by Leon Rosenshein

Exit Criteria

Over my career I’ve written plenty of documents. Requirements docs, design docs, project specifications, white papers, and vision docs. They all have a few things in common. A definition of the current state, the problem with the current state, how the thing being written about will solve the problem (goals), and what issues it won’t address (non-goals). After that the different docs have different focuses and levels of detail appropriate for the role the doc was supposed to fill.

Over the weekend I ran across another section that should probably be in many of those docs. The exit criteria. Not the exit plan, which is a good idea, and says what you’ll do if/when you need to do something else. The exit criteria aren’t how you’ll change, it’s the set of questions/markers that tell you when to change.

Because one of the hardest things to do is to stop doing something that has been working well for a long time. After all, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if it is broken, and you don’t recognize it, or don’t want to admit it? It’s also the sunk cost fallacy. It used to work. All I need to do is make one little tweak and all will be well. Besides, I built it, so it must be good.

This is especially true at the Process/Policy level. When I started at Uber there were 14 cultural values (14 is way too many, but that’s a separate issue). They worked really well for Uber at the beginning. They kept people working together, working quickly, and let the company grow much faster than outsiders expected. Then, over time, people started to use them not to make better decisions for the company, but to make themselves look better, sometimes at the expense of others. They took those values and used them to get what they wanted. Toe-Stepping and Be Yourself went from sharing diverse viewpoints to find the most effective to the loudest voice in the room wins. Let Builders Build went from don’t be blocked to promotion-based development. There are lots of other examples

But the values didn’t change. Instead, we started layering process on top of process to try and reduce the impact of weaponized values. Re-education and posters on the wall. An ever-changing promotion process. Locking the beer taps before 6:00 PM. Those things helped a little. Or at least helped reduce the expression of the problem, but they didn’t fix the problem. Eventually things got so bad that we got a new CEO and new values.

It’s by no means the only reason, but the fact that we didn’t revisit the values certainly contributed to the problem. And one of the big reasons they weren’t revisited was that everyone looked at the values themselves instead of the impact those values had. After all, who wouldn’t want to be themselves at work?

I don’t know exactly how to word it, but if, in the detailed description of each value it said something like “When this value starts being used to <XXX> we will reexamine ALL the values and ensure that they still represent and are being expressed as the values we want for Uber” things might have turned out a little differently.

This applies to documents, not just values. When you’re writing a design doc for a system you design it for a certain environment, with some allowed variation. Be explicit about that. If you’re designing a system to handle 100 QPS then it should probably be designed to handle 120-150 QPS just in case. And there should be a note in the doc that says “This design is no longer valid when QPS > 80 for longer than XX” so you know that you need to revisit the problem.

When you come across a system that is outside of its design parameters, make sure you understand how the current situation differs from them, and react accordingly