Knowledge Workers Should Build Rickety Systems

Paul Graham famously wrote about doing things that don’t scale. He described how the founders of AirBnB spent an enormous amount of time with their early customers — even going door to door to recruit — which laid the foundation for a deeper understanding of their market and was a key stepping stone to the $31b giant they are today.

But not all of us are entrepreneurs, and not all of us are tasked with talking to customers and finding a market. Does this even apply to you and me?


Every knowledge worker builds systems that create value. The software engineer writes code that automates a process, the manager builds a team that regularly delivers value, and any marketer worth his or her salt should be thinking about how they regularly deliver more and more leads to their business.

When you are starting a new job, team, or project, there are a lot of things you need to do fast. You just need the gears to turn. They don’t need to be polished at this point. It’s better to have three or four somewhat working processes than one pristine one. A rickety machine over a half-built one.

Rickety systems have some clear advantages. They let you move fast. They let you change things quickly. They force you to learn by looking closely at every edge case.

On the flip side, building rickety systems takes more work. You can’t let it run in peace while you build new things, you have to deal with complaints and firefighting. But when you are creating something new you should be trading hassle for speed and learning.

As you, your team, and the company mature, the difficult decision becomes what to improve and when. When should the once rickety system become a more polished one? You also have to decide what level of polish you need to put into anything new you build.

If you are not launching rocket ships or diagnosing diseases, my advice is to trend toward rickety. You will have to work harder, but you will launch faster and learn more. It’s a trait you want to hold on to for as long as possible.

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