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TBM 233: Coffee & Complexity
Sunday coffee thoughts.
At my day job, I have been working on a proposal to redesign how we do something.
To prepare for the questions I expected to receive, I started writing a FAQ by brainstorming questions I'd heard before related to this topic. Five questions answered. Ten questions. Twenty questions. At eighty questions, ideas for questions started to taper off, and my brain was a little friend.
I had spent hours writing 20,000 words of hopefully thoughtful answers. I shared it with one or two people who appreciate this stuff—it's not for general consumption. The feedback was good. "You look prepared," they said. It was a way for me to get my thoughts together. I was done (for the time being, at least).
Staring at the FAQ, a couple of things occurred to me.
Imagine if I had tried to capture all of this tactic knowledge in a comprehensive playbook. People would have immediately discounted it as "too complex" or "too complicated" (I know, I've tried over the years). Yet these questions are exactly what you hear when doing The Thing. There is a ton of "well it depends on…" Of course, I could pick a very narrow context—similar to Shape Up and Basecamp—and explain exactly how it works narrowly, but that might not apply across our diverse teams.
Now imagine if I had tried to explain the situation with five principles or three pillars—a diagram with some loops and stages. Maybe I could have conveyed some of the information, but I'd be barely scratching the surface. I could share a bunch of canvasses and frameworks to get the ball rolling, but the questions would still be there.
OK—so surfacing complexity will not work, and the simplified slides will not work. What would work? What if I was an executive at a massive Fortune 10 multinational company new to making software products (I'm not)? I have an hour to get buy-in. Perhaps I would opt for hiring a consultancy with all the answers! I'd let them swoop in with the fancy presentations, playbooks, and list of happy customers. That might work! They might even use a complicated infographic chock full of acronyms. Sounds safe, right?
This is insanity. Why am I doing this? Why can't everyone believe things will just work out?
Maybe I’ve learned something over the last twenty-five years.
I'm tired. Time for a hot-take on LinkedIn, and then I'll go to sleep.
I started to think about the future. If we move forward, hopefully, the team will begin infusing existing tribal knowledge into The Thing. We'll move beyond my inconsequential proposal and start shaping it into Our Thing. It would be great to have a crowd-sourced FAQ (like GitLab), but there's an approximately 2.3% chance that will happen. Realistically that's not needed. Soon there will be a simple slide in a deck for new people onboarding with some vague principles and a simple diagram—and that will be OK.
If lucky, I can go on Lenny's Podcast and talk about how we do Our Thing! Applause! Recognition! Of course, there's no way I'll convey the vast ecosystem of networked knowledge, the history, the variations, and the evolution we experienced. No, I'll be confident, assured, and actionable and credit the team for everything.
And then it hit me—this is exactly why we call product work complex knowledge work and the organizations we work in complex sociotechnical systems. It is a dance between levels of abstraction and frames. No one sees it all (not me, for sure).
It is precisely why templates and canvases, and knowing exactly how Acme Corp works, may give us a little nudge, but it is only the start of the journey. And why sometimes having a consultancy come in and tell-it-like-it-needs-to-be is perhaps the only viable way forward.
Humans are messy, and we always satisfice (quite effectively, I might add).
Maybe the Garbage Can Model is right.
Organizations can be viewed as vehicles for solving problems, or structures where conflict is resolved through bargaining. However, organizations also provide procedures through which participants gain an understanding of what they are doing and what they have done. Organizations, especially organized anarchies, may have difficulty creating their collective platform and identity. In situations of ambiguity, decision making moves away from ideas of reality, causality, and intentionality, to thoughts of meaning. Therefore, decisions become seen as vehicles for constructing meaningful interpretations of fundamentally confusing worlds, instead of outcomes produced by comprehensible environments. As the complexity of decision situations increase so that they more closely resemble reality, they become meaning generators instead of consequence generators.
Food for thought!
By the way, I think I might have figured out a way to make my content more accessible and organized. I have a full-time job, so I don't have time to curate and organize my content (100s, maybe 1000s of articles, videos, Miro boards, drawings, diagrams, podcasts, etc.) To find my own content, I have to use Google—not cool. I also don't want to sell anything.
But what if I ran a Patreon to hire a skilled instructional designer/content specialist/information architect? I'd use the money exclusively to pay them to help organize the mess. We would create a super well organized library of content with various tracks of learning, a glossary, cross-references, etc. It would be free, but contributors would get some sort of token of appreciation. What do you think?