Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Bold Boasts and Expectational Debt

There's been a discussion going on over at the Software Testing Club, specific to reading technical books, but in general, the idea of making a"Bold Boast" to accomplish some goal and put yourself on the hot seat. On the positive end, I think that there is a value to making a "bold boast" if it will actually get you to be motivated to accomplish something, but there's a down side and a dark side to it, and it's one I've started to realize. I didn't have a way of putting it into words, but when in doubt, Merlin Mann will likely come up with something awesome to describe it, and hey, Merlin didn't disappoint. During the 5by5 podcast "Back To Work" last week, he coined, on the spot, what I think is a great term… Expectational Debt.

What is that? It's what happens to us when we announce we are going to do something or we agree to do something that will take a substantial amount of time and energy, but we may not know when or if we are going to finish it. In a way, Expectational Debt is a behavioral cousin of Technical Debt, where we make decisions (usually by shooting off our mouths) to do something that we then need to fulfill, and we are, effectively, putting our "future self" in the hot seat. Consumer debt and technical debt do the same thing. We agree to something now with the proviso that the future self is going to be the one to pay for it. Sometimes this works well, but if we are not careful, this can also backfire spectacularly.

I've noticed in this blog that I have committed to quite a bit of Expectational Debt, some of it well meaning, and some of it is becoming problematic. Case in point… when I started the Wednesday Book Review, I was looking at books that I had either read a bit of or had some familiarity with. Those books were titles I could quickly breeze through, and as such, I felt good about doing a book a week. that doesn't work so well when I got into stuff that was a little less familiar or easy to absorb. It's because if this that I've made the decision to re-emphasize my book review schedule and remove the Wednesday from the titles. The Wednesday created an expectational debt (I don't entirely know who with, but my counters have historically shown that the book reviews are an often read element of this blog). The point is, I created an expectation, and that expectation causes people to be let down if I don't meet it, even if the expectation isn't a really high one.

The Practicum series was a good and well meaning idea when I started it. I figured, hey, I'll just work through all of the examples, how hard can it be? Well, it can be really hard when your environment doesn't match the examples given, or if your new job and its demands don't allow you the time to push through all of the examples and write about them. So I'm asking a little indulgence of those who have been following my Practicum posts and wondering "hey, Michael hasn't posted an update in awhile. What's up with that?" This is an example of a "Bold Boast" being undermined by too large a percentage of "Expectational Debt". Great commitment, but difficult to follow through on at the moment. It is, however, important to me to complete it, so I will take it on in smaller increments and post when it I get through each section. It may take longer, but it will at least get done, if not at the pace I originally intended. This is better than feeling overwhelmed by a project I cannot give 100% to, and making no progress because it's "too much to swallow right now".

We all know the old chestnut "How do you eat an elephant?" The answer is always "One bite at a time". Expectational Debt can likewise quickly turn into an elephant if we are too quick to say yes, too excited to not entirely think through our commitments, or to not have a firm grasp of what we need to do when everything comes together. I started a new job, took on the AST Bug Advocacy class, and have a long standing commitment to editing a podcast that I really enjoy working on. Add all that to the fact that I am a husband and a dad, and yeah, the available hours in a day get cut down rapidly. Time is a finite resource, we can't save it or slow it down, or bank it for later. We can only use it, and when I agree to do one thing, I have to accept the fact that I am agreeing to say no to any number of other things. If I don't I will start to build an unrealistic level of Expectational Debt. If I'm really not paying attention, I can also create a large amount of Technical Debt in the process, too.

So where am I going with this? Well, short of saying "thanks" to Merlin for putting a word to a phenomenon I do way too often, I'm examining exactly how much I willingly commit to, and how vocal I'm willing to be about it. There's lots of things I want to do, and I'm genuinely enthusiastic about all of it, but the simple fact is, I can't do it all. I'll never be able to do it all, and I need to figure out how to be OK with that. Maybe I'll disappoint some people, and I guess I'll have to learn to live with that, too. Ultimately, though, it's critical to focus on the most important Expectational Debts first, and make sure to focus on the most important areas, even if it means having to say no to other important and, yes, even fun things. I'm not saying don't make promises. I'm also not saying don't make "Bold Boasts" from time to time. I firmly believe the Bold Boast is an awesome tool, but we have to also make sure we don't Bold Boast ourselves into Expectational Bankruptcy. If a Bold Boast is needed to motivate you, then by all means boast, but weigh it in with your other commitments, and realize you may have to "Moderately Boast" for awhile.

Or better yet, take stock of your outstanding Expectational Debts and get "Gazelle Intense" (copyright Dave Ramsey) on wiping out those expectational debts that are already hanging around. If you know that you are not going to accomplish goal you set, or you're beyond that, go ahead and publicly say "I'm sorry, but this isn't going to happen". Acknowledge it, declare that momentary act of Expectational Bankruptcy, and then focus on the stuff that matters. How to do that, I'll leave up to you :).


Anonymous said...

Some of the most frustrated testers, managers and devs I have met in all my time in IT have been victims of Expectational Debt.

Some of them even talked loudly about "managing expectations" which in English, was them running back to the project board time and time again to announce that the product would not be delivered to the (always near-impossible) timescales they had promised at the last meeting.

Learning to manage your Expectional Debts in semi-professional (blogging, tweeting, forums) life probably rubs off very well on your professional life.

Michael Larsen said...

Hello Eliza, thanks for commenting. Absolutely, we all do it in some way or form. I just loved when I heard the term, it clicked for me... "oh, *that's* what I'm doing!"

I have a somewhat visceral reaction to all things related to debt, so when Merlin used that term, i homed in. Sure enough, it makes perfect sense (at least to me it does) and I agree, we need to manage it in our personal non-professional lives before we have the chops to exercise it in our professional lives. I've been that person that you describe, I'm trying to prevent from being that person again :).