On Waiting

I was telling a colleague about my philosophy toward making decisions: “wait as long as you can”. She replied, “have you heard of the Chinese concept of 无为 (wu wei)?”. Uh, no, I have not. She elaborated:

In some situations, the best thing to do is not do anything but observe, let whatever situation run its course. While waiting, continue to be in peace, allow for transformation and growth.

This is great! Now I have a word for a concept that I’ve felt deeply for a while. I can’t speak authoritatively about wu wei, I just learned about it, but I can elaborate on my own philosophy:

You’re guaranteed to have more information in the future.

Or at least the same amount. If you have to make a decision that’s short on information, finding a way to wait longer will always lead to a better decision. Obviously some decisions can’t wait, this doesn’t apply to those.

Some examples

  • “Should we adopt a preview feature from Product X?” The longer you wait, the more other people will form opinions about it and you’ll see a consensus emerge. When you revisit the decision in 6 months, you’ll be able to avoid months of effort.
  • In architecture, “should we assume X can’t ever happen?” Take the path that takes less effort and build some light tooling to identify if you made the right decision. Adapt later.
  • In designing products, “will customers want to do X?” Don’t build it, but make it very easy for them to complain. You’ll know soon.

A key component is, before you dive into waiting mode, you should have a plan for monitoring the situation. In the preview feature example, the monitoring plan could be as simple as a calendar reminder to check back in, or you could wait until you feel the pain more acutely. If your “waiting” strategy is causing a lot of pain, that’s a great indicator that you can’t wait any longer.