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set tripwires for yourself to make better decisions

This is something I just picked up from the workplace and am only coming to grasp. I’m laying it out here as a first step to internalising this as a mental model that I’ll use in future interactions with coworkers.

what’s a tripwire?

Definition from Oxford:

a comparatively weak military force employed as a first line of defence, engagement with which will trigger the intervention of stronger forces.

what’s a tripwire in the context of decision making?

The definition has its roots from the military. I know it well in that context, having had to serve in the military for two years. It’s basically an early warning system. But what is it in software development, specifically?

Well, I think its usefulness is broader than just building software. A tripwire is a great mental mode for thinking about continually making good decisions. We make a many decisions when building software systems, so it’s a useful mental model to have.

To set a tripwire is to create an alert for yourself (or your team) to revisit a decision that you have made before — and believe was right at the time — but that you believe ought to be reevaluated should some underlying facts change.

the Kodak company example

There’s a story I heard about why Kodak filed for bankruptcy that I think illustrates the usefulness of leaving tripwires:

  • Kodak was a 100+ year company specialising in selling and developing camera films
  • the first digital camera was patented in 1975 (ironically by a Kodak engineer)
  • Kodak executives looked at the facts at some point the digital camera’s history: less than 1% adoption rate, extremely expensive for consumers to own, less than 0.1 megapixels in resolution, etc. (figures may not be accurate but are in the right ballpark)
  • therefore Kodak executives concluded that digital cameras are a niche and not a real domain to invest resources in
  • at this point, the decision was made: don’t pursue a digital camera strategy
  • (AAAAAA)
  • they didn’t revisit this decision until it became obvious that they were too late, when their film camera business crumbled as the new world order of digital cameras came into view

(AAAAAA) is where a “tripwire” should have been set by Kodak executives. The way I picture it in action is a senior executive saying,

“if a digital camera that is capable of taking pictures with X megapixels comes to market, or if the adoption rate climbs to 5%, or if the cost of an entry-level digital camera drops by 50% within the next two years, I want you (points at a lower-level staff member) to set up a new meeting for us to re-evaluate this decision.”

^ that never happened. Kodak is bankrupt.

the boiling frog

If you try to throw a frog into boiling water, the tale goes, it will feel scalded and jump the f**k out of the pot and flee.

But if you put the frog into lukewarm water and slowly increase the temperature until it comes to a boil, you would succeed in boiling the frog.

By James LeeFormerIP at en.wikipedia — from en.wikipedia by ronhjones, CC BY 2.0,

(This, by the way, is bullshit. Frogs have a thermoregulatory mechanism; they will jump out once the water is hot enough. Fun read: wikipedia on boiling frog.)

(Also, I learned that this kind of story that is meant to persuade or convince with exaggerated details and is not designed to be accurate is called an apologue.)

The tale of boiling frog is a nice albeit morbid way to think of Kodak and any other company that is oblivious to changing circumstances that could lead to their downfall.

Remember to setup tripwires for oneself.

related thoughts

A good way to frame a decision is to ask: “what would change your mind?”

Then setup a tripwire so that when those things have arrived, you go change your mind.

Be careful to balance chaos vs bureaucracy. Too much of either can be dangerous.

Many of these ideas are apparently taken from the book Decisive by the Heath brothers.

This idea reminds me a bit about “pause points” mentioned in the book The Checklist Manifesto. That book spells out the benefits that teams can reap by using checklists that are consistently being used at specific, natural pausing points during an activity, like before hitting “send email”.

… which then reminds me of the idea of habit stacking as popularised by Atomic Habits.

It’s all about finding the right point to insert a new action. That action could be to reevaluate a past decision or it could be to do 10 pushups or it could be to disinfect your hands before carrying out surgery.




notes from the field of software engineering

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Nick Ang

Nick Ang

Software Engineer @ Shopify. Dad, rock climber, writer, something something. Big on learning everyday.

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