Brian Bailey Preface to the Revised Edition

The Block Plan

My house is swimming in college brochures and data as we search for the perfect school for my son. Since I loved college and am fascinated by the academic world, I’m enjoying this part of the process a lot (more than the part when we drop him off at the winning school, I suspect).

I’m especially intrigued by the ways colleges distinguish themselves. There are a handful of schools that operate on a block plan (the most prominent one is Colorado College). I had never heard of this approach and though my son remains unconvinced, I think it’s very clever. Not just as a way to run a school, though, but potentially as a way to run a business.

The block plan works like this. Each students takes a single course at a time and the entire campus operates on the same schedule. The classes meet Monday-Friday and last for 3.5 weeks. They end at noon on Wednesday of the fourth week. Students have the afternoon off, plus Thursday and Friday, then start a new class on Monday (a few classes are “double-blocked” and continue for another 3.5 weeks).

With the block plan, students focus on one class and subject for the month. Professors have greater flexibility in when and where a class takes place since it can’t conflict with another class (some are held off-campus or in the case of an astronomy class, meet in the evenings).

What would a block plan at work look like?

The block plan reminds me of development sprints which typically last for one or two weeks. I wonder what would happen if that concept was expanded to include the whole company and lasted for a longer period of time.

  1. On the first Monday of the month, the entire company gathers together over breakfast (this would likely work best in companies with fewer than 20 people).

  2. Each person or team briefly describes their goals and commitments for the month (they have previously shared an in-depth version to get feedback). Everyone is encouraged to narrow the focus as much as possible to a single thing. Instead of making small progress on many different tasks, they seek out a larger goal that can be reached (or shipped) this month; a significant, measurable success for the company and its customers. This could include things as diverse as a new feature, customer satisfaction goals, marketing and press efforts, improvements to internal tools and processes, new hires, and investor outreach.

  3. On subsequent Mondays, everyone comes together to provide a quick update, noting successes or new priorities (updates are made to the shared document throughout the month as well). While acknowledging that things can change rapidly in a small company, there is a strong commitment to stability. Any changes to the plan are publicly acknowledged, other priorities dropped, and the person or team “compensated” in some fun, small way for the shift.

  4. Projects are finished and shipped by Tuesday of the fourth week.

  5. The final Monday morning update is moved to Wednesday. Each person or team recaps the month and what they accomplished. Finished work is shown off and successes cheered.

  6. The rest of Wednesday is set aside for planning the next month with leadership input, individually and within small teams.

  7. The fourth Wednesday also includes a special event to celebrate the month, such as a lunch or outing.

  8. Finally, everyone has Thursday and Friday off, a four-day weekend once a month.

The time off provides a breather after a month of focused work dedicated to a large goal. It allows for short getaways, but also the scheduling of weekday tasks that are hard to fit into a work week. The entire company being off at once removes the sense of missing out, the need to keep an eye on email, and the dread of returning to work that’s piled up. Plus, having just finished a project, minds are slightly less occupied.

I actually think that one four-day weekend a month is better than another ideal, the four-day workweek. It makes it more likely that people do something ambitious with the time off and provides more of a reward to work toward. Plus, it’s easier to adapt it to friends and family who are on the normal schedule. There would still need to be room for other vacation days, of course.

The four-day weekend is admittedly the most problematic part of the idea. At many companies, you can’t just close for two days each month and weekends may have service commitments, too. Plus, 24 days off a year plus additional vacation time is unheard of in America.

I think it could work in the right sort of company, but it would be rare. One option would be to make it a three-day weekend, another would be to rotate who gets the time off so it becomes a four-day weekend every other month.

What does the block plan accomplish?

  1. It brings the rhythm of the calendar and seasons into our work. What was accomplished in July? What are the goals for September? Sometimes work can become disconnected from the world around us, like cubicles in windowless offices.

  2. Assures that a marker is reached and celebrated once a month.

  3. Makes the whole company a team and puts everyone and the work they do on the same level.

  4. Provides a healthy mix of support and accountability.

  5. Creates a cadence to work. A new month is always a new beginning and often a new project. The end of the month is a time for celebrating and getting away.

  6. People are trusted and valued. Each plays a significant part is setting the priorities for the month and is given the freedom to accomplish the goals as they like. Changing priorities is a big deal. A few days a month are set aside to focus on friends and family, exploration and relaxation. It’s so important, in fact, that everyone is going to do it.

Finally, the idea works well within offices, but also for distributed teams as physical presence isn’t required. More effort would need to be put into celebrating milestones, though. The fourth week would be a great option for a semiannual retreat, gathering in one place for the final push and then relaxing together over the long weekend.

With the block plan, I believe more would be accomplished of more significance, people would be more invested in one another, there would be less of a sense of work being a treadmill of to-dos, and people would thrive. If you’ve seen something similar in practice (or try it), I’d love to hear your thoughts.