Answers and the Meta Process

I was having a conversation with a co-worker recently where we talked about work processes, and how we don’t have all the answers figured out yet, but that we hope to find them soon. That got me thinking as to what we consider an “answer” for how we work. I’ll use the example of code review at my software development job, but this should apply, in the abstract, to any kind of thing you do at work.

Our “answer” to code review is to follow a set of steps on how to do it. This is our code review process, where we do one thing after another until the code review is done, and it works pretty well. But while the steps are easy to follow, this answer, like most answers, isn’t perfect. In particular, it has no mechanism to change itself.

But what if we get a little bit meta on our problem and say “the answer to the problem of code review isn’t so much ‘what are the steps to do code review’ but instead, by which process do we decide those steps in the first place?” Now it becomes much more interesting.

So the “answer” to code review becomes a process for finding out how to do code review. Instead of just being an unchanging set of steps, the “answer” now becomes a method for figuring out those best steps.

Day to day, this probably looks exactly how it did before we changed our point of view on it. But with this new perspective, we’re able to evolve how we do things as we go along.

This meta perspective isn’t just useful for code review, or just for job related things, but I think can be applied anywhere you need an “answer” for something. Instead of treating the answer as a finite thing, treat the answer as a process for finding answers (and go as meta as you please).

Some countries use this technique for their governments. The United States decided the answer to tyranny isn’t really a specific person or law, but instead a process for avoiding tyranny called democracy. On the surface, democracy seems similar to code review: a set of steps you follow (voting) to achieve an outcome (leaders). But democracy also includes the process by which the leaders lead by an evolving system of law, among other things.

The idea of answers as an evolving process itself isn’t definitive, and not a solution for everything. But it may be a useful tool for your cognitive tool belt.

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