Principles Cut Both Ways

While I’ve become fully convinced Dave Ramsey is a fully-participating mechanism of the systemic class oppression he claims to help people escape, a line from “Total Money Makeover” has stuck with me.

“The good thing about principles is that they make life easy. I have heard it said that when someone bases his life on principle, 99 percent of his decisions are already made.”

Dave Ramsey

What’s not to love about that? You don’t need to decide if you’re going to deploy untested code — your department has principles around quality! I’d never starve the cat — I have principles against cruelty! I’d never allow sexual harassment in my workplace — that’s against my principles!

I don’t think it’s a hot take if I say that it’s not so easy. I also don’t have to think very hard to conjure up an example of conflicting principles. The issue, I think, is that how we rank our principles — their cascading priority — is what matters more than simply having principles.

This is normal — something is always going to be more important. The problem with that is much like implicit bias, we don’t really think about this ranking. Our brains just synthesize all the input can give us a snap decision that “Paying rent is more important than not abusing terms of service agreements.”

Managing Principles and Budgeting Money

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to the end of a month and wondered where the hell all my salary has gone. I’m usually pretty unhappy with what I find when I dig into the checkbook, too — impulse buys, random subscriptions, DoorDash orders several times a week. Absolutely none of it things I would have said is more important than paying down debt, yet that’s where my money went instead of the goal I supposedly value. This usually happens because I’m not actively deciding how to spend it, not holding up each decision to the light of my principles before keying in my card number.

Unless I make an active decision on each transaction (“I mean, yes, fish and chips would be nice for the third time this week, but each meal is also the cost of a minimum payment on the Discover card…”) then the money is essentially going to spend itself. And it’s going to do it in a way that has nothing to do with my stated principles.

It’s the same way with budgeting energy on a project. The number of times I’ve seen people get to the end of a card or sprint or even project and go “Oh yeah, I meant to fix that tech debt / try the new pattern / cross train that person and never got to it” is way bigger than zero. People (and yes, this means me too) tend to not even realize they’re letting their brain’s background processes make decisions like “We’re getting questions about how long this is taking so there’s no time to refactor that” or “Bob doesn’t even want to learn this part of the code so I won’t wait for him to be ready to pair.”

By the time we finish the card, we can see clearly how we did it in a way that we’re not proud of — the conscious thought reveals all the places we broke with principle. But by then it’s too late.

What to Do?

Decision making is like a muscle; it needs exercise. The implicit bias engine gives us a massive accelerator on decision making…but if we haven’t calibrated it correctly (and sometimes even when we have), then all it does is enable us to make the wrong decision faster. So we need to avoid relying on it, and that is a more difficult task than we realize.

It basically boils down to short-circuiting our ability to make snap decisions. We need to pause longer before picking a path.


One of the things I like (or hate, depending on the day) about pair programming is the extra step of discussing the next move with one’s partner. There’s a built-in slowdown that allows for things to move out of the background process and into the active cognitive thread. Plus, there’s a decent chance a partner hearing the solution is going to be more considering and critical of it — the number of times I’ve said to a pair partner (or had said to me) “But what about this” only to have them say “Oh, I didn’t think about it” is non-trivial.

Whether in a formal pair or a more informal “Let me run this by you” situation, the act of explaining your thoughts alone can provide clarity (rubber ducking, anyone?). Either you or a thoughtful teammate can remind you of goals that had been set or principles the team normed on, and point out what you just described doesn’t fit the bill.

Write it down

A line in a card about “Address tech debt around dependencies” is a pretty low-effort way to remember that little non-functional requirement. A big ol’ sticky note on the team wall or pinned in the Slack channel reminding everyone that we’re going to prioritize PR reviews is a good short term reminder.

This isn’t something that’s going to work indefinitely. There’s a famous parable in the Wendy’s world that advises us to “Clean the ketchup off the wall as soon as you see it, because next time you see it it’ll just look like part of the wall.” A sticky note in the “follow up” section of a team board has a shelf life of usefulness, and if you’re not actively engaging and refreshing them regularly then they’ll just become part of the decor.

A visual cue you’ll see somewhere long before the card or project is finished can be the nudge you need to review recent decisions and course correct before it’s too late.

Build a process

Whatever the details of it, you need to build a process for decision making that forces you to focus on the issue. It doesn’t need to be an hour long process, but if you can’t remember the last time you took 5 minutes to ponder something before reaching a verdict you might be letting your biases override your values.

A thing I used to do while running a department in a distribution center was make myself as a follow up question when asked for a decision. It usually wound up being more — the “ask a question” rule was to force me to break out of the kneejerk response.

Processor: “I think we should move the supplies to the end of bay, it’d be quicker to reup.”

Bad: “We don’t have time to do that right now.” Also bad: “Yeah, that could be good.”

Good: “How often are you having to reload supplies?” Also good: “Alright, but where?”

At least for me, discussion of an idea forces my thinking out of the automatic and into the conscious.

Bring it All Back Home

Everywhere I’ve enjoyed working for an extended period of time had a codified set of principles I could align with. Every manager I’ve thrived with has had an identifiable (if not clearly defined) set of principles they operated under. Principles are wonderful things, that both make life easier by giving you a scaffold to navigate challenges and signal your values to others.

But they only help if you use them. If you or your organization is allowing decisions inconsistent with your principles, that’s possibly a major warning sign — but I think it’s more likely a sign decisions are being made too quickly, without a process that aims to properly assess options.

Don’t make decisions on autopilot. Principles are useless if you’re not actively holding them up as a litmus test to see which path actually serves you best.

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