My house is swimming in college brochures as we search for the perfect school for my son. I'm intrigued by the ways colleges distinguish themselves. There are a handful of schools that operate on a block plan, like Colorado College). I had never heard of this approach and think it's 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. Students take 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 (a small company, to be sure) and lasted for a longer period of time.
- On the first Monday of the month, the company gathers together over breakfast.
- 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, and hiring.
- On subsequent Mondays, everyone comes together to provide a quick update on their progress. Priorities are commitments, not temporary plans, so new ideas are saved for the next month.
- Projects are finished and shipped by Tuesday of the fourth week.
- 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.
- The rest of Wednesday is set aside for planning the next month with leadership input, individually and within small teams.
- The fourth Wednesday also includes a special event to celebrate the month, such as a lunch or outing.
- 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 (when possible) removes the sense of missing out and the need to keep an eye on things. Plus, having just finished a project, minds are less occupied and have room for new ideas to percolate.
I think it could work in the right sort of company, but it would be rare.
What does the block plan accomplish?
- 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.
- Assures that a marker is reached and celebrated once a month.
- Makes the whole company a team and puts everyone and the work they do on the same level.
- Provides a healthy mix of support and accountability.
- 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.
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. 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.
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.
Years after this post, my company started doing 6-week product development cycles followed by a 1-2 week breaks. It turns out, it works really well!