April 30, 2016
Goals vs. ConstraintsA classic source of tension and dysfunction in software teams - well, probably all kinds of teams, really - is the relativity between goals and constraints.
Teams often mistake constraints for goals. A common example is when teams treat a design specification as a goal, and lose sight of where that design came from in the first place.
A software design is a constraint. There may be countless ways of solving a problem, but we chose this one. That's the very definition of constraining.
On a larger scale, I've seen many tech start-ups lose sight of why they're doing what they're doing, and degenerate into 100% focusing on raising or making the money to keep doing whatever it is they're doing. This is pretty common. Think of these charities who started out with a clear aim to "save the cat" or whatever, but fast-forward a few years and most - if not all - of the charities' efforts end up being dedicated to raising the funds to pay everybody and keep the charity going.
Now, you could argue that a business's goal is to make money, and that they make money in exchange for helping customers to satisfy their goals. A restaurant's goal is to make money. A diner's goal is to be fed. I give you money. You stop me from being hungry.
Which is why - if your organisation's whole raison d'être is to make a profit - it's vitally important to have a good, deep understanding of your customer's goals or needs.
That's quite a 19th century view of business, though. But even back then, some more progressive industrialists saw aims above and beyond just making a profit. At their best, businesses can provide meaning and purpose for employees, enrich their lives, enrich communities and generally add to the overall spiffiness of life in their vicinity.
But I digress. Where was I? Oh yes. Goals vs. constraints.
Imagine you're planning a trip from your home in Los Angeles to San Francisco. Your goal is to visit SF. A constraint might be that, if you're going to drive, you'll need enough gasoline for the journey.
So you set out raising money for gas. You start a lemonade stall in your front yard. It goes well. People like your lemonade, and thanks to the convenient location of your home, there are lots of passers-by with thirsts that need quenching. Soon you have more than enough money for gas. But things are going so well on your lemonade stall that you've been too busy thinking about that, and not about San Francisco. You make plans to branch out into freshly squeezed orange juice, and even smoothies. You get a bigger table. You hire an assistant, because there's just so much to be done. You buy a bigger house on the same street, with a bigger yard and more storage space. Then you start delivering your drinks to local restaurants, where they go down a storm with diners. 10 years later, you own a chain of lemonade stalls spanning the entire city.
Meanwhile, you have never been to San Francisco. In fact, you're so busy now, you may never go.
Now, if you're a hard-headed capitalist, you may argue "so what?" Surely your lemonade business is ample compensation for missing out on that trip?
Well, maybe it is, and maybe it isn't. As I get older, I find myself more and more questioning "Why am I doing this?" I know too many people who got distracted by "success" and never took those trips, never tried those experiences, never built that home recording studio, never learned that foreign language, and all the other things that were on their list.
For most of us - individuals and businesses alike - earning money is a means to an end. It's a constraint that can enable or prevent us from achieving our goals.
As teams, too, we can too easily get bogged down in the details and lose sight of why we're creating the software and systems that we do in the first place.
So, I think, a balance needs to be struck here. We have to take care of the constraints to achieve our goals, but losing sight of those goals potentially makes all our efforts meaningless.
Getting bogged down in constraints can also make it less likely that we'll achieve our goals at all.
Constraints constrain. That's sort of how that works. If we constrain ourselves to a specific route from LA to San Francisco, for example, and then discover half way that the road is out, we need other options to reach the destination.
Countless times, I've watched teams bang their heads against the brick wall trying to deliver on a spec that can't - for whatever reason - be done. It's powerful voodoo to be able to step back and remind ourselves of where we're really headed, and ask "is there another way?" I've seen $multi-million projects fail because there was no other way - deliver to the spec, or fail. It had to be Oracle. It had to be a web service. It had to be Java.
No. No it didn't. Most constraints we run into are actually choices that someone made - maybe even choices that we made for ourselves - and then forgot that it was a choice.
Yes, try to make it work. But don't mistake choices for goals.
Posted 3 years, 10 months ago on April 30, 2016