I read this article the other day on how our society will inevitable face the energy shortage. Sooner or later, we run out of fossil fuel. So we need to compensate for energy loss with a suitable alternative. The problem is that we don’t need this alternative right now. We aren’t running out of oil today. There is no urgency. And without urgency, there is no incentive to solve the problem1.
But energy crisis isn’t the topic of this article2. Instead, I want to explore how product teams got into the same delayed gratification trap. And what can we do about it?
As humans, we are wired to think short-term. We’d rather take the reward now than wait for years. When making a decision, the Present and Future never meet each other. They exist in two separate dimensions. For example, when the engineering team implements a crutch-based solution, you don’t get to pay the price for it. The future engineers will. When you build the feature or two because a “low-hanging fruit” you aren’t taking any damage. It’s once again future customers who would have to navigate the cluttered product.
There is another extreme of this story when you try to over-optimize for the future. Which in turn hurts the Present. Like when you spend hours choosing the perfect typeface for the side project before ensuring there is a need for it.
So what can we do with all of that? Well, you got to time travel.
Because the future doesn’t have a say in today’s decision, we tend to forget our long-term values.
Consider how many decisions were made because your manager told you so. Even if the decision doesn’t align with any OKR in place. How many times random opportunities overshadowed what’s important for the product?
Here is Jerry Seinfeld’s explanation of this very concept. It’s true for individuals and product teams.
The way to fight this is to ask yourselves what would future-you think about this decision you’re making now. Or in the context of product teams, what are the consequences of this decision for future-product & customers.
Developed by Suzy Welch, the 10-10-10 rule is a way to calibrate today’s decisions with long-term values. The idea is simple, for every decision you about to make, ask yourselves the following.
What are the consequences of each of my options
↪ In ten minutes?
↪ In ten months?
↪ In ten years?
Although you can’t predict exactly what will happen in 10 years, the question itself triggers a mental time travel. Inevitably you start evaluating options from the long-term perspective.
Another technic is also known as Ulysses contract. When you put guard rails now to prevent future-you from doing stupid things.
The high-level product strategy could act as guard rails. Almost like a filter for product problems that you consider important. Or the decision to limit the project team to only 2 engineers and 1 designer. So you won’t over-allocate people to a specific project. And also keep the solution doable by a small group.
To fight over-optimization for the Future, we had to bring the Past into the conversation. Remembering the Past keeps us grounded. It shows how likely an outcome to occur based on previous experience. One way to make this happen is to maintain Decision Journal.
So many companies keep an infinite backlog of future tasks. But none of them maintain a list of past learnings. How can you expect the company to grow if there are no reflection systems in place?
And I’m not talking about regular sprint retrospectives that you forget the next day. The purpose of the Decision Journal is to document the context. It should be easily accessible for you to look up anytime.
Each item of your Decision Journal can consist of the following:
Answers to all those questions give you the necessary context to evaluate the decision later on. It’s probably the safest way to avoid hindsight bias. You won’t consider the outcome inevitable when you see the initial context.
Not thinking about the long-term consequences of our today’s decisions makes us mindlessly move with the flow. It’s like betting our future on pure chance and luck. Potentially, hurting customers on the way.
If you’re interested in the long game for the product, you have to think about every short-term opportunity. Because eventually it might not be the opportunity you need right now.
To be fair, many promising infrastructure projects are on the way now. But it seems like this isn’t nearly enough to prepare us for the no-fossil-fuels future. I’m personally excited about ITER project. ↩
Although this is extremely important topic and I recommend you to read more on that. Here are a few relevant books I found useful: The Grid: The Fraying Wires Between Americans and Our Energy Future, Oil Power and War: A Dark History, How Everything Can Collapse: A Manual for our Times. ↩