The two voices of progress

There are two voices in my head.

Both are just my inner monologue of course. But sometimes it speaks with one voice, sometimes another.

One voice says: Here’s how you can make this happen.

The other says: Here’s what will happen if you do that.

Historically I often described the former as the software developer’s role and the latter as the ops role. I think the reality is that everyone needs both, and not just because we’re all devops now.

There are many ways to fail to make progress, but ultimately all of them come down to hitting some sort of obstacle and failing to be able to get past it.

Sometimes the obstacle is a creative block: You could get past it if you just had the right solution. Other times it’s a foresight block: You needed to plan for this six months ago, and if you didn’t there’s actually not much you can do here. Different voices tell you how to overcome different obstacles.

I think most people are predisposed to listen to and value one voice over the other. Certainly historically I’ve been much more of a “here’s how you can make this happen” type of person, and have gradually learned that the other voice has useful contributions that would have prevented this debacle we’ve found ourselves in if I’d only listened to the other one.

But you don’t have to be good at listening to both voices when they’re inside your head, because the voices come from outside your head too: Your team mates.

The problem comes not when you’re not good at thinking in both ways, the problem comes when you discount what people who are good at thinking in the way that you’re not are saying as unimportant.

This is probably familiar to anyone who has tried to be the voice of reason in the room: A bunch of cowboys dismiss your concerns as probably not very important in practice and how likely is that to happen? Lets be pragmatic here.

My impression is that right now the tech industry is heavily biased towards the “lets make it work” voice, as exemplified by the “move fast and break things” attitude, but it goes the other way too. When you see everything constantly being broken around you it’s tempting to think that if only everyone would just listen to you everything would be great.

I think this is a mistake too. The danger of being too far on the predictive side is that it prevents you from experimenting. It also tends to produce a sort of analysis paralysis: Many ideas that have proven to be very successful would never have been started if their creators had realised how much work they were going to be.

I think in many ways the optimal way to do progress is to have the two voices handing off to each other. Experiment, then stabilize, then repeat. Skip the experiment step and you don’t get anywhere, skip the stabilize step and you get somewhere you didn’t want to be.

It seems very hard to get these two approaches in balance. I’d like to fix that. I’m not sure how to make it happen, but I’m pretty sure that what will happen if we do is pretty great.

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