Locus of Control

When I was early in my career, I put a lot of energy into everything that looked like a problem I could solve with design. I came up with solutions to them and then more things started to look like design-shaped problems that I could solve. In the middle of my career, my company leadership and my mentors encouraged me to work on the underlying, tricky people problems. If there isn’t trust on the team, work to establish trust. If the team doesn’t value user experience, educate them on the value of user experience in a way that is meaningful to them.

But then what happens if stakeholders aren’t invested in the success of the product? What if the next year of the product roadmap is packed with tiny functionality improvements that are required by legislation? What if the company culture incentivizes people to prioritize output rather than outcomes? These are problems that people in my position can influence a little bit, with a huge amount of effort. In the end, it might not make any meaningful difference. For the most part, they’re outside of my locus of control.

So the wise thing to do is sometimes to move on and focus on the things I can control: advocating for better outcomes and for users where it overlaps with the priorities the team is already invested in, contributing to thought leadership, coaching members of my team.

It sounds half-assed to say “this isn’t a problem I can solve”. The effect is basically the same as someone saying “this is too hard, and I’m not going to try.” But choosing where to focus one’s effort and saying no to some things is true wisdom. That’s what product managers do with their products: test an idea and see if it works – if it doesn’t, pivot. That’s what Thomas Edison meant when an associate asked him something like,

Isn’t it a shame that with the tremendous amount of work you have done you haven’t been able to get any results?

and he replied,

Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results! I know several thousand things that won’t work.

Thomas Edison, probably.