Blueprint, Compass, and Remodeling

Reflecting on some vision work that I’ve been doing recently, I am realizing that I can inhabit two different perspectives, two different mindsets to approach a vision: vision as a blueprint and vision as a compass.

With vision as a blueprint mindset, I tend to treat the imagined future as a sort of grand schematic of what needs to be created, an architectural plan to be executed on. Taking this mindset feels very clarifying. I can start staking out the ground and budgeting resources, I can plan timelines and craft processes around it. Vision as a blueprint can be an amazing source of organizational coherence. Provided the communication limits have been overcome, it can serve a clear intention that the team checks their work against. Metrics are easier, because they measure completion of the work, captured by the blueprints.

With vision as a compass mindset, my perspective shifts. I no longer see the vision as a grand plan, but rather as one potential future among many other possibilities. The only thing differentiates this particular potentiality from others is that it has some properties that I hold as valuable. These properties can come together in other combinations, forming a different vision, but this is the one I was able to discern while staring into the future. This mindset encourages me to remain open to the outcomes and allows a lot of flexibility in how to get there. Compass points toward something, but doesn’t plot the path. It is okay to deviate from where the compass arrow points for a little while, to walk around obstacles or explore unexpected treasure troves. When in this mindset, I tend to seek “preferred adjacent possible”: what is the change I can make today to things I am doing now to orient toward the vision?

Both mindsets have unproductive extremes. When in the blueprint mindset, I can fall into the NIH trap (or its cousin, “second system” trap), deciding that it will be easier to just start making the future from scratch. As an engineering lead, I might be tempted to start a new team that follows the vision’s blueprints, separating it from the team that maintains the boring old present. This can work pretty well in environments where the blueprints can predict the future with reasonable accuracy. After all, many engineering artifacts are based on blueprints. However, the environments that shift and change can invalidate the blueprints mid-build, turning the whole enterprise moot. By assuming predictability of the environment, viewing vision as a blueprint can lead to blind spots that doom it.

On the other side of what increasingly looks like a spectrum, the compass mindset can get me in trouble with its flexibility. Especially in large organizations, if everyone is walking around obstacles and exploring interesting caves, the path to vision may fail to converge. Worse yet, the sense of divergence itself can get rather uncomfortable. With the answer to “where is this all going?” getting blurry and anxiety rising, the organization may tip into the traps of adversarial adaptation variety. By assuming unpredictability of the environment, viewing vision as a compass can doom it by decohering the organization.

To help navigate this spectrum of mindsets while avoiding the extremes, I came up with this analogy of remodeling. Think of it as a third mindset that straddles the other two. Remodeling a house is usually a rather weird hybrid of the certainty of knowing what we want and the unpredictability of what will be uncovered during the remodeling process. The wall we thought was load-bearing may turn out to be free-standing, the beams in the attic may have all rotted out (true story!), yet tearing out the scuffed and dented linoleum reveals beautiful hardwood floors. When we remodel, we have to dart back and forth between the blueprint and the compass mindsets. We have to continuously reinterpret the vision as new evidence is uncovered. 

Additionally, we are rooted in what’s possible. When we commit to a remodel, we don’t start from scratch. We think in diffs. Where will this beam have to move? What additional foundation will have to be poured? Where will the new window be cut in? When we think in diffs, we need to also consider what stays the same. Which parts will we find unchanged after our vision comes true?

My intuition is that this combination of thinking in diffs and reinterpreting the vision creates a bit more space for thriving in uncertainty while still imposing the boundaries of the blueprints. I’ve been looking for an example of a remodel mindset, and found myself coming back to the I/O talk that year that my colleague Alex Komoroske and I gave back in 2012. We pretended to come from the future, describing how the Web development will look like. Now that that future is in the past, it is easy to see that the vision was reinterpreted throughout the journey. Most of the technology bits we demonstrated evolved significantly in their syntax and names. However, if you look at them now as they ship in all browsers, you can clearly see the ancestral resemblance. Similarly, we thought in diffs. The talk didn’t propose a brand new language or dramatically different new ways of building Web applications. We just moved some walls and added a kitchen nook, leaving most of the sound foundation intact – making the vision more relatable and easier to reason about.

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