Practiced speakers and writers know that good examples rarely tell the whole story. Instead they shape their narratives to make the big ideas stand out. Stories are bent ever so slightly, plot details are pared down, leaving space for emphasis and audience impact.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say we invent fiction, but rather that we simplify our stories to make them compelling. Too many details and our audience would tune us out. And when we repeatedly tell these stories, we come to believe we’ve pared down the narrative to its essence. We’ve nailed it!
But what happens when you encounter information that sheds new light on such a story? What if the story you’ve told no longer rings quite true?
The past few years I’ve explored Billy Vaughn Koen’s definition of heuristics as they relate to software design and architecture. I’ve written blog posts and essays, presented talks, keynotes, and workshops about heuristics (for a gentle introduction to different kinds of heuristics see Growing Your Personal Design Heuristics Toolkit).
Along the way I’ve encouraged people to discover, distill, and own their personal heuristics. I advise them to not just take every bit of advice they find about software design as being authoritative. Instead, they should question the validity of that advice’s applicability to their specific context. They should also bring their own heuristics they’ve accrued through experience to bear on the problem at hand.
I start most heuristics presentations with a story about my experience cooking my very first Blue Apron recipe for Za’atar Roasted Broccoli Salad (for details see Nothing Ever Goes Exactly by the Book). I jokingly point out all the places that the recipe suggests adding salt. I then postulate that if I just blindly followed Blue Apron instructions without applying any judgment, the dish would be way too salty.
Instead of following the recipe, I told how I used my past experiences to “modify” the instructions to fit with my understanding of what makes for a tasty dish. In short, I ignored lots of places where the recipe suggested adding salt.
My heuristic for this situation was to ignore advice on where to add salt if it seems excessive and only add salt to taste at the end. Following that heuristic, I most likely made a much blander dish that, while it looked great, undoubtedly lacked flavor.
But… achieving a tasty dish wasn’t the point of my original story!
Instead, it was to encourage using personal judgment and heuristics based on past experiences. I wanted to emphasize that we each have experiences and insights that we can and should draw on in many situations. Simply trusting and blindly following “experts” or “recipes” because they are published or credentialed can lead us astray—or to cooking inedible dishes. We should value and treasure our experiences and draw upon the heuristics we’ve accrued through those experiences.
Ta-da! Point made! Perhaps…
A week ago as I was waiting for surgery to repair my broken nose (that’s another story for another time) I started reading How to Taste, by Becky Selengut. At the time I was detached, slightly impatient, and resigned to just being there in the moment. The doctor was late and I had time to kill.
The introductory first chapter starts: “Telling you to ‘season to taste’ does nothing to teach you how to taste—and that is precisely the lofty goal of this book. Once you know the most common culprits when your dish is out of whack, you’ll save tons of time spinning your wheels grabbing for random solutions. You’ll start thinking like a chef. Some people are born knowing how to do this—they are few and far between and most likely have more Michelin stars that you or I; the rest of us need to be taught. I’ve got your back.”
Now that grabbed my attention!
Unless I was superhuman (I’m not), I can’t rely on my instincts to become a better cook, knowing when and how much seasoning or salt to add.
My experiences cooking have certainly been ad hoc. And the heuristic I applied for salting that Blue Apron dish came from who knows where. I never learned why I was doing what I was doing when following a recipe or ignored some parts of it. Instead, I learned a few shortcuts and substitutions, largely through combing the internet. And while my technique may have improved over time, I haven’t developed the ability to craft a dish with nuanced flavors, let alone improvise one.
Becky suggests reading her book “…start[ing] at the beginning, as I intend to build upon the concepts one puzzle piece at a time.” Each chapter presents fundamental facts, reinforced by a recipe that highlights the important points of the chapter and then suggesting Experiment Time activities intended to develop a reader’s palate
A good way to learn how to exercise judgment is to perform structured experiments after you’ve learned a bit of theory and why things—in this case, the chemistry of cooking—work the way they do.
I quickly read through the chapter on Salt and learned: Salt is a flavorant—bringing out the flavor of other ingredients. Salting early and often can improve taste dramatically. For example, adding salt to onions as they sauté can speed up the cooking process and causes them to sweat out water. And when you only season a soup at the end, no matter how much salt you add, the flavors of unsalted ingredients (for example potatoes), fall flat. You end up over salting the soup stock and still having tasteless, bland potatoes. Salt needs to be added at the right time, often at several steps in the cooking process, to have the desired result. And to my surprise, different kinds of salt—iodized, kosher, flaky, fine-grained sea salt, each have their own flavoring properties and ratios in recipes.
This brought to mind a whole new way of thinking about my Blue Apron cooking experience. Blue Apron didn’t have bad recipes, but their recipes didn’t make me a better cook either. This is because most recipes focus on the how—not the why. Their pretty little pictures and step-by-step instructions did nothing to help me to achieve an understanding of how to achieve tasty dishes.
And that’s a problem if I want to get better at cooking tasty dishes and not simply at following recipes.
I’m afraid way too much information we absorb—whether it is about cooking or agile practices or software development—is presented as step-by-step lists of instructions, without any explanation of why it makes sense to do so or the consequences of not doing a particular step specifically as instructed.
Consequently, we learn a bunch of procedures, or simply cut and paste them. We follow instructions because somebody says this is what we should do. Over time we may build up a playbook of those procedures but our understanding of why these procedures work isn’t very deep or rich or adaptable.
If we want to truly gain proficiency in cooking (or software design or programming or running or gardening or basket weaving), instruction that emphasizes the why along with the how is what we need.
Teach me some facts that ground what I’m about to do in a bit of knowledge. Spark my curiosity. Inspire me. And then give me tasks that let me tinker and practice applying that knowledge. Only then will my actions become integrated with that knowledge, allowing me to build up adaptable heuristics that I can use in novel situations.
In hindsight, I now believe that the story I told about applying my personal heuristics and knowledge to a problem was OK. It’s reasonable to be a healthy skeptic when someone says, “Just do as I say. Trust me,” when attempting a new task. Distilling you own heuristics from previous experiences and applying them in familiar situations is also good. And writing them down helps to bring them to your awareness.
But in addition, I now think it is equally important to seek the why behind the what you are doing. And to loosen your grip on those simpler narratives you’ve held dear. They are not the whole story and they may be holding you back. Be open to new information that may reshape your stories and enhance your heuristic toolkit.
Perhaps one day, with enough knowledge and practice, I’ll be able to create a flavor profile for a dish instead of merely following the recipe.