context puzzles

Life is a 1000 piece puzzle, but we only have 980 pieces or so and they’re not all from the right puzzle.

Micah Haun, 2005

Are you old enough to remember when The Facebook asked you for your favorite quotes? If you dig deep enough, they’re still there. If you’re of a certain age, you likely copied them from your AIM profile like I did. Only the one above has survived the full 15-year journey for me. I always felt there was some deeper truth that it was poking.

At first blush, it seems a little pessimistic: If you can’t complete the puzzle, isn’t it garbage? Depends on why you’re working on it, I suppose. And really, these days it seems quite optimistic to me. I feel like we have a lot fewer pieces in reality and we’re not even clear which one is the “right” puzzle. Did anyone even save the box?

And what is software development really if not a sprawling, borderless puzzle for which the lid with the big picture on it is long gone? To me, it seems obvious that the biggest hurdle to team-based software development is how difficult it is to communicate well. Communication isn’t its own end goal of course, so what is it we’re having trouble communicating? Context. All sorts of context. For starters, where’s that damned lid?

Too little time is spent at the outset refining ideas. “Just A/B test whatever we make up” isn’t a sustainable strategy. Later, too much time has to be spent synchronizing stakeholders. If there’s no central thesis, no guiding principles recorded and disseminated, how can you keep a CEO and five departments on the same page about priorities without endless negotiations and reordering? If everyone has a different mental model of the problem, you’ll never get on the same page about the solution.

If you can’t paint the box lid to show everyone else where you’re heading, how will they ever know what you’re building? Do you even know? Refining an idea or a set of principles isn’t an immediately gratifying problem like code, but it’s the most critical work to be done.

Before Basecamp was Basecamp, they were 37Signals. I’ve followed them for more than 15 years, and I firmly believe their initial “manifesto” was the most important thing they did. Not because it was perfect or timeless, but because it immediately oriented them and their audience to what they valued. They followed with blog posts and books that, to this day, continue to shape (up) how people perceive them and how they value their work. This is every bit as important as the bits they ship because it’s the most critical advantage they have: efficient communication of a clear vision.

This is non-obvious to most folks. Why would a design agency (as they started) need a 37-point manifesto? How many people actually read that? Did they even set up a marketing funnel to track their conversion rates? Did they A/B test the wording? I’m being facetious to make the point: Clear, orienting communication supersedes day-to-day tactics. It is the strategy that will sustain you. Invest in it first, always.