't just reply to an email alert. Instead, log into the system and choose who gets pinged in your response" type stuff. I'll also note that internal company communication has been a difficult issue that even major corporations with huge budgets haven't been able to solve. I used to work at GE, one of the best run big companies in the world, and these issues were much worse there than it is at our 30 employee company. As social media matures in the b2b space, I'm very interested to see what companies like Yammer roll out. And I've written before that lack of communication between people creates some of the world's biggest problems. We're not mind readers, and technology hasn't yet figured out how to help our analog brains leverage digital benefits (although in this blog post I write about how mobile will be way bigger than people think, and will mitigate the analog/digital differences). I'd love to hear any tips from you in the comments section below, especially if you have best practices, pragmatic tips, or software you've successfully used to improve communication at your company. But wait, there's more: Feedback from employees. I also asked our employees for their list of gripes with Basecamp, which are as follows for anyone who really wants to dig into this: Christine writes, "Most of my issues tend to be with navigation and feeling like the experience is not very intuitive. A project management tool designed to keep things organized, laid out, and easy to see should not require so much user training. It should make sense to the user,otherwise it takes up more time than it saves. Here are some screenshots that illustrate a few of my frustrations, but I will follow up with a video later to further explain my navigation gripes." "OK, here are two more screenshots that illustrate the same point: that Basecamp doesn't let me see who's been notified of/included in the conversation or original message." Jerry writes: 1) What do you love about Basecamp? - Information is recorded and archived for retrieval. 2) What do you hate about Basecamp? - It takes time to throw information and action items into Basecamp after meetings, this isn't always diligently attended to. - Search sometimes doesn't return desired results. - Previously the way projects were organized weren't intuitive, this is getting better with the re-org of Buzz, Branding & Marketing. 3) What tools do you use to stay organized personally? Stickies, OmniFocus, email 4) How would you suggest using Basecamp differently? N/A 5) Are there other tools besides Basecamp you've used before for group communication? If so, what are they and what did you like/dislike about them? IRC, Email, Campfire 6) What have you read about other companies that have tackled these problems? (Pls share any links here to best-practices you're aware of) A lot of engineering-focused startups use IRC for group chats. Even without participating and just hanging around the chat room can get a better grasp of what's going on internally for all departments/groups. Jason writes: 1. I like that a conversation and tasks can be made and tracked in BC 2. I hate the search functionality of BC, it's very hard to find a thread that you know is out there somewhere if you haven't actually been tasked on it. The lack of unselect all, and having to manually uncheck the people who don't need to be on the thread is a lil pain. 3. I currently use OmniFocus for my daily tasks and notes My biggest headache right now is finding out from customers that we have a new feature (they see it on the web, and sometimes it doesn't even work) before I even know about it, and then when I ask some of dev team they don't even know about it. I would love a single location where I can always go to see what is being worked on and when that release is tentatively scheduled. We were doing pretty good up until when we started hiring a bunch of new people and the general time of SXSW, then after it seems everything just went chaotic. Will writes: I tend to think if you don't have a solution for the problem you shouldn't really complain about it but my main gripes w/ Basecamp are: - Message chains can be confusing/overlong - sometimes people that should be copied on a message aren't, or someone thinks they've responded to something that they haven't, so a chain will essentially die on the vine for weeks or months. - Can be difficult to find messages/threads that you want to respond to. Have been using the search tool much more recently and have found it to be a pretty effective way to find things quickly. - This isn't really a Basecamp-specific complaint, more of a general one, but there are so many tools we use throughout the course of any one day that it feels very ADD. B/w Basecamp, Highrise, Unfuddle, PA Mail, Google Docs, etc., not to mention whatever actual applications are running on the computer, I feel like I spend an inordinate amount of time navigating the matrix of communications we have set up. But maybe that's more a 21st century thing than a company or product-specific one. Nick writes: 1) What do you love about Basecamp? It's kinda pretty. It's nice to have a record of the conversations on a topic 2) What do you hate about Basecamp? pretty much everything. Some of this may be because I don't know a ton about basecamp and I have not used it a ton. DASHBOARD 90% of the information on the dashboard is useless for me. I don't care about activity in projects I am in. I care about what pertains to me. While it would be great to follow every post, I just don't have the time to do that and get my work done. TODOS I can't just click on a todo, I have to do mental gymnastics to remember that I have to click on the group and then the little icon thing to actually see the todo. And then it's a pain to get back to the overall todo list across all projects. Messages Formatting messages is a pain and options are pretty limited. Perhaps this is by design, but I find it difficult to format things. Even in this post I am struggling a bit to get the formatting how I want it. I end up tracking my basecamp threads in email because there is no way to start messages or any way to indicate that I need to follow a specific thread. This leads to me using 2 systems to track stuff, my email and basecamp. General Every time I go to basecamp I feel like I have to gear up for battle to find what I am looking for. I feel like I shouldn't have to think, but instead I think more than almost any tool I use. It's yet another way to track things. Add it to the list of google docs, google sites, unfuddle, and email. None of them solve the whole problem and I am not suggesting we use unfuddle for everything but I find I end up tracking tasks in both places 3) What tools do you use to stay organized personally? OmniFocus (LOVE THIS), unfuddle, project plan 4) How would you suggest using Basecamp differently? I honestly don't know. For me I think most of the trouble comes from milestones not seeming relevant to me and already having milestones in unfuddle and being spread across multiple projects. But I don't know if this can be solved by just using it differently. 5) Are there other tools besides Basecamp you've used before for group communication? If so, what are they and what did you like/dislike about them? I have used IRC and jabber chat rooms which worked really well to aid in quick communication. Other than that, I don't know of much. Jabber chat rooms / IRC aren't necessarily good for having permanent records of things. 6) What have you read about other companies that have tackled these problems? (Pls share any links here to best-practices you're aware of) This has been a big problem everywhere I have worked and I don't think anyone has solved it.
So, if you're like any other regular, task-focused professional, you live and die by the great, all powerful "To Do" list. Every morning or every night before you leave, you work feverishly to get your list going so that you can relax. Unfortunately, it is also how you determine success on any given day. How many did I mark off today? Eventually, you become so owned by the list, you forget what all of the tasks are there to accomplish. Am I right?
Unfortunately, I suffered under the same curse. I was forever making a to do list and then would make a to do item to add to the to do list. Too bad few of the to do's got moved to DONE. Fortunately, I ran across a pretty interesting blog which opened my eyes to a new concept, but still let me keep my to do list.
Charlie Gilkey's Blog, www.productiveflourishing.com, has been a great source of ideas for me. One of the great "Ah Ha's" I had while reading through his blog was the concept of managing your to do list according to the project they are associated with. Simply put, lead with the project you will focus on each day and put your to do list in line with that project. Although it is a fairly simple concept and makes common sense, I couldn't think to let go of my precious to do list.
For one week, I decided to give it a whirl. I began by using some of the templates Charlie provides on his website. (check out http://www.productiveflourishing.com/free-planners/) It took some getting used to, but I found myself beginning to think first about the projects I wanted to accomplish and then the to do's were secondary. Could it be I was actually being rehabilitated?
On section in Charlie's newsletter that always helps me stop to think during the month is his self-assessing questions: