Don't Confuse Motion With Progress

January 13, 2022 • #

When I read Cal Newport’s Deep Work a few years ago, one of my favorite ideas in the book that I keep coming back to in conversations is the idea of “busyness as a proxy for productivity”. Here’s how he puts it:

In the absence of clear indicators of what it means to be productive and valuable in their jobs, many knowledge workers turn back toward an industrial indicator of productivity: doing lots of stuff in a visible manner

We’ve all worked with violators of this. People that always have fully-booked calendars, can never find a time to get tasks done, and constantly talk about how busy they are. One of the reasons people do this, whether subconscious or not, is that in the world of knowledge work, it’s seen as a virtue to be busy. “Man, that guy is always in high demand, it’s impressive how many things he’s doing every day.”

But behind the scenes, the impact of each unit of time spent “being busy” is miniscule. It’s a classic mismanagement of time and attention, but one that has obvious roots given the incentives in business to be seen. And when a behavior is rewarded, in this case with attention and sometimes even respect, it perpetuates.

But we're moving!

So let’s talk about motion. Busyness is a form of motion, usually described in an individual context. Motion and progress are terms that apply more at a team or organizational level. What is progress anyway? Clearly progress isn’t just “Stuff Happening.” There’s got to be an outcome for any of it to be worth it. There should be specific and consistent directionality to goals, and measurable steps to get there.

The motion of the team doesn’t necessarily tie back to an outcome anyone cares about, though.

One example where this happens in practice is the infamous Recurring Coordination Meeting — the Standup, the Check-In, the Sync Meeting. Someone sets up a weekly recurring meeting, often with few specifics as to the outcomes expected from each one. In subsequent weeks, the team now pulls itself away from other duties to distract itself with Another Meeting. Now I’ve rarely met anyone who enjoys these kinds of meetings in the absolute sense. At best we tolerate them, or see them as some form of ritual necessity. But so often some initial hangup or friction point triggers someone to decide “we need to stay in sync on this topic”, and they make the Check-In Meeting. In a snap we’ve committed several people to an unknown number of future hours for an often poorly-defined expectation. We’d have been better off with one-off meetings until we feel the team going wayward again, if we need to regroup.

An aside: I remember an anecdote about Tobi Lutke, CEO of Shopify periodically deleting all recurring meetings to reset commitments. Like a brushfire routinely clearing the corporate undergrowth of recurring time-sinks that may have long since outlived their usefulness.

But let’s get back to the “motion” piece of this. You’re now meeting once a week on a subject, and because the time since the last one is so short, you end up discussing the same topics again and again. You run through a loop with each meeting, repeatedly discussing the same things, with a tad more detail each time. Because we’re touching the topic regularly, sometimes beating the same topic to death in more than one of these meetings with different permutations of attendees, we feel like we’re “doing a lotta stuff”. We’re moving around, Trello cards are getting edited, Jira tickets are moved up and down the list, a few commits get made. But none of these motions are, necessarily, indicators of actual forward progress along the line we want. They might be, but they just as likely make us feel like we’re making progress when we’re really not.

I can get in the car and drive around the block over and over. Motion is happening, but am I getting anywhere?

Just measuring ticket throughput, or cycle time, or stories-per-sprint, or any other metric doesn’t mean you’re making progress in any meaningful sense. Those metrics might be directionally positive, but are they doing the thing you think they’re doing?

It’s imperative to have good yardsticks by which to measure progress, rather than motion.

Hard Edges, Soft Middle

January 2, 2022 • #

Have you had that feeling of being several weeks into a project, and you find yourself wandering around, struggling to wrangle the scope back to what you thought it was when you started?

It’s an easy trap to fall into. It’s why I’m always thinking about ways to make targets smaller (or closer, if you’re thinking about real physical targets). The bigger and more ambitious you want to be with an objective, the more confidence you need to have that the objective is the right one. What happens often is we decide a project scope — a feature or product prototype we think has legs — but the scope gets bigger than the confidence that we’re right. A few weeks in and there’s hedging, backtracking, redefining. You realize you went down a blind alley that’s hard to double-back on.

I heard an interesting perspective on scopes and approaches to building. Think of the “scope” as the definition of what the project is seeking to do, and the approach as the how.

Hard edges, soft middle

In an interview on David Perell’s podcast, Ryan Singer made a comparison between having a hard outer boundary for the work with soft requirements on approach, versus rigid and specific micro-steps, without a solid fence around it, an unclear or amorphous objective. In his words: “hard walls with a soft middle” or “hard middle with a soft wall”:

I’ve had this mental image that I haven’t been able to shake that’s working for me lately, which is what we’re doing in Shape Up. We have a very hard outer wall for the work. And we have a soft middle. So there’s a hard outer boundary perimeter — it’s very fixed, it’s going to be six weeks and we’re doing this, and this is in the project, and this is out of the project, and this is what this solution more or less. Clear hard outer boundaries. But then the middle is totally like “hey, you guys figure it out.” Right now what a lot of companies have is the opposite. They have a hard middle and a soft boundary. So what happens is they commit to this for the first two weeks, we’re going to build this and we’re going to build that, and we’re going to build that all these little things. And these become tickets or issues or very specific things that have to get done. And then what happens the next two weeks you say, okay, now we’re going to do this. You’re specifying exactly what should go in the middle, and it just keeps growing outward because there’s no firm boundary on the outside to contain it. So this is the the hard wall and the soft middle or the hard middle in the soft wall. I think our represent two very, very different approaches.

This requires trust in the product team to choose approach trade-offs wisely. If you encounter a library in use for the feature that’s heavily out of date, but the version update requires sweeping changes throughout the app, you’ll need to pick your battles. A team with fixations on particular steps (the “hard middle”) might decide too early that an adjacent feature needs rework1. Before pulling up to a higher altitude to look at the entire forest, the team’s already hitched to a particular step.

Setting a hard edge with the soft middle sets what the field of play and game plan look like, but doesn’t prescribe for the team what plays to run. The opposite model has a team hung up on specific play calls, with no sense for how far there is to run, or even how large the field is in the first place. When you grant the team the freedom to make the tactical choices, everyone knows there’s some freedom, but it isn’t infinite. The team can explore and experiment to a point, but doesn’t have forever to mess around. If you choose to work in the Shape Up-style 6 week cycle, decision velocity on your approaches has to be pretty high to hit your targets.

Any creative work benefits from boundaries, from having constraints on what can be done. The writer is constrained by a deadline or word count. The artist is constrained by the canvas and medium. A product team should be constrained by a hard goal line in terms of time or objective, or preferably both.

Some of the best work I’ve ever been a part of happened when we chose particular things we weren’t going to do — when we intentionally blocked specific paths for ourselves for some cost/benefit/time balance. Boundaries allow us to focus on fewer possibilities and give greater useful, serious attention to fewer options. We can strongly consider 10 approaches rather than poorly considering 50 (or, even worse, becoming attached to a specific one before we’ve explored any others).

Premature marraige to specific tactics pins you to the ground at the time when you need some space to explore. Because you’ve locked yourself into a particular approach too early, it may require tons of effort and time to navigate from your starting point to the right end point. You may end up having to do gymnastics to make your particular decided-upon solution fit a problem you can find (a solution in search of a problem).

Hard edge, soft middle reminds me of a favorite philosophy from the sage Jeff Bezos, talking about Amazon’s aggressive, experimental, but intentional operating culture:

“Be stubborn on the vision, but flexible on the details.”

  1. What you “need” to do is a dangerous trigger word. Almost always the perceived need is based on a particular understanding of trade-offs that could be misguided. One engineer’s need to recover some technical debt (while noble, of course) might be the opposite for CEO, who might be seeing a bigger picture existential need to the business. A thing is only “more needed” relative to something else. 

Buying the Constitution

November 18, 2021 • #

A group of crypto folks online are congregating with intent to bid on a first edition printing of the US Constitution in an auction.

From the FAQ:

We’re buying the US Constitution.

For the first time in thirty-three years, one of thirteen surviving copies of the Official Edition from the Constitutional Convention will be publicly auctioned by Sotheby’s. It is the only copy that is still owned by private collectors. The proceeds from the auction will be given to a charity that has been established by the current owner.

ConstitutionDAO is a DAO that is pooling together money to win this auction. We intend to put The Constitution in the hands of The People.

Packy McCormick wrote up a great piece on the DAO, as did Ben Thompson. It’s one of those cases where the weird web3, very-online community is breaking through to the mainstream. Packy was even on CNBC talking about it; imagine having only a few minutes to explain enough about crypto, blockchains, DAOs, and memes to understand the project.

I threw my hat into the ring to get my fractionalized slice of US founding history. As Thompson explained (and is mentioned in the FAQ), for somewhat complex reasons, you aren’t truly buying a fractionalized asset — that would make it a security, and therefore subject to additional regulatory scrutiny — rather you’re buying governance tokens for the DAO that afford voting rights on where the document should be displayed, and how the organization should be run.

As of writing this, the DAO has collected 11,460 ETH into its contract on Juicebox, market price in USD: $46.7m. They were originally thinking it’d go for between $15m-20m at auction. Amazing to see.

Concept-based Notes and Composable Ideas

November 12, 2021 • #

If a note is an idea, we want to make the idea as atomic as possible, so we can find and stitch them together into an interconnected web of ideas. We want composable building blocks.

Composability helps us stack, mix, and repurpose ideas. To correlate them and find the relationships between them. Prose is an excellent medium for consumption, for diving deep on a particular topic. But with a prose format for documenting ideas (through notes), it’s harder to relate shared ideas across domains. Prose makes ideas easy to expand on and consume, but difficult to decompose into reusable parts. Decompose too far, though, say into individual words and letters, and the information is meaningless. We want a middle ground that can effectively convey ideas, but is also atomic enough to be decomposed and reused. We want idea Legos.

In Self-Organizing Ideas, Gordon Brander contrasts the linear, difficult to break down expansiveness of prose with something more like an index card. With index card-level division, ideas can now be expounded on at the atomic level, but also cross-referenced and remixed more easily than long-form prose. With the Zettelkasten, Luhmann devised a system of just that: numbered index cards that could reference one another. If you use a system like this for note taking, it’s a fun exercise to actually take a batch of 3-5 permanent notes at random and look for relationships. When I’ve done this, pulling out 2 arbitrary permanent notes, it often sparks new thoughts on them, and in the best cases, entirely new atomic notes.

Within our knowledge systems, we should strive for that right altitude of scope for a particular note or idea. Andy Matuschak says “evergreen notes should be atomic.” In my system, I make atomic notes that are concept-based, with a declarative format that prompts me to keep the note focused around a specific idea. Just scrolling through the list now, I see ones like:

  • “Traditions are storehouses of trial and error”
  • “Novelty in startups is higher than predicted”
  • “Knowledge is the biggest constraint in product management”

With a format like this, each note is structured as a claim or idea, so it’s densely linkable inline within other notes. So when reading a note, the cross-link to another idea can appear seamlessly within the text. Using a concept-based approach, we might find serendipitous connections we weren’t looking for. Andy says:

If we read two books about exactly the same topic, we might easily link our notes about those two together. But novel connections tend to appear where they’re not quite so expected. When arranging notes by concept, you may make surprising links between ideas that came up in very different books. You might never have noticed that those books were related before—and indeed, they might not have been, except for this one point.

Novel ideas spring from concocting new recipes from existing ideas. Composable, atomic ideas make it more manageable to toss several disparate ones together to experiment with new combinations.

Gordon has been writing lately about his work on Subconscious, and the possibility of software-assisted self organization of ideas. This is a super intriguing idea, and exactly the sort of reason I’m interest in computers and software — for their ability to help us think more creatively, do more building, and less rote information-shuffling.

Image credits: TfT Hacker

Systems and Supply Chains

November 10, 2021 • #

You can’t touch current events online (at least in circles I follow) without running into 25 opinions on what’s causing our supply chain lock-ups.

Global supply chains are just about the most interesting examples of systems by the traditional systems thinking definition. They have stocks and flows, feedback loops, and nonlinear response dynamics, plus they’re highly visible, global, and impact each of us in very direct ways. Because everyone on earth is impacted directly by these problems, we’re hyper-aware of the issues, which drives the experts out of the woodwork to flex their Dunning-Kruger muscles.

My diagnosis in all the reading I’ve done is, generally, if you think there’s a single pinch point or monocausal explanation, you don’t understand how systems work.

That being said, I always love to hear what Venkatesh Rao has to say on complex systems like this. As much as we think of supply chains as an “old world” system of technologies, Rao points out that the analysis on the issue so far “seems to adopt the posture that we are talking about a crisis of mismanagement in a well-understood old technology rather than a crisis of understanding in a poorly understood young one.” Meaning, an enormous number of the contributing innovations to the modern supply chain are a decade or two old. Automation, algorithmic cargo sorting, the buy/sell economics of e-commerce, epic Panamax super containerships. All of the novel contributing innovations aren’t as well understood as we think they are, especially the impacts they have when they fail. It’s worth remembering that due to its sheer size and entangled complexity, a global shipping supply chain is a networked combination of entities designed individually, but interfacing with one another. No committee sat down and laid out the infrastructure, policy, transportation protocols, or decision making processes that would get silicon from a factory floor in Shenzhen to the chip in the car in your driveway. Rao reminds us to think of this network as an emergent one:

The thing is, a supply chain is mostly an emergent entity rather than a designed one, and its most salient features often have very little to do with its nominal function of getting stuff from Point A to Point B. That’s just the supply chain’s job, not what it is. What it is is a homeostatic equilibrium created by billions of sourcing decisions made over time, by millions of individuals at businesses around the world making buying and selling decisions over time.

