Life Lessons Product Management

The Perils of Magical Thinking

It’s tempting to want something so bad that you believe you can will it to happen. Instead of examining risks and continually examining and reducing them, projects just forge ahead. This happens at work all the time. But most interestingly, there are some things that humans want so bad, like peace, that we also think that our prayers might make this happen, even when complete peace is impossible.

Magical Thinking in Software Development

When it comes to building software, teams typically choose between two main strategies: Waterfall and Agile. Waterfall is seen as more efficient but it suffers tremendously from magical thinking.

Waterfall is the more traditional approach, organizing projects into distinct, consecutive stages from start to finish. It’s valued for its efficiency and straightforwardness, as it aims to plan out the entire project upfront. This method is like planning a big international trip where you book all your flights, hotels, and activities in advance, assuming everything will go according to plan without the need for adjustments.

However, much like when unexpected issues arise on a trip—such as a hotel being overbooked or a must-see site being closed for renovation—Waterfall can be inflexible. If changes are needed or if unforeseen problems arise, making adjustments can be challenging and costly since there’s little flexibility once a phase is completed.

On the other hand, Agile opts for a more iterative process, involving continuous planning, testing, and adapting. It’s similar to planning your trip in stages. You might book your flight and first few nights of accommodations and then decide the next steps based on your experiences so far. This allows you to adapt to new information or change plans if something isn’t working out as expected, like extending your stay in a city you fell in love with or skipping a location that doesn’t interest you as much as you thought.

Can We Really Stop Fighting?

Today I was at shul, and we closed with a prayer for peace, ending with, “May there be no war anymore.” While the wish is good-hearted, achieving such a global state permanently seems beyond reach. This prayer, much like the comic sketch by John Finnemore, underscores how magical thinking can simplify complex realities into easily digestible wishes that often overlook practical implications.

In Finnemore’s bit, a woman receives a wish from a genie and asks for world peace. The genie, interpreting her request literally, suggests the only surefire way to complete peace would be to end all life, thus eliminating any potential for conflict. This absurd solution illustrates the pitfalls of magical thinking—believing that intense desire or sheer will can directly influence massive, real-world outcomes without unforeseen consequences.

The woman, recognizing the dire consequences, attempts to modify her wish to banish violence without causing harm, proposing that everyone could simply forget how to engage in conflict. However, this adjustment spawns its own chaos: by the next day, countries realize they can invade others without opposition, leading to a bizarre, non-violent scramble for power. This turn of events turns her hope for peace into a surreal and ineffective shuffle for dominance, where the desire for peace created just another form of turmoil.

So What Do We Do Instead?

If avoiding conflict entirely isn’t realistic, what can we do instead? We can strive to fight and argue more constructively. Conflict and disagreement are natural parts of human interaction, but the way we handle these disputes can make a significant difference. Rather than resorting to bullying or personal attacks, we should focus our energy on debating ideas and solutions. This approach ensures that even though disagreements occur, they can lead to progress and innovation rather than bitterness and division.

By channeling our disagreements into discussions about ideas rather than personal grievances, we foster an environment where different viewpoints are seen as opportunities for growth rather than threats. This doesn’t just apply to global politics or workplace conflicts but also to everyday disagreements at home or among friends. If we can learn to engage in healthy debate, focusing on the merits of different ideas rather than attacking the people who hold them, we can reach better understanding and more robust solutions.

Amazon’s Way: Have Backbone: Disagree and Commit

Amazon is well-known for its unique workplace culture, and it strongly promotes a leadership rule called “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit.” This guideline urges workers to boldly share their differing views and then fully back the final decision, even if they initially disagreed.

Have Backbone – This part of the principle stresses the need to stand firm for your own thoughts and beliefs, especially when others might quickly agree or disagree. Amazon prizes workers who bravely question decisions and discussions, showing the guts to stand by their own views. This firm stance is vital in a company that relies on fresh ideas and solving tough problems, as it ensures all different views are listened to and taken seriously.

