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Looking at What Wasn't Done

Published 10/31/2022

Look closer at the things that don't happen. Evaluate the options you never considered. When you are looking back, don't just judge based on actions and outcomes - look at the quality of decisions through the lens of information, and wonder: was there a better decision? Was there an option that was nearly as good, but this one was better?

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
What are you choosing not to do? And what are the errors and the things that you're not doing? My name is Jonathan Cutrelley, you're listening to Developer Tea. My goal in the show is to help driven developers like you find clarity, perspective, and purpose in their careers. This is something that we don't think about very often because it's not visible. The things that we are not doing have a profound impact on our lives. The opportunities that we don't take. They may have a profoundly positive or negative impact on our lives. And we may be doing them in error or on purpose. We should think about this as the other side of the coin when we're considering things like evaluating performance. What did you choose to do and what did that leave out should be a part of the same conversations. It shouldn't stop there. We should also investigate why. We're going to discuss the importance of this unseen right after we talk about today's split. This episode of Developer Tea is brought to you by Split. Split is the feature management and experimentation platform. What if a release was a release, a moment of relief, and escape from slow, painful deployments that hold back products engineers like you? You could free your teams and your features with Split. By attaching insightful data to feature flags, Split helps you quickly deploy, measure, and learn the impact of every feature you release. Which means you can turn up what works, turn off what doesn't, and give software innovation the room to run wild. Now you can safely deliver features up to 50 times faster and finally take a breath. Split feature management and experimentation. Re-imagined your software delivery by starting your free trial today, you can create your first feature flag at split.io slash Developer Tea. That's split.io slash Developer Tea. Next again to Split for sponsoring today's episode of Developer Tea. When we do a performance review or when we're evaluating our own decisions, we think about everything that we did. But I want to give you a new frame for thinking. Instead of thinking about the things that you didn't do as unimportant, I want you to imagine that everything that you chose not to do is an alternative option. Something that you choose to do is indeed a choice. This means that usually when you imagine that you have only a few options, what you're actually doing is you're saying there are perhaps an infinite number of possibilities, and I'm only going to consider three or four of those. In practical situations, most people are going to judge the quality of your decisions and your actions based on the outcomes. This means if you take action A and something good happens, people will do two things. One, they will attribute the good thing to the action that you took. And two, they typically won't ask the question, could there have been a better action? But it's in your best interest to imagine that your successes are not binary. In other words, you can imagine that you take a good action that you have good reason to believe is tied to a positive outcome that doesn't keep you from evaluating whether there was another even better action to take. Now, I want you to hear me clearly here. I'm not saying that you get on the endless treadmill of never being good enough for yourself. This is not a self-judgment imperative that I'm trying to push on you here. Instead, what we should be doing when we are evaluating, specifically in situations where you are explicitly evaluating a decision or evaluating the performance of a given engineer, you shouldn't just be thinking about what happened. You can also think about what didn't happen, what this engineer didn't do. The options that I chose not to entertain or that I chose not to adopt. And this is a two-sided evaluation. These are things that I chose not to do on purpose or in an intentional way. They were bad options that I chose against and then things that I chose not to do, but perhaps I should have chosen to do. Something that may have been an error in thinking. Now, remember to guard yourself against making this evaluation based on an outcome, as tempting as it may be and as crazy as it sounds to avoid that. When you choose to evaluate a decision based on its outcome, very often you are going to judge what are actually good decisions incorrectly. And, you may attribute to poor decisions some unworthy genius. As we have iterated and reiterated on the show over and over, the outcomes of your decisions are not purely and solely connected to the quality of those decisions. The quality of the decision is based on the information that you had available at the time. And that's it. As a secondary part of this evaluation, you should also be looking at the process of finding adequate information in order to make a high-quality decision. Try to find the delta between the information that was available and the information that the decision maker gathered and evaluated. Times that delta is large enough to recognize that the decision maker didn't really spend much time making this decision at all. Once again, this doesn't mean it was a bad decision or that their process was bad. It could be that the minimal amount of information they had was enough for the stakes of the decision that was being made. But this is where the other side of the coin shows up once again. If you're not paying attention to the alternatives, especially the alternatives that your information is telling you are worth considering, then you may miss a better option. A common pattern to watch for high-quality decision makers is that they typically have to say no to multiple good options and they've evaluated those good options against one that they believe rises above the rest. This is a common pattern. It doesn't happen every time, but typically good information yields more than one good option. This is a heuristic you can use. So when you are evaluating things that were not done, actions that were not taken, those invisible options, this should be a pattern that emerges in many cases, not in every case, but in many cases, that there are good options that were turned down for good reasons. Ultimately, taking the time to look at what wasn't done, the actions that were not taken is worthwhile. Both in the actions where there was something left on the table and in the actions where things that were not done were very much intentional. They were on purpose in order to preserve something more important. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode. Thank you again to today's sponsor, Split. You can get started for free today and create your first feature flag at split.io-Developer Tea. That's split.io-Developer Tea. If you enjoyed this discussion and you'd like to have more like it, do two things. One, subscribe and whatever podcasting after you're currently using. That's this side of the discussion, but your part comes in. In the Developer Tea discord community, head over to Developer Tea.com-discoord. We started with that totally free today. There's other engineers just like you. We're hanging around talking about their work, talking about their careers and lives. We'd love to have you join. Thanks for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.