Use email to announce decisions, not to solicit potential solutions

I didn’t go to a very famous college so in all the years I attended, we only ever had one industry guest speaker visit us. He was a higher-up at IBM Germany. One of the points he made was that software developers always send him excruciatingly detailed emails justifying decisions he doesn’t really care about, like ordering themselves a new laptop when their old one broke.

Instead he gave this advice: if you’re deciding between options, explore the options and arrive at a decision. Then set a deadline and send an email to stakeholders that you’re moving on with the decision unless they object before the deadline expires. This keeps projects moving on by default, rather than stalling because of missing decisions.

If you write emails this way, you don’t force stakeholders into the spotlight like you would asking for their opinions. Rather you allow them the easy out of staying silent, accepting your proposal, and archiving your email. They trust you enough to make this decision and are happy enough with it. If you solicit opinions instead, you have to keep pinging stakeholders to find out whether they don’t care enough to reply or they will reply later. That’s always awkward and takes a lot of time.

Avoid all of this by sending a brief email with the options you considered, the conclusion you arrived at, and a deadline for review. Stakeholders will be happy that you did most of the work yourself already, not taking time away from their own projects. If you’re about to make a bad decision, someone will speak up before the deadline. Guaranteed.

Use email to announce decisions, not to solicit potential solutions

Keeping track of key decisions

There are some seriously old software projects around these days. Take SPSS which was first released in 1968 and is still updated. When a new person joins the SPSS team, how do they learn what has already been tried before? Are they bound to repeat bad ideas of the past? Is there a reference to tell them their idea was already explored and discarded in 1983?

You don’t need to have 50 years of project history to wonder how a project arrived at the status quo. Even if your project is just a few years old, new hires ask about past decisions. Often people who were on the team at the time of a decision can not recall why a decision was made the way it was made.

I have noticed that development teams seem to be focused on the future. Their process, documents, and tools are optimized for what must happen next. This is great for focusing on shipping product. After shipping, the usefulness of the documents and tools seem to crumble. They are not maintained anymore, become obsolete and outdated. It’s now difficult to recall questions that were asked and answered in 1993.

I feel that projects need scribes or archivists that track key decisions in a structured way. Their system would track key decisions and the reasons behind them. I want this system to be easily searchable to find decisions made years ago. I also want this system to be readable as prose in chronological order like a history novel. I want entries to be taggable and relatable, for example to highlight that a decision from 1997 was made obsolete by a newer decision from 2004.

I haven’t found tool support for this idea. Maybe it’s been tried and discarded but nobody kept records.

Keeping track of key decisions

Ambition as an asymptote to goals

Is someone’s ambition an asymptote to their goals? Here’s what I mean: Is someone’s ambition trajectory bigger when they’re far away from their goals but diminishing the closer they get to them? This occurred to me talking to someone else that shared this experience. We agreed that we both are close to what we had longed for ten years ago. Now that we’re nearly there, what to aim for next?

The general consensus seems to be that people get less ambitious as they get older. Let’s assume that’s true. Is that because people settle after they realize their goals are not attainable? Or is it because they are closer to their goals from, say, ten years ago and – due to the law of diminishing returns – are not willing or able to completely achieve their goals without a disproportionate effort.

If ambition is asymptotic to goals, do people that start out with loftier goals have an inherent achievement advantage over people with modest goals, just because their ambition asymptote is accelerating for a longer time before slowing down? People with modest goals usually come close to achieving them fairly quickly. Does ambition just fizzle out at that point because you’re done?

Can people reset their goals and avoid falling into a slump? Obviously it’s possible. There are many stories of people who did something for decades only to quit their old lives and do something completely different. Still, just getting your ambition trajectory back from deceleration to acceleration seems like a tremendous undertaking. Can we plan ahead to avoid that? Can ambition be turned from an asymptote into something that doesn’t decrease the closer you get to your goals.

Ambition as an asymptote to goals

Tracking things to avoid mental downtime

Do you know that feeling when there’s just nothing to do at work? That exact moment when you drift off into your thoughts and browse your favorite website? I vaguely remember it. It was a familiar feeling at previous jobs. I don’t experience it a lot anymore. I don’t think that changed only because my current job is busier than those I had before. I think I actively learned to avoid it.

What happened is that I became better at tracking things. It’s not so much that I have more work to do. In the past I just forgot the things that needed to be done. That’s an unfortunate situation to be in. I was bored at work because I thought there was nothing to do. But there were things to do. I just forgot. First I was bored and then I was angry about forgetting. Great times.

I am still not a good tracker of things. At least I have a to-do list now. It’s my customized inbox. I am in the sweet spot to get through most of it on an average workday. Inbox Zero doesn’t happen a lot. Maybe once or twice a quarter. Inbox Three happens nearly every day. The bug tracker still piles up requests but those don’t count.

Inbox Near-Zero is a mental boost. The small size removes the sense of overwhelming that huge inboxes have. It empowers because it makes the goal visible and seemingly in reach. Even better, when I am done with one task, I know what to work on next. I have completely eliminated the need to mentally recall things that needed doing. Those were the moments when I drifted off to my favorite websites. I opened them and suddenly half an hour had passed. Mental downtime accumulates without you noticing.

Tracking things to avoid mental downtime