When a complex system is breaking down, when there are stopped flows or undesirable negative feedback loops, we have to carefully pick apart the system’s interrelationships to find root causes. In an interesting could-only-happen-on-Twitter turn of events a couple of weeks ago, Flexport founder Ryan Petersen possibly single-handedly unplugged one of the many possible clogs in the system when he cataloged Long Beach Port issues in a thread, chasing down one example bottleneck in the local area’s container stacking limitations:

The gist was: there aren’t enough trucks to pick up and haul the unloaded containers, so they need to be put somewhere on-shore. The stockyards used for holding containers are subject to regulations where they can’t stack them more than 2 units high. Therefore, an ever-growing fleet of ships sit at anchor until the clog is removed. But even this simple political solution isn’t the only friction — what’s causing the lack of trucks and/or drivers? Why don’t we have fallback locations ships can be rerouted to? We have a complex and fragile system subject to too many failure points. Big monocausal opinions don’t paint a realistic picture, even if there’s truth in them. “It’s all the longshoremen unions!” or “it’s consumerism!” or “we should reshore all manufacturing from China!” are all claims with some possible merit to them. But responding to only one of those will do next to nothing. The system will evolve around changes you make.

Supply chains are emergent functions of millions of individual interactions between nodes on a network. Changing individual policies doesn’t cure all of the system’s ills, but neither does sitting around blaming one another with simplistic claims about who or what the problem is.

Image credits: Unsplash

Progress Report: October

November 8, 2021 • #

I’m going take a stab at rebooting the monthly progress posts I used to do back when I was diligently tracking several goals through 2019 and 2020. Each month I’d look at how I was tracking against plan for fixed targets like “run 650 miles”.

This time we’re gonna try something different. I’ll include my workout activities, because I still want to note my monthly quantities even if not tracking against a fixed number, books I’m reading, and other media I’ve been consuming, inspired by Julian Lehr’s regular “media consumption” updates.

October was a pretty normal month. The only notable differences from standard pattern of life were my first airline flight since the start of the pandemic (to DC for a company event) and I capped off the month with a visit to the Mayo Clinic for my regular cancer screening scans (MRIs and CTs — all clear!). Ending a month with good news is always energizing for the next one.

Health

Running

Since the summer started I got into a more regular cadence than I had earlier in the year. The move really did a number on my habit patterns, not in a good way for exercise. But now I’m back to it more or less, with better mileage each week.

Activities Miles Time Calories Avg HR Avg Pace
7 28.06 4h 9m 3080 156 8:57/mi

The last week with traveling was a bust, but this is much better than my February/March performance.

Sleep & Screen Time

I’ve been tracking my daily screen time and sleep data all year, which I’ll write up a post on sometime soon. Here were the numbers for October.

Nightly sleep for October Nightly sleep for October

(Guess which week we got the puppy…)

  • Sleep: 6.88 average hours per night
  • Screen Time: 5 hours 6 minutes per day

Media

Books

There is No Antimemetics Division, Sam Hughes
░░░░▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ 20-100%

Dune, Frank Herbert
░░░░░░░░░░░▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ 59-100%

Preludes and Nocturnes, The Sandman, Vol. 1, Neil Gaiman
▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓▓ 0-100%

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, William L. Shirer
░░░░░▓░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ 25-31%

The Nature of Technology, W. Brian Arthur
▓▓░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ 0-10%

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, Hunter S. Thompson
░▓▓░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ 5-17%

Systemantics, John Gall
▓▓▓░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░░ 0-15%

Knowledge and Decisions, Thomas Sowell
░░░░░░░▓▓░░░░░░░░░░░ 38-49%

Podcasts

8 hours of driving to and from Jacksonville jumped this one up.

TV

  • Ted Lasso, 9 episodes
  • Foundation, 4 episodes
  • Succession, 3 episodes

And a healthy amount of playoff baseball.

Films

Weekend Reading: Readwise's Next Chapter, Reviewing Revolt of the Public, and the Helicopter State

September 17, 2021 • #

📚 The Next Chapter of Readwise: Our Own Reading App

Great to see this evolution of Readwise to enter the “read-later” app space. None of the options out there seem to be thriving anymore (Pocket, Instapaper, etc.), but some of us still rely on them as essential parts of our reading experience.

