Thursday, January 28, 2010

The case against 'should'

Working in a software company, there is a lot of use of the word 'should'. "Should we include this feature?" "Should we put a process in place for this?" "That shouldn't be allowed to happen."

Should implies that there is a right way and a wrong way. It is the language of correct and incorrect, light and dark. No, the software should never crash. Yes, we should have a process for changing important parts of the system. No, we should never make the customer wait more than a week.

But this is danger territory. Tell me, should I take sugar or sweetener? Should I rent or buy? Should I be a vegetarian? Should I marry or cohabit? These are not topics people generally agree on. In fact, they are topics that bring out the worst traits in people - judgemental, unthinking refusal to compromise or be flexible, or even to think rationally about a subject. These are hard-and-fast gut reactions. You should marry. No, I believe in marriage. Cohabitation has no benefits. Vegetarianism is the future, think of the children!

I've noticed that when people say should, they are using their expectations as a measure of should vs should not. Should the customer be made to wait? No! Of course not! Stupid question! Let's rephrase it: how much of a tradeoff of productivity and efficiency are we willing to accept in order to reduce customer waiting times by X%? Now we are talking - we have a more objective yardstick, a more equivocal question. We have framed the question in terms of the true business upside and downside, rather than throwing it against their gut reaction.

So, when someone says we should do X, or the software should not do Y, a little flag goes up in my head. Wouldn't it be easy for someone to argue for their preferred course of action by simply invoking our predictable gut reactions? Do it my way, because we should give our customers what they asked for.

'Should' is a hammer. It makes everything look like a nail, which can be battered into place by the sheer righteousness of our gut reaction. Pick a different verb! Ask if we can allow, expect or improve. Talk about tradeoffs and priorities, opportunities and strategies.

If you keep using 'should', you're just looking for an argument.

You shouldn't do that.

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