Open Insights 55 – Preserving Optionality

Preserving Optionality

by Sean Hull

Larry Summers, Director of the White House’s National Economic Council coined the phrase “preserving optionality” back when he was deputy secretary of the treasury under Robert Rubin in Clinton administration. It was meant to describe a strategy of keeping options open and fluid, fighting the urge to make choices too soon, before all of the uncertainties have been resolved.

In IT projects, I see this type of thing over and over. As engineers, and leaning towards the rational and objective side of thinking, we tend to want to make clear and sure decisions. But unfortunately the field in front of us is often not as clear as we have laid it out to be.

In concrete terms, preserving optionality can mean using multiple vendors, or a mix of commercial technologies, with open APIs, and open-source technologies, but all leaning towards open standards as much as possible. For instance the front end facing systems may use one database vendor, and reporting systems might use another. Yes this may mean the need for more varied expertise in staffing and resources, but also leaves your options open at the negotiating table. You are less likely to be faced with hard vendor lock-in, where the vendor has a clear and much stronger poker hand when negotiating licensing fees and so on.

This may also come into play not just with database or application server platform but also development platform, that is the language your team decides to develop under. Depending on the in-house expertise, and their leanings, you might decide to go with Java, or .NET. It may be that those languages offer obvious advantages in functionality. But what of the ease with which to find experts in that area? And what do those experts cost? And how is that field or corner of computing growing now? Is it staying open? Is their a large community behind it?

Preserving optionality is a philosophy that takes some getting used to. It involves having a sense of humor, and realizing our own human limitations. As Nassim Taleb points out over and over in his book Fooled By Randomness – “people overestimate their knowledge and underestimate the probability of their being wrong”. He suggests that knowing this, and keeping it in mind, we can make more educated, and lower risk decisions, if we take that into account. Preserving optionality means waiting as long as possible to nail down those factors, decisions, or variables that are hardest to undo once they’ve been settled on.

Review: Mind Performance Hacks

by Ron Hale-Evans

The various books in O’Reilly’s “hacks” series have been rather interesting, and quite good. This particular title is chock full of ideas on how to improve yourself, from methods to help you remember phone numbers or a list of items, to ways to improve creativity. There are even mental fitness exercises, and help you be better at decision making. There is also one chapter on math, including a method for calculating weekdays, and using your fingers to do real arithmatic like an abacus. Outside of the math chapter, however the material, and topics are ones which would appeal to most anyone. Good stuff.

View Mind Performance Hacks on Amazon.