The Readwise team has been moving fast the last couple years with excellent additions to the product, and I can’t believe they were also working on this for most of 2021 along with the other regular updates. Impressive.

🪧 Book Review: The Revolt of the Public

Scott Alexander reviews Martin Gurri:

People could have lowered their expectations, but in the real world that wasn’t how things went. Instead of losing faith in the power of government to work miracles, people believed that government could and should be working miracles, but that the specific people in power at the time were too corrupt and stupid to press the “CAUSE MIRACLE” button which they definitely had and which definitely would have worked. And so the outrage, the protests - kick these losers out of power, and replace them with anybody who had the common decency to press the miracle button!

Revolt of the Public was published in 2014, a time when most of his diagnosis of political discontent was prescient. But as SA points out, most of the subject matter is received wisdom in 2021.

I still highly recommend Gurri as a writer, and RotP for its analysis of root causes more than its predictions of things to come. More on Gurri here and here, and give a watch to his Revolt of the Public in 10 Minutes talk to get the precis on his work if you’re unfamiliar.

🏛 The Helicopter State

Jonah’s G-File is one of the rare read-every-issue newsletters, and this one is one of my recent favorites:

The government can’t love you, and when it works from the premise that it can, folly or tyranny follow. We need people in our lives, not programs. Because people give us the very real sense that we are part of something, that we’re needed and valued. Programs treat us like we’re metrics in some PowerPoint slide.

Helicopter parenting has a negative perception, as it should, but it’s still done all the time. Helicopter governing should be treated the same, but is also promoted and defended far too often.

Kindle Cloud Reader

September 16, 2021 • #

I use the Kindle desktop app a fair amount, usually for going back to books I’ve already read for reference, or to review highlights and make notes. It’s always been a pretty bad application, with a strangely dated interface and extremely rare updates, but lately it’s gotten unusable. Maybe it’s unstable on the M1 Mac mini. It now crashes constantly and corrupts the local data, requiring purge and reinstall to fix it.

Instead of fighting with it, I went back to their Kindle Cloud Reader, a web-based version of the same Kindle client that Amazon’s kept around for a decade. Like the desktop app, it gets almost no attention that I can tell. But since it runs in the browser, it doesn’t have the same stability problems as the desktop app, and seems to support all of the same basic reading and annotation features as the other clients.

Until Amazon decides to care about Kindle’s software products, I’d recommend using the Cloud Reader for desktop reading. It’s sad to see them flounder around with their massive advantage in the e-reading space. They can get away with this, of course, as the de facto default platform for e-books still, but it seems inevitable that someone will come along and disrupt this position.

Exapting Technologies

September 9, 2021 • #

New forms of technology tend not to materialize from thin air. The nature of innovation takes existing known technologies and remixes, extends, and co-opts them to create novelty.

Gordon Brander refers to it in this piece as “exapting infrastructure.” As in the case of the internet, it wasn’t nonexistent one day then suddenly connecting all of our computers the next. It wasn’t purposely designed from the beginning as a way for us to connect our millions of computers, phones, and smart TVs. In fact, many types of computers and the things we do with them evolved as a consequence of the expansion of the internet, enabled by interconnection to do new things we didn’t predict.

Former railroad corridors are regularly reused as cycling trails Former railroad corridors are regularly reused as cycling trails

Exaptation” is a term of art in evolutionary biology, the phenomenon of an organism using a biological feature for a function other than it was adapted for through natural selection. Dinosaurs evolved feathers for insulation and display, which were eventually exapted for flight. Sea creatures developed air bladders for buoyancy regulation, later exapted into lungs for respiration on land.

In the same way, technologies beget new technologies, even seemingly-unrelated ones. In the case of the internet, early modems literally broadcast information as audio signals over phone lines intended for voice. Computers talked to each other this way for a couple decades before we went digital native. We didn’t build a web of copper and voice communication devices to make computers communicate, but it could be made to work for that purpose. Repurposing the existing already-useful network allowed the internet to gain a foothold without much new capital infrastructure:

The internet didn’t have to deploy expensive new hardware, or lay down new cables to get off the ground. It was conformable to existing infrastructure. It worked with the way the world was already, exapting whatever was available, like dinosaurs exapting feathers for flight.

Just like biological adaptations, technologies also evolve slowly. When we’re developing new technologies, protocols, and standards, we’d benefit from less greenfield thinking and should explore what can be exapted to get new tech off the ground. Enormous energy is spent trying to brute force new standards ground-up when we often would be better off bootstrapping on existing infrastructure.

Biology has a lot to teach us about the evolution of technology, if we look in the right places.

Image credits: Florida ECRRT

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