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Too Much Is Eventually Enough
DeliverablesWhen I joined that consulting company I used to work for, I had to learn a bunch of new words, and one of those was the word “deliverable”. It's not too hard to understand. It's an adjective used as a noun (see Present Participle or Summary), and it means just what it says: a deliverable is a thing that can be delivered … to the client, at the end of a project or phase. The stereotypical example of a deliverable would be a binder full of recommendations (although we preferred to be more constructive, and design and build systems that would implement the recommendations). At the time, the word struck me as pure jargon, but now that I think about it, I have to admit I can't come up with a good synonym. That's just as well, actually … a synonym is no use to me now, since I've already accepted the word into my vocabulary.
Now, here's the interesting thing. The word started out having for me that one very narrow meaning, but over time, without any external cause that I know of, the meaning changed … grew, and ramified, and developed various nuances. I like to imagine that it grew back into its full original meaning, but I have no idea if that's really true; it might be possible to find out, but I haven't made the effort. In any case, now I see the idea of deliverables as an aspect of the following rule.
If you find yourself thrashing around and not getting anywhere, or think you might be likely to, stop and define the tangible results you want to produce.
That kind of tangible result is a deliverable.
There are other words that have similar meanings.
The word “product” is also worth mentioning. I wouldn't want to use it, since it sounds too much like the latest addition to a product line, but the origin is interesting. It's a perfect participle from Latin, and has the same root as “produce” and “productive”. Deliverables are all about being productive!
The idea of deliverables is useful in many different contexts. I don't think I could list them all if I tried, so instead I'll just mention a couple that I find interesting.
First, of course, deliverables are useful if you're thrashing around … or, rather, if you find yourself thrashing around; they don't do you any good if you don't realize you're thrashing! Speaking of which … have you noticed how sometimes children don't realize they're tired? Isn't that strange, that one has to learn to recognize tiredness? On the other hand, even now I'll sometimes find myself staring at a problem and not getting anywhere, and realize, hey, I'm tired. That happens to me with other internal states, too; I imagine it happens to all of us, more than we realize. (Or, maybe I'm just projecting my autistic tendencies.)
Going in circles is similar to thrashing around; see Advancement.
A particular case in which thrashing is likely is when you have a goal, but it's not tangible; and a particular case of that is when you want to learn or understand something … read a book, or a document, or maybe some code. There are many well-known techniques for studying such things, and guess what, many of them involve deliverables. You can highlight key points, make annotations, take notes, construct outlines or summaries, or even rewrite the material in your own words. And, the larger the deliverable, the greater the understanding required to produce it; so you can choose whichever one gives the desired level of understanding.
So far, I've been talking about deliverables that are constructive. That's not so bad … constructive deliverables are certainly the most common and useful kind. Nevertheless, it is possible to produce tangible results that are modificative or destructive, and such results can be almost as useful as constructive ones. For example, if you have some files on disk, you can organize them in folders, or delete them … that's pretty tangible. Or, if you go picking up trash, you end up with a bag of trash, but what you really produce is an absence of trash on the ground.
Finally, there's a fairly large problem with deliverables that I ought to point out. It's the same as the problem with genies: you have to be careful what you wish for, because your wish will be granted in the most literal way. It's also the same as the problem with metrics, if you're familiar with that jargon. If, say, you require that all students be able to pass a single standardized test, they'll tend to become able to pass the test, but they'll also tend not to learn things that aren't covered.
One last strange thought … if the students tend to become able to pass the test, then they tend to change; in other words, they evolve. Actually, it's not the students that evolve, it's the methods of teaching, but that's not the point. The point is, any metric is a quality function for some kind of evolution … and vice versa! Put that in the context of biological evolution, and that's the strange thought. If you'd wished for things that survive, would you be happy with how your wish had turned out?
o September (2004)
@ June (2005)