Thinking About Context and Decisions

When the right answer to a question is 'it depends,' what does that really mean?

Thinking About Context and Decisions

This post is the first in a series where Joel Tosi and I write about the course we are developing titled “The Thinking Leader’s Toolkit”.

Let’s talk about one of the foundational principles in the course…

It Depends

“It depends” is the universal answer to any question. What’s the best way to deal with the tension between building new features and fixing old bugs? How long should it take to bring a new product to market? What’s the best way to structure teams? How do you decide whether to promote someone? How do you navigate a particularly delicate political situation? It depends.

It Depends On?

Context. Context is everything.

How large is the development organization? What’s the internal state of your code base? What’s your tech stack? How easy or hard do the developers find it to make changes? How are the teams organized now? Do teams operate independently or do they have interdependencies? How many customers are using the system in production? Who are your customers? How fast is the customer base growing? What do customers think about the existing product? What does the competitive landscape look like? The list goes on.

The word “context” is shorthand. We say “it depends on the context” so we don’t have to say “it depends on the state of the customer base and the code base and the technology and the existing team structure and the pressures on the business and…” The current situation can be described in terms of a near-infinite number of dimensions. It’s all context.

On any given day you might not think about the context too much. You live in it. It’s your reality. But perhaps sometimes (to quote The Talking Heads), “you may ask yourself, ‘Well, how did I get here?’”

It turns out, context is the cumulative effect of past decisions.

“Past decisions,” means all the decisions ever made that played a role in shaping the current situation: Decisions the founders made when the company was a tiny baby startup. Decisions made by your competitors that affect how customers see your product. Decisions made by programmers who don’t work there anymore. Decisions you made (or chose not to make) yesterday. With every decision, the context morphs and shifts a little.

Right now, someone somewhere is making decisions that will become part of tomorrow’s context. Maybe that someone is you.

Our intent with this course is to give you tools to help you make better decisions, and in so doing shape your context intentionally. Some tools will support you in understanding the relationship between decisions and unintended consequences (causal models). Others will enable you to reason about tradeoffs (U-curves). Still others will help you distinguish signal from noise (Shewhart charts). Using these tools and others, you can shape your future context more intentionally.