Cumulative and compounding effects are poorly perceived by us, so is our understanding of micro behaviours (not to be confused with micro-optmisation) that have impact on large outcomes. I read the following story in the book ‘You can win’ by Shiv Khera which had many short stories that stay in mind for a long time.
“A baker who is illiterate, operates a very profitable business. His hearing loss also meant that he was not aware of current affairs happening at large. The only thing he did was, bake very good different kinds of breads which was so famous in the town that a lot of people stop by to keep trying his exotic varieties; as he did good business he sent his son for higher studies. When the son joined the business he was shocked to see his father making very expensive breads and experimenting with many more types; he was shocked because he knew the economy took a downturn recently and a lot of people are going to struggle keep themselves fed. He convinced his father to bake only plain bread so that people could afford. Slowly the customers ended being disappointed that their favourite varieties are no longer available and stopped coming. The business had to shutdown as no longer customers turned up, the father tells his son you are right the economic depression is here glad that I listened to you.”
The above story is profound, how a simple technique of listening to customers and keeping them happy kept a business blooming even in tough times. Rolling up information is only possible when people acknowledge that I don’t understand everything going on but let me learn from each step or be unaware of lots of things.
This is why some of the best developers I meet always have an element of doubt when they take a new step and make sure there are many safety nets. I have seen know it all attitudes that have brought down multi million dollars programs to stand still.
This is not new so called ‘Agile’ methodology wisdom. This thought has been there for millennia as told in the Tamil proverb – அடி மேல் அடி வைத்தால் அம்மியும் நகரும் (Adi mel adi vaithal ammiyum nagarum) which means “even seemingly large & heavy stones can be moved step by step”. This was told very often by my grandparents whenever I picked up tough new lessons in school.
If you are a software engineer and want to be very productive, ditch the attitude of “know it all” or “get every thing right always”. Instead of it, approach step by step and reap the benefits that accumulate over time that are easy to roll back when things go wrong.