Proposing solutions to problems is a critical part of knowledge work. The efficiency and effectiveness of our proposals are key measures of our success. It’s something I had to learn the hard way.
By the end of my second year as a software engineer, I had only made one or two proposals to small problems assigned to me. As I got into my third year, I began proactively making proposals to open problems that I noticed.
At first, the proposal-making process was chaotic and painful. I would identify a problem, make its solution my passion project, and hammer away at a proposal for the team. The bigger the proposal was, the more I felt like a good engineer. I would proudly send my proposal to the team, ready to counter any criticism and push for my solution. I was confident that I was making a change for the better, and that it would be gratefully accepted by my team.
I was wrong. Those early proposals were consistently met with resistance: the bigger the proposal, the greater the resistance. The more energy I spent making a proposal, the more energy I needed to defend it. Given my naive confidence preceding each proposal, I was very confused and frustrated with this pattern. Thankfully, I had an experienced manager who I could talk to. He shared an idea with me that has greatly improved the efficiency and effectiveness of my proposals, and I’m happy to share that idea with you now.
Treating Ideas like Plants
The gist of the wisdom was this: evolve your proposal organically.
In practice, this looks something like:
- Identify the problem
- Propose solutions to the problem
- Gather feedback
- Start again at step (1)
My initial proposals didn’t grow organically. Instead, they grew in my secret homemade laboratory, where the problems were as big as I made them and the solutions were as clear as I could see them. Once the proposal was fully formed, I pushed it onto my team as the problem and the solution. This style put my team in an awkward spot. Maybe the problem was not as big as I thought it was, or maybe the solution was more complex than I could account for, or maybe it didn’t line up with our priorities at the time. Regardless, I was completely blind to all of this important context until I made the proposal. After I made the proposal, that context slammed into my proposal like a ton of bricks. These collisions hurt my confidence and taxed my relationships with teammates.
The organic approach doesn’t have the same hazardous momentum. Instead of identifying a problem and immediately working on the solution in secret, I would instead ask my team if they knew about the problem and whether any thought had been put into it yet. This is like planting the seed of a proposal. Maybe my teammates have an existing proposal for the problem that can bring me up to speed. Maybe there are agreed workarounds or planned solutions to the problem that weren’t clear to me before. Or maybe there is a shared desire for someone to tackle the problem head-on. In that case, the seed has been planted.
Given a planted seed, I need to nurture it within a small pot. The organic approach is to identify a few solutions to the problem and quickly sketch them out. Once I have a feel for the lay of the land, I can ask one or two thoughtfully selected teammates if they have any insight into the problem or what they think of those initial solutions. Their feedback is like a trickle of water on the seed. Each level of their involvement increases the strength of the seed until a clear direction is formed. Once we have something that can eventually turn into a solution, a sprout is formed.
Now that sprout needs more water and sun. I go back to my lab and flesh out the viable solutions until they hit some critical decision points or uncertainties. These decision points are like branches on our sprout. I don’t know which will be the strongest in the end, so I grow them in parallel until we need to choose one of them and cut the rest off. Maybe my favorite branch only looks good from where I’m standing, or maybe it only grew quickly in the beginning and won’t mature as nicely as another. Once the proposal starts looking healthy and attractive, our young plant is ready for primetime.
With this healthy young plant in hand, I can more easily and confidently write a polished proposal that addresses all of the context and questions that arose during the seed and sprout phases. I’m no longer limited to my own awareness and preferences: I have my teammates’ awareness and preferences in mind as well. By the time the proposal is sent to the broader team, I should already have some support for it and some momentum behind it. Rather than artificially creating a proposal that my teammates are completely surprised by, I organically created a proposal that my teammates helped create. The gain in efficiency and effectiveness of such proposals has changed my career for the better.
Grow Organically, Die Organically
The advantage of the organic approach is not so much that good ideas succeed eventually, it’s that bad ideas fail early.
The problem with artificial systems is that the costs of wrong decisions are only faced after they get released into the world. With organic systems, the costs of wrong decisions continuously feed back into the development of the system. In an organic system, survival means you’ve adapted to the costs of your bad decisions. With an artificial system, one can go very far without ever facing the real world. In nature, the “production” environment is consistently identical to the “development” environment. The longer something is confined in a laboratory, the more likely it is to collapse as soon as it faces the real world.
The beauty of the organic approach is that the wrong proposals die quickly and painlessly. When our fear of death for our own ideas is greater than the beauty of death for the wrong ideas, we hide those ideas from the world so that they don’t die young. When the beauty of death for the wrong ideas is greater than the fear of death for our own ideas, we push those ideas out into the world to see if they can survive and grow on their own. One approach is ego-centric and fragile, while the other is selfless and robust.
I’m not saying that after this 1:1 my ego dissolved into the atmosphere and I floated like a feather towards enlightenment. I still have my pet ideas that I push onto my team. Sometimes they’re rejected, sometimes they’re accepted; sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. But the principle still holds: organically grown proposals are more robust than artificially constructed proposals. The same applies to biology (Darwin), politics (see House of Cards), product (MVP), writing (Content Triangle), and business (The Lean Startup). The universality of this pattern is a hint to understand it more deeply.
Caveats, Tricks, and Tactics
Choosing the right people to show your seedling is an art. People who give constructive feedback are a good start. People with the most context on the problem are an obvious second place to look. Decision-making influence is another important factor. If someone could clearly say no to your proposal for reasons that they are solely responsible for, then it’s worthwhile planting a seed in their garden before growing a tree in yours. They’re the one with the axe.
Focusing on your solution instead of the problem is artificial. There are an infinity of solutions for any given problem (someone has probably proved this somewhere), so it’s very important to identify the solution that solves a number of problems at the same time. This requires having an understanding of all of the various problems, micro-problems, and quality criteria beforehand. In addition, all of this context is constantly changing and the optimal solution is changing with it. If that context is understood, a solution that meets the most important criteria as well as some of the small-but-adds-up criteria can reveal itself, both now and in the future. Focusing a proposal on the problem and all of the context around it and the various solutions has been much more effective for me than focusing on my one solution to a poorly articulated problem.
A proposal can be too organic. Nature is efficient in the long-run but inefficient in the short-term. That’s why we have venture funding and incubators, egg shells and embryos. Some things need a level of protection from the environment to increase their chance of success in the wild. Sometimes asking for permission can kill a good idea on arrival. That said, if I’m on a team where good ideas are killed quickly and surprise is the only way good things can happen, there more serious problems than whether a single proposal succeeds or fails. The long-term costs of a hostile environment are far greater than the short-term reward of strong-arming any proposal.
The organic approach to proposals improves one’s effectiveness, efficiency, and relationships. Bad proposals die early and good proposals grow stronger. Feedback and support from the team is built from day one. Surprise and resistance are spread out over time, wasting less energy for everyone involved. Best of all, it’s a process that grows one’s team instead of growing one’s ego. All of these gains add up to a more pleasant and impactful experience for ourselves, our teams, and our users.