Here is an example of a real scenario that you can use to practice having a growth mindset.
How would you answer this question?
A government has started construction on a processing facility a river outside of a large town. The facility was designed to process waste into commercial fuel. In 2015 when the project was first proposed it was estimated that it would cost $1.7 billion to build the facility. To date the government has spent $3.4 billion on construction, and the government estimates that it will need to spend another $4 billion to finish construction.
The federal government wants to halt construction and abandon the project. The Governor told reporters that the ballooning costs are “not our problem” but instead a federal issue. “You’ve made a very real investment. There is structure and everything there. And now they are just going to walk away from it? It really defies all logic.”
After reflecting for a moment on this scenario, try to answer the following questions: what should the government do? Halt construction or keep going? Abandon its plans or ignore the critics and get to launch?
This hypothetical example seems to come up frequently in the world of building and coding software. Have you ever fallen behind a deadline? What happens if a product is behind schedule or budget? Most importantly, what should be done?
Writing code requires critical thinking.
A coder is a contributor to a project that has technical and non-technical constraints and aspirations.
Much like the questions asked above there are often times when the answers are not clear and the way forward is filled with ambiguity.
There are tools one can use to mitigate ambiguity, such as low code workflow automation software, to bring clarity to situations that have unknown and uncertain outcomes.
I have learned a few useful methods for asking probing questions to de-risk development scenarios and want to pass those lessons on.
When faced with ambiguity, it’s important to ask questions in order to gather more facts and to peel back layers of assumptions. Much like your inbox has an email finder, you need to search within yourself to organize and clarify how you spend your time and the impact you have.
I once hired a developer named John to work on my team as a designer.
John came to work everyday at the same time as everyone else and left when others did. What he did during his work hours, however, differentiated his value to the team.
Ultimately this enabled him to deliver more impact.
So what did John do that left such a favourable impression?
Firstly, he asked lots of thoughtful questions. These questions revealed hidden assumptions and biases.
Secondly, he showed a bias towards action to gather data. He used this data to improve his designs and to make the product a better fit for our users.
He used data from users to support or refute the product roadmap.
Lastly, he asked questions of business stakeholders – and real users – to understand our blindspots.
John not only went above and beyond to grasp these difficult topics, but he showed a willingness to match his enthusiasm for learning with an ability to communicate what he had learned with others. He added value.
This reduced our time to market, saving us money as a result and limiting our reliance on a business loan.
Leaders start with the customer and work backwards because they are customer-obsessed.
John eventually left the team to start his own company and to advise other software firms on design.
He wanted to go even deeper and move faster.
His methodical approach of asking questions and gaining new insights helped John unlock value.
Fast forward five years and John is even more successful. Although he never did finish college he runs a profitable design agency with a staff of 50.
I often think about John and how his skills, while strong, were largely undifferentiated. He could not read or write better than the average colleague. He possessed no incredible technical insights.
Ultimately what I have come to learn – and greatly respect – is that John had a richer, deeper, and more encompassing growth mindset. He asked the right questions and paid close attention to answers.
He let these answers guide his behaviour and his designs.
John is still early in his career but his track record is blossoming because he loves to learn.
Let us turn to the original hypothetical question I asked in the beginning of the article. Hearing of John’s story, do you have any new approaches or frameworks to try to answer it?
One seemingly right answer is the following: take time to ask more questions.
For example, one could argue that the government should not count the price of the construction to date since it is a sunk cost. Using the cost-benefit principle: the additional cost of completing construction is $4B but the additional benefits are not defined.
Naturally one should ask: can the government quantify the benefits of the processing facility? How does the government consider the additional money it must invest and what are the benefits of spending this money going forward?
And an answer: if the additional benefits are greater than the additional cost, it makes sense to complete construction. In short, the government must define the economic benefits (rewards, profit, gains, etc) from the completed plant in order to make a decision.
When learning to write software you will be faced with scenarios like this one. Learning to ask the right questions will help empower you and point you in the right direction.
I once had a Professor of Computer Science who liked to ask students the following three questions:
- What can I do to help?
- What are your blindspots?
- What is going well?
These questions enabled the teacher to gather valuable insights from her students and helped shape how we allocated time during office hours.
I once built a Chrome extension to customize my search experience and think of myself as a technology tinkerer.
I tried to build products and ran into walls.
I tried to build a tool to import Google Docs into WordPress and to use invoice management to track changes.
What seemed like a simple project at first quickly became too complex and I was in over my head.
When I got stuck my teacher asked me her simple yet clarifying three questions. Instead of working to solve the problem myself she suggested an elegant workaround.
I used actual software, made by Wordable, to improve my work-flow. I attached a B2B portal software on top and my solution was complete.
Sometimes you have to put things together that others have made.
My teacher added value by asking the right questions and using my answers to make a recommendation that saved me time and effort. I never did build the extension and that’s okay – I was able to allocate my energy elsewhere.
If nothing else, practice asking probing questions and practice active listening.
These skills will empower you to do better work and to add more product value.
One day you will need to decide if you should “keep building” or “walk away”. You will need help along the way.
A growth mindset embedded in asking questions will be your best guide for making these decisions – and going forward in the right direction.
As a final reminder of the importance of a growth mindset, think about one of the greatest architectural sites in the world.
When the Queen opened the Sydney Opera House in 1973, it was twenty years after it was first conceived, ten years behind schedule, and 1,400 percent over its original budget.
It would have been a shame had the builders stopped asking questions – and solving problems – to make the progress we celebrate today.
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