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Actions as byproducts

2021-04-29

Anyone who has worked with me for a reasonable period will have eventually gotten frustrated with my constant focus on systems thinking (frequently expressed as principles/values). This is because fundamentally, all actions we take are byproducts of the systems we create. Put another way, if your systemic approach is sound, and the decisions you make align with that, the outcomes are generally predictable and in line with what you're trying to achieve.

This systems thinking approach provides a good understanding of why the principle-driven is valuable. Effectively, we solve the hard problems now (principles), so we don't have to continuously solve hard problems later (decisions). You can see this reflected in mission statements, organisational goals, or company values. The warning here is that just because you state a certain thing doesn't mean that's what you actually end up with. Systemtic byproducts are complex and interralated, and certain concepts that you would normally not even think to question might end up skewing the outcome you achieve.

Let's explore the concept of progression as a way of understanding byproducts. With very few exceptions, companies tend to use a level-based progression system. A graduate might enter as a junior and eventually work their way up to manager. The problem that jumps out to us from this is obvious once stated: A ladder exists to be climbed. Purely by having the concept of levels, we are training ourselves to focus on what we need to do to get to the next rung. This can present interesting issues if your company's goals are misaligned with the progression system. I highly recommend this talk by Bryan Cantrill as a more in-depth exploration of the problem with levels.

We can even take the progression scenario a bit further: by having levels, we can end up incentivising ourselves to not innovate. As a creative worker (in my case, a software engineer), when I am confronted with a problem repeatedly, the excitement of solving that problem will fade. I then have two options: solve the problem for good (automation or rethinking our constraints) or hire a junior to do the work for me (disclaimer: this is generally not the framing used to hire juniors). The latter solution can end up motivating us to not even think of fundamental solutions to problems since we can always get someone to do the rote work. If, however, we do as John Lennon famously said and "imagine a world without level-based progression, where short term advancement-centric thinking focused on renumeration and status is not present", we might find that our approach to problems and innovation dramatically changes.

Because of the fundamental nature in which our systemic modelling affects our trajectories, it's critical that organisations consider every decision they're making (especially the large upfront ones) and how that will affect what they're trying to achieve. This is difficult and takes time to do, and in a lot of situations, you will find that the system is so interconnected that it's impossible to change. Luckily, history has shown that no system is eternal. If you're unwilling to change, another company that is willing will put you out on the street.