Paying Attention

A few pages in and my body is softening to comform to the edges of the couch I’m sitting in.
One chapter in and my eyes are getting wider.
A few chapters in and Rands drops two words in the middle of a sentence in a chapter which has not much to do with these two words: incrementalists and completionists.

Wait, what did he just say?

The past year

I’m nearing the end of a year-long project and I’ve been keeping my head down hoping that the days go by a lot faster than I’m noticing them. One day I can send a celebratory, “Congrats on launching to 100% team.” Fireworks emoji. 100% emoji. Happy emoji. I’m ready to post this in all the Slack channels and on Github. This was supposed to be an incremental project and it was not. This isn’t what I signed up for.

At Shopify, every project has a Champion, which is a fancy word for the person playing Project Manager. I’ve been this person and it hasn’t been easy. Communication is a fine art and in a quickly-growing company which is quite young everyone is still learning and trying to stabilize. We have been in the baby stages of redefining process across product management and product design and how it all is to function for an R&D team which has doubled in size every year. Even my own team; once a lone designer of me has now expanded to thirteen in 1.5 years. Oh, now I know what scaling means.

I’ve been seeking asylum within any piece of information from every source I could identify as even possibly helpful. It turns out, there’s a dude that’s figured out a lot of this stuff and I’ve been reading his work for years. It’s just only been ever-so-relevant now.

27 pages into Rands’, “Managing Humans[1], he says this,

“Engineering was in the process of discussing some drastic new directions for our products, and the incrementalists (ship it soon!) were doing battle with the completionists (ship it when it’s done!)”

He continues on, glossing over these two terms noting he would explain them later. They were not meant to be the subject of the chapter but when I read the sentence I started mapping out all the personalities I knew which matched these two definitions. These two personalities were already in existence for me, I just didn’t have any idea what to call them.

Incrementalists are realists. They have a pretty good idea of what is achievable given a problem to solve, a product to ship. They’re intimately aware of how many resources are available and the shape of the political landscape with regard to the problem, and they know who knows what. They tend to know all the secrets and they like to be recognized for that fact.

Completionists are dreamers. They have a very good idea how to solve a given problem and that answer is solve it right. Their mantra is, “If you’re going to spend the time to solve a problem, solve it in a manner so that you aren’t going to be solving it again in three months.”

Quality, scrappiness, and the weeds

In the weeds you can hear the word quality being thrown about to save everyone from the doom of shipping quickly without thought. It can seem as if we have to make a choice between the subjective concept of quality as defined by some person who isn’t you, and when are we going to do this, though?

As an incrementalist, I’ve felt quite frustrated by the completionists. I don’t entirely understand them, and they seem weird, and sometimes I swear things are growing out of their heads. There have been moments when crucial conversations have turned into frustrating conversations and I’ve slinked away to a dark corner away from my team to nurse my battle wounds in hopes they don’t see what’s happening.

In Rands’ dropped words there was something else I read and realized: he is 15+ years into managing software teams and for him, both these personalities exist and so what. For him, they’re a given, an inevitability, like getting thirsty on a hot day. This entire time, perhaps under a strong delusion, I had been hoping the completionists would see my side… eventually. Look, we have different priorities than you do. It looks like maybe my attention has been misplaced and it’s time to move the needle elsewhere.

Both incrementalists and completionists are not wrong. If we pitted two teams against each other filled with each personality, they could potentially launch the same thing, in the same timeframe, with the same results. The biggest difference to me (at least from a management perspective) is in how those teams are motivated when they’re in the weeds.

This book is 190 pages long but it took just two words for me to see my work a little differently. Paying attention to the unwritten words really delivers sometimes.

↩︎ [1] Michael Lopp, Managing Humans↗︎, 2007

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