What it’s like to be “how constrained” and becoming a free thinker

I think it’s most folks (engineers especially) default approach, when being introduced to a new system, product or idea, to immediately want to understand “how” something works. This blog is to specifically challenge that default, turn it around, and pose that we default to “why” something works. Why it has to exist, and why it is the way it is.

People are “how-constrained”. I have this thing, I know how it works. And then little tweaks to that will generate “something”. As opposed to: what do I actually want, and then figure out how to build it. It’s a very different mindset. And almost nobody has it, obviously.

Jim Keller & Elon Musk

The flaw, maybe fatal even, about being “how-constrained” is that you have a tendency to ignore, or not fully appreciate, the bigger picture found in “why”. Let’s take for example building a product at your company.

By the time requirements hit engineering, most of the “why” has been discovered, measured, discussed, justified and “talked out”. I argue that if product and management teams do not clearly articulate, strategically and in “addressable-market” terms, the “why” to engineers, you miss an important cultural motivating factor in building healthy teams. You also miss an opportunity to have some of the brightest minds check your work. Never skip the step of clearly articulating “why” we’re embarking on building a new thing, and how decisions were taken.

That is not to say that the position of “naturally worrying about how” is not a critical behavior and attribute. It is that we must continually question our “why”. There must be a feedback loop, and one of the expected outcomes of that is that status quo’s are continually challenged.

Lastly, I’ve noticed that being “how-constrained” inherently limits vision in even the most talented groups. I’ve also noticed a soft correlation between seniority and being less how-constrained, although that seems to be valid only at the most senior levels. If you see yourself over-rotated towards “how”, try for a moment being “why-constrained” and see how it frees your thinking + gets your creative juices flowing. I know that it does for me.

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