Protagonist rule #4: Question everything including yourself

Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

When I worked in the field of software architecture in the 1990s, the general belief was that the upfront design of a software architecture was critically important as it would be exceedingly difficult to change it once you’d committed to it and started development. I was one of the propagators of this notion and did research on architecture assessment, architecture design decisions, and so on. A few decades later, it’s obvious to everyone that the architecture of a software-intensive system can and needs to evolve continuously through architecture refactoring. Agile taught us the YAGNI principle (You Ain’t Gonna Need It) and helped us focus on getting going without overdoing the architecture design.

I bring this up because I wholeheartedly believed in the notion of immutable architectures back then just as I wholeheartedly believe in the notion of evolving architectures now. And maybe, in a decade or so, we’ve all learned more about architecture and we’ll hold other beliefs. It’s not so much that I believe I was wrong then and correct now. In my view, what’s correct at one point in time can cease to be correct and then we need to evolve to what’s the expedient set of beliefs at this point. As protagonists, we have to move on from one set of beliefs to the next as we all grow and develop and this automatically leads to alternative viewpoints and viable beliefs.

Of course, this isn’t just the case for individuals but also for companies. Especially older, mature companies have the norms, values and ways of working ingrained in the walls. Senior leaders are typically selected because they embody these beliefs, norms and values and personify the ways of working. This leads to perpetuating beliefs from one person to the next and anyone who has read about the notion of memes (the original notion, not the internet version) realizes that memes try to stay alive by procreating.

This is exacerbated by the fact that the people at every successful company know things that others don’t. There’s a set of beliefs, often referred to as facts, that are the fundament of the company’s initial success. When the world around us changes and the company does less well, this can easily lead to leaders in the company going defensive and seeking to return to the old ways, rather than updating the belief system in the company.

When I worked for Nokia and we saw the first iPhone, I remember senior leaders shaking their heads and asking why anyone would want to touch the screen of their phone. The claim was it would get dirty and scratched and it was much better to have a small keyboard. The rest is history, as the saying goes, but the fact is that every individual and every company walks around with a set of beliefs similar to the senior leaders at Nokia.

In a rapidly digitalizing and changing world, the old ways of doing things are the surest path to go the way of the dinosaurs. But how do we break out of it? In my opinion, we can follow three steps: make it explicit, try to prove the opposite and then formulate a new belief.

First, until implicitly held beliefs are made explicit, it’s impossible to discuss and question them. So, the first step has to be to use questions and other means to convert implicit beliefs into explicit arguments that can then be discussed. This very step is often extremely effective to identify internal inconsistencies. Any of us who has gotten wrapped around the axle of some anxiety-driven spinning has realized that describing to others what makes us spin already shows the ridiculous nature of much of what we struggle with.

Second, when a belief has been made explicit and it still is internally consistent and makes sense, the next step is to invert it and try to prove that instead. We often tend to fall into old habits and rapidly dismiss the opposite belief, so we need to force ourselves to really evaluate the alternative and ask ourselves if the original belief is true, if it’s really true and if we’re absolutely certain that it’s true with the evidence to back it up.

Third, often we need to evolve our original beliefs into something, at least partially, new. We then need to formulate it in such a way that we can communicate it to others. Two things are important here. First, it has to be falsifiable, meaning that it has to make a clear statement that drives prioritization. Second, it has to satisfy the “vital few” principle in that it isn’t one of many worthwhile things but really captures the essence of our truth.

We all operate under a set of assumptions and beliefs and we wouldn’t be able to operate otherwise. However, many of these are viewed and treated as immutable and absolute, but for most, there’s a constant evolution of what the most viable and expedient set of beliefs to hold actually is. To ensure that we move from one belief system to the next, we need to be intellectually honest with ourselves and periodically reevaluate our beliefs and assumptions. This doesn’t only apply to ourselves but also to companies where the challenge of change almost always is a war between belief systems. Make it explicit, try to prove the opposite, ensure it captures the essence and be intellectually honest with yourself. As Timothy Leary so eloquently said: think for yourself and question authority!

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