a culture of building

Day 17 of 30. I came across the article On Cultures That Build, which was written as a response to Andreessen's essay It's Time to Build, which itself was written in the early days of a pandemic that revealed many institutions, agencies, and systems across the Western world to be wholly unprepared for black swan events like the COVID-19 pandemic.

And as I read those articles, and the link tree they led to, I was reminded of a moment of peace my wife and I enjoyed in the early days of the pandemic, sitting at the DIY picnic table we'd built the year before at our house in Toronto, Canada where we then lived:

View from our picnic table in Mar 2020, looking out to our front yard garden. Tea and bowls of food in the foreground.

There we were, enjoying the fruits of our labour, and looking out over what would become our own pandemic-sized garden project, in an effort to stave off the crushing boredom and existential dread of those strange, strange times.

At some point during the lockdown, I went into my office at the City of Toronto, where I was working to overhaul their transportation data systems and applications with an amazing team from civic non-profit Code for Canada. I found two sticky notes on my screen from my colleagues, originally stuck there in pre-pandemic times and never removed:

Two sticky notes: Evan dev superhero; Thanks for being not just interested in the result - but for really embracing and being instrumental in the process, too.

That to me is the builder's spirit: to keep building forward, even when it's hard; to build for the future, even though you can't see it with 100% clarity; to prefer action over discussion wherever possible.

You can hear in those essays, and in the many responses to them on all sides, a frustration - very likely turned up to 11 by the shock of that revealed unpreparedness, by the scale and scope of the challenge in those early pandemic days.

But even without that backdrop, there's also the frustration that comes with feeling like action seems elusive. You take one step, only to discover three more that need alignment and planning and negotiation. You get bogged down in committee-style discussions. No one wants to be the first to move - everyone is waiting for the signal that The Plan is Ready, that all risks have been accounted for and mitigated properly. This is a culture of avoidance: of avoiding risk, avoiding mistakes, avoiding failure, avoiding misalignment.

To me, a culture that builds is a culture of acceptance and engagement. You accept that the plan (small-p) is never 100% ready, and you engage with it anyways, choosing to build what you can, and trusting that you'll learn what you need to as a result. You accept that there are always risks, and engage with your most risky assumptions early and often. You accept that failure is the great teacher, and that every great product and team got there because they made more mistakes than other teams, not fewer. You accept that you will never 100% agree with everyone that matters on every detail, and you engage with the decisions that have been made anyways, preferring to move forward with trust, humility, and openness rather than debate until someone wins the argument.

When someone wins the argument, someone else loses, and the whole team loses. The only way to win is not to play.