Teddybears and Openness

Loosely related to Upstarta principle#4 is the unfortunate tendency people often develop when developing something new: secrecy. For all the perceived disadvantages of talking with others, it’s a fact that talking about a topic focuses your own mind; even without the other person providing feedback or comments, you’ll often find logic flaws or other relevant insights just by having to verbalise.

Brian Kernighan & Rob Pike wrote in The Practice of Programming (1999, p123):

Another effective technique is to explain your code to someone else. This will often cause you to explain the bug to yourself. Sometimes it takes no more than a few sentences, followed by an embarrassed “Never mind, I see what’s wrong. Sorry to bother you.” This works remarkably well; you can even use non-programmers as listeners. One university computer center kept a teddy bear near the help desk. Students with mysterious bugs were required to explain them to the bear before they could speak to a human counselor.

That’s about computer programming, but I reckon it works for anything. And my own (non-scientific) experience is that writing it down doesn’t appear to have quite the same effect, it’s the verbalising that does the trick. I do prefer a person over a teddy bear as I take it a bit further than just discussing a code bug or problem.

I sometimes discuss something with a friend, and while I’m telling my story, conclusions dawn on me and in some cases even make me change my mind on some aspects. Perhaps that’s scary to some. It might appear to make more sense to mull things over for a while before discussing with anyone else, so you have things more developed and won’t be seen to change you mind “mid flight”. But so what? The longer you walk around with something, the more stuck it becomes and that includes possible flaws. You want to remain flexible enough to adjust your course and potentially even ditch an idea completely. The more you’ve invested (often mainly time), the more difficult that would become! Talking with someone, from very early on, is valuable. The results will be better, quicker.