2023 in Review
Res Extensa #50 :: Looking back on '23, and ahead to '24
Though I launched this newsletter 3 years ago, 2023 felt like the formative establishment of my original idea. I wanted to focus around a collection of subjects expansive enough to explore, but tight enough to probe repeatedly for related currents. A fascination with complex systems and systems thinking spurred me to try writing about them as sort of documentation of my own learning. If you delve into complexity theory much, you'll find lots of academic thinking on the subject. That's great, but my interest is in the applied, everyday experience of how systems work. Iteration is behind all interesting discoveries, and every bit of resistance to entropy is a response to feedback.
A main purpose of this newsletter is to be an outlet for scratching itches off the beaten path from day-to-day work life. Writing helps me go deeper on ideas and curiosities. Writing regularly switches on parts of the brain that lay dormant during the "off peak" hours. When you know you've made a promise to yourself to produce on a schedule, the simmering stew of ideas stays brewing all the time. The best way to learn is to take swings. And regularizing the schedule forces more swings.
It's been satisfying to see the audience here grow this year, even if incrementally week to week. I'm immensely grateful to all of you who've read, shared, liked, or emailed me with your own thoughts in topics I've written about. In addition to satisfying my own pursuit of ideas, connecting with others of like mind gives this whole endeavor a purpose I didn't realize I'd value so much until keeping after the habit through the back half of this year.
I spend my daily life building things. For the last 15 years I’ve been working on software for industry, taking the messy mixture of customer demand signals (jobs to be done!) and figuring out how to make technology smooth out their work. But I'm also activated by side pursuits like woodworking, construction, cooking, and other creative outlets. I realized in this year's writing — as I kept riffing on the themes and writing more about product-building — that what I'm really curious about is the process of how things are made in general. So an origin in writing on systems thinking and complexity evolved to include the act of creation itself. Willing things into the world takes a combination of curiosity, skill, creativity, and, perhaps most critically, the wherewithal to try, fail, and adapt repeatedly. So in the year ahead I've got a number of interesting paths to scout out. Here's a sampling of the ideas bubbling around in my head (to help myself commit to exploring them).
Why do we form companies? Where did the corporation come from and why?
What's the role of bureaucracy?
Metaphors to manufacturing don't work for making software (what "lean" thinking screws up about design)
And relatedly, the origins of the Toyota Production System
The magic paradox of dematerialization
Inefficiency breeds creativity
How does one develop "taste"?
Why getting comfortable with contradictions makes you a better thinker
Defining product-market fit
And hopefully many more.
Once again, thank you all for reading this year, and hope you have an enjoyable, productive start to '24.
In case you missed any of these, here are some of my personal favorite pieces from the newsletter this year.
Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn is an amazing work about how structures are built and maintained. His models of “low road” and “high road” architecture have been swimming in my head every time I’ve walked into a new building since I read it. He calls out Building 20 as a paragon of low road design, and I wrote about its origins.
Product teams are desperate to validate and justify building their ideas. Too often people want objective proof that a direction is the right one, but that proof doesn’t exist. I suggest trusting your experience and making calculated bets.
If you’ve ever been part of a team where adding resources actually made you slower, you’ve experienced the Ringelmann effect. Small teams are amazing for their ability to move quickly, reduce coordination costs, and critically, to course correct on a dime.
Complex systems must start their life as simple, functional ones. John Gall’s quip about systems sounds goofy, but if you think a little on your own experience, you’ll realize why it resonates. We constantly encounter complex systems (groups, corporations, codebases) where someone tried adding complexity to fix a problem. And it didn’t work.
Time and iteration make an amazingly powerful combination. Here I don’t suggest waiting around for evolution to “happen to” you, but to at least have patience and accept the gradual process of iterative improvement if you want the most robust solutions.
Thanks once again for reading this year. I’m looking forward to the year ahead, and continuing an engaging conversation with all of you.
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