The Prophecy of Not

Anyone with ears has listened to prophesiers, religious or otherwise, suggest "if we do this, then that will occur". Always interesting. Generations before all of us have heard this. Perhaps all of history. Accompanying this conversation is often the inverse suggesting "if we do not do this, then that other result will likely happen to us instead". An interesting yin-yang balance. Makes sense doesn't it? We naturally see balance, though less often do we respect it. I believe we may ordinarily be blind to one side of the equation while pursuing the other.

An example may very well be the United States pursuit of "No Child Left Behind" (NCLB) behaviors to combat international competitive education stats to the expense of teachers. Yes, we're pursuing a sociological tested equality of education; no the teachers did not get the good end of that stick due to test result to funding relationships. Put a teacher in a room with thirty kids, tell her she has N months to prepare the kids for a test and that the test results impact her school's funding (and perhaps her job). Did we enable her to teach? Or did we turn her into a tutor? They are different. If we really wanted to balance this portfolio, perhaps we should have expected parents to be formally teaching their own kids before and after school in a measurable manner, and then expect increased procreation as components of the NCLB strategy. More procreation behaviors. Longer education windows. An extreme example to land the point, yes.

How often do you hear leaders say "We are _not_ going to do" this or that? Indeed many people are rockstars at "we are going to" -- but we are rock groupies (wannabes) at saying and practicing "we are _not_ going to" pursue or do this or that other thing.

In technology, we are capable of pursuing anything. As businesses and governments, we try. There is also balance in knowing when _not_ to try. It is not an admittance of incapability, but rather discipline.

When constructing a test strategy, it equally makes sense to articulate what will be covered and what will not be covered. Sometimes statistically improbable or uneconomical to pursue "all", we should feel comfortable saying "we are not" going to pursue X, Y and Z. "We will test 100% of the paths through the system. We will not test 100% of the data combinations or screen flow combinations." To automate some things, go manual on others, and accept the risk of not testing yet other classes of activity are choices. It is a balanced portfolio of choice.

When developing software, it makes sense for us to decompose the functional requests of a customer down into multiple iterations and deliver the simplest working solutions iteratively. We don't always do this. Instead, we deliver too much up front, perhaps miss the window of expectations in terms of usability, completeness and accuracy. Iteration 1 could have been better than it was were someone comfortable saying "I will do this, however I will not do this". And perhaps more difficult it is for product managers/owners to accept that we will pursue one or two elements of a grander scheme than it is to request everything when in fact everything is not useful.

Business pursuits are no different. It is interesting to hear people generously assume anyone in a leadership position must surely know how the journey will map out and conclude. That assumption is a business killer. Leaders don't always know. Exacerbating this experience then is the leader who is great at saying "we will" and miserable at admitting to themselves, let alone to their constituents, that "we additionally will _not_ pursue" these other elements. Perhaps there is a fear of getting boxed in or wanting to have options. Makes sense in business and war. However, absent the definition of _not_ accompanying the definition of _will_, members of the company do not have clear boundaries and what a company does and does not pursue becomes dynamically relative to the interpreter at the time. We could easily be off business plan into the weeds in the time of a single bad decision.

And countries. Yes, same conversation indeed. Will will provide funding to international crisis victims via the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and private funding choices. We will contribute to international militaries like the United Nations. We will contribute to international legislation and back it up in the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice. We will be a team member. There is a balance, yes? We will not provide more international funding than is provided domestically. We will not provide military support internationally to such an extent we compromise our own strength. We will not subject ourselves to questionable international legislation to such an extent we get played on the international chessboard when others disagree with our decisions. And so on. The pursuit of "we will" must be accompanied by the pursuit of "we will not" else our own behaviors may lead us into difficult territories.

When making decisions, it is important to balance what will be pursued or executed upon with what will _not_ be pursued or executed upon. It is not a sign of weakness to define _not_; it is a show of strength. Most are capable of saying "we will". Few are capable or willing to say "we will not". It appears to be a common human struggle. We reward people who say "we will", but attack people who say "we will not" for cowardice or short-sightedness. Resultantly, people say "we will" to some pursuits and remain silent on the "we will not" portions of the conversations. Later, when we did not achieve the successes we romanticized, because someone did not say "we will not" it is difficult to place blame. People do not like to be personally or professionally attacked. And since there are tendencies to attack those who say "we will not", it is easier to be silent. That is failed leadership.

It would be interesting to hear prophesiers balance their materials with both sweet and sour, yin and yang, yes and no, we will and we will not. I suspect it will always be scary, but I also believe it is useful in setting and managing to expectations, budgets, success declaratives, and leading people. Just like being recognized as a State internationally requires a nation of people, a defined geography, and an ability to interact on the international diplomatic chessboard, people need boundaries just like kids as they grow up. If this offends you, for those of you with paved roads and driving laws, tell me why there is a line down the middle of the road upon which you drive.

My personal preference is to declare a clear "will" and "will not" in a balanced statement. It is a preference of course. I like to amplify keywords throughout a writing. I do not like to sprinkle double-quotes all over the place because it is messy. I did though for lack of a better idea at the time. I do not like hollow victory where people feel the win is negotiable due to the definitions of success being nebulous. I do like decisive, conclusive evidence that makes a result scientific and a win irrefutable. You do not like my binary articulation of things. I do not like your inability to commit to one side or the other of this post. See how that works? With declarative comes iterative conclusion. Without declarative, one side or the other never moves on to Iteration 2 thereby making useful progress questionable.

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