The Middle Term Enigma
Short term is getting shorter, and long term is a thing of the past.
We want it now; no time for new; it’s instant gratification for us, but only if it doesn’t take too long.
A short time horizon drives minimization. Minimize waste; reduce labor hours; eliminate features and functions; drop the labor rate; cut headcount; skim off the top. Short term minimizes what is.
Short term works in the short term, but in the long term it’s asymptotic. Short term hits the wall when the effort to minimize overwhelms the benefit. And at this cusp, all that’s left is an emaciated shadow of what was. Then what? The natural extrapolation of minimization is scary – plain and simple, it’s a race to the bottom.
Where short term creates minimization, long term creates maximization. But, today, long term has mostly negative connotations – expensive, lots of resources, high risk, and low probability of success. At the personal level long term, is defined as a timeframe longer than we’re measured or longer than we’ll be in the role.
But, thankfully, there comes a time in our lives when it’s important for personal reasons to inject long term antibodies into the short term disease. But what to inject?
Before what, you must figure out why you want to swim against the current of minimization. If it’s money, don’t bother. Your why must have staying power, and money’s is too short. Some examples of whys that can endure: you want a personal challenge; you want to help society; your ego; you want to teach; or you want to help the universe hold off entropy for a while. But the best why is the work itself – where the work is inherently important to you.
With your why freshly tattooed on your shoulder, choose your what. It will be difficult to choose, but that’s the way it is with yet-to-be whats. (Here’s a rule: with whats that don’t yet exist, you don’t know they’re the right one until after you build them.) So just choose, and build.
Here are some words to describe worthwhile yet-to-be whats: barely believable, almost heretical, borderline silly, and on-the-edge, but not over it. These are the ones worth building.
Building (prototyping) can be expensive, but that’s not the type of building I’m talking about. Building is expensive when we try to get the most out of a prototype. Instead, to quickly and efficiently investigate, the mantra is: minimize the cost of the build. (The irony is not lost on me.) You’ll get less from the prototype, but not much. And most importantly, resource consumption will be ultra small – think under the radar. Take small, inexpensive bites; cover lots of ground; and build yourself toward the right what.
Working prototypes, even crude ones, are priceless because they make it real. And it’s the series of low cost, zig-zagging, leap-frogging prototypes that make up the valuable war chest needed to finance the long campaign against minimization.
Short term versus long term is a balancing act. Your prototype must pull well forward into the long term so, when the ether of minimization pulls back, it all slides back to the middle term, where it belongs.
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Mike Shipulski brings together people, culture, and tools to change engineering behavior. He writes daily on Twitter as @MikeShipulski and weekly on his blog Shipulski On Design.
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