Disagree – Amazon wants its team members to speak up if they think a decision or plan could be better. This readiness to disagree aims to block groupthink and allows for a full check of all possible choices. It’s about healthy debate, focusing on the matter at hand instead of personal differences. By creating a space where it’s okay and even encouraged to disagree, Amazon makes sure its decisions are comprehensive and strong.

Commit – One of the toughest parts of this principle is the expectation that once a decision is reached, everyone fully supports it, no matter their earlier stance. This commitment is key to keeping the team united and efficient. It means that once the discussion ends and a choice is made, even those who didn’t agree should carry out the decision as energetically as if they had agreed from the start. This part of the principle helps the company move forward as one, without ongoing disagreements that could undermine projects or plans.

In action, “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” helps Amazon deal with the quick-moving and complex business world. It fosters a culture where truth and top performance are chased tirelessly, and where workers are encouraged to speak up and then unite, ensuring that the company stays ahead of the curve while keeping a united, forward-moving team spirit. This way of doing things not only makes decision-making better but also upholds a culture of respect and inclusion, where every voice is heard and matters.

It’s about Fighting Well

Taking Amazon’s leadership principle “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” a step further involves recognizing that it serves as an effective antidote to magical thinking. Magical thinking, where decisions are made based on overly optimistic assumptions or wishful thinking without considering real-world constraints, can lead to inefficient or unworkable outcomes. The Amazon principle encourages a more grounded and realistic approach to decision-making within a business context.

Encouraging Healthy Disagreement:
This principle starts by fostering an environment where employees are not only allowed but encouraged to voice dissenting opinions. This process is crucial because it invites diverse perspectives and critical thinking, challenging the group to examine different angles and potential pitfalls that might not be apparent in a more conformist setting. By promoting healthy disagreement at the outset, the principle ensures that ideas are rigorously tested against differing viewpoints, leading to more robust and sustainable decisions. This initial phase of open debate helps prevent the onset of magical thinking by grounding discussions in practical realities and varied perspectives.

Uniting After Decision:
After this phase of healthy disagreement, the “commit” portion of the principle becomes pivotal. Once a decision is reached, regardless of individual initial opinions, everyone on the team is expected to fully support and execute the decided action plan. This commitment is essential for several reasons. Firstly, it consolidates team efforts and resources, ensuring that the project or strategy is given the best possible chance of success. Secondly, it demonstrates organizational coherence and unity to all stakeholders, reinforcing the company’s stability and focus. Lastly, it instills a sense of ownership and responsibility in each team member, as they contribute to the success of the collective decision.

Preventing Magical Thinking:
By integrating rigorous debate and collective commitment into its core decision-making processes, this leadership principle actively combats magical thinking. It acknowledges that no idea is above scrutiny and that a realistic, critical examination of all proposals is necessary for success. This approach aligns with avoiding the pitfalls of magical thinking—where decisions might otherwise be based on overly simplistic, idealistic, or unchallenged assumptions.

In practice, “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit” means that decisions are not just made based on a superficial agreement or unchecked optimism. Instead, they are forged through a crucible of diverse opinions, tested through debate, and then pursued with unified commitment. This comprehensive process ensures that every decision is both realistic and resilient, fully vetted for practicality and effectiveness before receiving the full support of the team. By allowing for disagreement but requiring commitment, Amazon not only sidesteps magical thinking but also cultivates a culture of thoughtful innovation and steadfast execution.

As we face life’s and work’s hurdles, from global peace to software making, it’s clear that steering clear of conflict isn’t the answer. Instead, taking part in true disagreement—through methods like “Have Backbone; Disagree and Commit”—helps us sharpen our thoughts and firm up our plans. This approach moves us past simple thinking by grounding our actions in reality and a shared commitment, ensuring we’re ready for the complex task of putting big decisions into action.

This one was interesting. It’s quite long but gets my basic ideas down. I need parts of this for my book. Here’s my internal link to the ChatGPT conversation (the external link seemed broken).