Jonathan Cutrell

Be Careful Taking Shortcuts

March 05, 2020

Shortcuts are a special kind of tricky. It’s critical to be very careful about what shortcuts you take.

Here’s why.

Shortcuts often compromise in ways that are not explicit

Our mental model of a shortcut is “arriving at the same place with less distance traveled.” The visual model most people have is like a hidden side road that goes directly from point A to point B, cutting out the unnecessary trip to point C.

However, in most practical cases, we aren’t actually taking a true “shortcut” - instead, we are making a tradeoff. Sometimes that tradeoff is actually just taking advantage of the Pareto principle, reducing effort drastically while retaining most of the value.

Other times, the shortcut is removing measures like testing, documentation, error handling, or proper abstractions. The end product may have similar presentation, but the underlying foundation and structure presents future risk.

Shortcuts carry skewed social rewards

Imagine a picture taking a shortcut in your mind.

Got it?

Does the person taking the shortcut in your mind know something that others don’t? By necessity, this cunning, clever move sets you apart socially from the rest.

If you know about a special sequence of backroads that isn’t obvious, you are in an elite group of people.

The same kind of social reward skewing happens when a company has a codebase that is confusing to newcomers. This gives the “old guard” a sense of gatekeeping authority and a false sense of excess competence, even though it would be better for the company to derisk the codebase for newcomers.

Shortcuts are self-reinforcing

Basic conditioning is still one of the most important fundamentals in behavioral psychology. For shortcuts, we see a positive reinforcement:

Behavior, reward, repeat behavior.

While the gratification of taking the long way is much less of a conditioning response:

Behavior, delay, disconnected or distributed reward

This incentive naturally biases us towards taking shortcuts.

Sometimes, not taking a shortcut could induce a negative feedback loop:

Behavior, negative feedback, delay, disconnected or distributed reward

Shortcuts are celebrated because they are seen as less expensive; however, this evaluation is usually done as a single factor analysis. In other words, what are the immediate costs?

If we evaluate the long term costs, both to our work and to our incentives, we are likely to rethink our addiction to taking shortcuts.

Be careful with your shortcuts.

Shortcuts aren’t always bad. Sometimes, we can actually get to the same outcome with less input. However, it’s important to be explicit about the risks you’re taking on, the value you are compromising, or the waste you are reducing.

We don’t always get to choose our incentives. Sometimes, our working patterns create incentives we aren’t intending to create.

Take time to consider whether you are building incentives that lean towards fragility, or if you incentivize long-term thinking and procedures.


Written by Jonathan Cutrell, engineering manager at Tesorio and podcast host at Developer Tea. You can follow him on Twitter at @jcutrell.