When Does a Shortcut Make Sense?

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

You might have heard the apocryphal story about a landscape architect and shortcuts. The architect doesn’t put sidewalks or trails in a large green space. Instead, he waits for a year as walk across the space. He then puts the sidewalks/trails where the people walk.

I am not quite ancient-history-years-old. I have never seen this occur. Never. (It’s possible I didn’t recognize this in the moment.) However, it’s a lovely idea.

My experience is that we often feel internal or external pressure to “lock things down,” develop conclusions, or otherwise stop creating choices.

I like to discuss more choices, rather than fewer, on this blog. But, this time, let’s talk about times when shortcuts might make sense:

  • Will a temporary shortcut offer me more feedback sooner than I could obtain without the shortcut?
  • Will I harm anything or anyone else if I take this shortcut?
  • Will I reorient myself if I take this shortcut?

Do you have more questions that you ask? I’d like to know.

Feedback

Sometimes, shortcuts offer me feedback. I’ve offered various workshops over the years as a form of feedback: would anyone want a book about this topic? I write blog posts to see what I think and to see the feedback other might people offer.

Yes, I’ve created shortcuts in code because it seemed to make sense at the time. Ward Cunningham defined the idea of technical debt as a shortcut you would take for now. At some point in the future, when you know more, you would pay that debt off. (Too few people use that definition of technical debt.)

In all cases, I’ve learned something from the feedback. That learning provided significant value to me, the product, and to my managers.

Sometimes, my managers wanted to use the shortcut as the real product. That led to a ton of harm.

Harm

When it comes to products and work, I like to think of the first part of the Hippocratic Oath, “First, do no harm.” If I scooch around the grocery store in ways that make sense to me, I’m not harming other people. My travels offer me a shortcut.

However, if I drive randomly in a parking lot, or worse, on the highway, just because I would like a shortcut, that will create harm.

And, when people with sufficient authority take the shortcut, they can cause harm to people and products.

One manager wanted to stop testing so they could release the product. The product had plenty of problems. When the manager decreed that the team would stop testing, the manager created harm: the customers received a defective product. And, the problems surprised the support people and the development teams. That manager received significant consequences for a short-sighted decision, including the loss of the manager’s job.

Reorient

Sometimes, I have no idea what to do next. I can see only one alternative—to me, that’s the shortcut. Since everything I know says there are many alternatives, even if I can’t see one right now. (For me, this is a little different than feedback. In the feedback option, I’m experimenting. In this option, I can’t see where else I could go.)

If I take a shortcut, can I see alternative paths that will help me accomplish what I want? Can I reorient myself?

I reorient myself all the time in my writing. I find that a reorientation—sometimes an orientation!—can help me see what I want to do next.

Dear adaptable readers, when does a shortcut make sense?

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