"Everything Starts Out Looking Like a Toy" (No. 46)
Emergent systems are good, complex ones might not be so good
This week’s toy: a URL lengthener. Usually you want links to be shorter so that people can remember them or easily copy them. This has the exact opposite effect, creating very long URLs that are difficult to copy. Edition No. 46 of this newsletter is here - it’s May 23, 2021.
The Big Idea
Building Repeatable Ideas
Creating a process that itself is repeatable sounds great. If only we could scale ourselves by creating self-reinforcing process … but it’s often like a Rube Goldberg machine rather than a bunch of Lego blocks that fit together.
When you are building systems, it’s tempting to think of a universal solution. As a systems person, I often start by finding common patterns and stepping back to think about how I could make the prototype for any problem that looks a bit like this one. And that is often the exact wrong answer. Don’t get me wrong – if you do something over and over again and start to see patterns, this is often a good time to generalize – but starting with the general solution is the wrong place to start.
What is the N=1 solution?
The first solution (N=1) doesn’t scale. It’s ugly. It is not optimal. And it’s the best way to get to a better solution. By building the first version and trying it (optimally, by asking someone else to try it), you start finding the problems you didn’t anticipate. Building an anti-fragile solution helps you to build the first module in your system. When each piece of your solution works independently, you have a better shot at adding new things later. So don’t worry about making things complex or interesting. Start by making them work.
A true solution will have a known input, a known process, and a known output. It sounds simple, right? When you break it down like this it’s a lot easier to think about using this solution as the input to another system (a microservice if you will). Make the first thing work and the rest of the things that call it are more likely to work.
When it gets fun…
Another way to think about this is to consider a spreadsheet and its functions. If you build a formula to solve problems every time you encounter them, you start to build a library of problem-solving activities. When you build each one it’s not obvious that you might be able to use them together to solve novel problems. But if you didn’t solve the unit test first then none of them could possibly work together.
So build yourself the version of a swipe file for process. It could be a spreadsheet, a slide template, a word document, or almost anything. Building for re-use will help you think about the reason you are using this building block. It will also encourage you to look in your bag of tricks when you start a new project to help you get started faster.
What’s the takeaway? Always Be Creating. If you are building reusable components for yourself, you will be able to combine them in interesting ways later that you don’t see yet.
A Thread from This Week
Twitter is an amazing source of long-form writing, and it’s easy to miss the threads people are talking about.
This week’s thread: what will happen to remote work as some people start going back to work?
Links for Reading and Sharing
These are links that caught my eye.
1/ Data-Driven > Static - Google introduced “Smart Chips” - no, not a tasty snack but a way to embed functionality from one Google product like Google Sheets inside another one like Slides. What’s cool about this is that it opens the door to making the Google Workspace much more dynamic.
2/ Teaching an Old Dog New Tricks - Researchers working on robotic appendages found that after a while, the brain starts integrating them. Yup, if you wear an exoskeleton or a prosthesis, your brain will start incorporating it into your world view.
3/ Creating Structure from Diagrams - The team at IcePanel are working on a way to document (and update the document) for process and procedures that change constantly. This is something I ask for from every vendor, as inevitably you get the request: “can you put the process doc in Google Docs or make it a PDF”?
On the Reading/Watching List
Minari is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year. I’m also impressed that it was edited by one of my college classmates. This quiet movie about a Korean family growing up in the South in the 1980s has won many major awards - looking forward to watching it.
I am also looking forward to reading Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.
What to do next
Hit reply if you’ve got links to share, data stories, or want to say hello.
I’m grateful you read this far. Thank you. If you found this useful, consider sharing with a friend.
The next big thing always starts out being dismissed as a “toy.” - Chris Dixon