Friday, November 17, 2017

The Eisenhower Matrix Fallacy

Road trips reveal truths and clarify ideas, at least that's what my Auntie Pat Tern insists. On a recent trip with her and cousin Tim Toady,  this came up when Tim requested a bathroom stop. What he said was, "I could use a bathroom some time soon." And as we flew past exit after exit, Auntie Pat Tern said he should let her know if it becomes urgent, otherwise she wanted to find a good spot to stop for lunch too. That got me thinking about competing interests when it comes to programming and the Fallacy of the Eisenhower Matrix.

Jastrow, J. (1899). Popular Science Monthly US public domain
Duck or Rabbit? It may depend on how long

you allow yourself to analyze the problem.
In a speech at Northwestern University, President Dwight D. Eisenhower said "I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent. "   

Prioritizing Competing Requirements

Important issues and urgent ones often compete. On our road trip, Auntie Pat Tern knew that a nice place to stop for lunch would also have a nice bathroom, that was part of her selection criteria. She also wanted to get as far as possible to her ultimate goal before the end of the day. Stopping both for lunch and for a separate bathroom pit-stop would delay her from reaching her ultimate goal. So she employed the Eisenhower statement as it was intended, to express that a thing cannot be both urgent and important.

Unfortunately, a lot of people in the business world have worked Eisenhower's statement into a matrix, which suggests that requirements can be both urgent and important.  Trying to accomplish a task as both important and urgent makes no sense. If it is important enough to need an optimal solution, then take the time to discover that optimal solution. If it is urgent enough to resolve immediately, do your best with what you have right now.

Importance means you have the time to be thoughtful and take time to discover the most optimal solution; it is the polar opposite of urgency.

As long as stopping for a bathroom break was important, it was worth waiting for the best location to stop both for food, which was also important, and for clean restrooms. But as soon as the need for a bathroom became urgent, the competing priority for food could be disregarded, at least to some extent. And with greater urgency, even the competing priority for a clean restroom might be set aside; the greatest urgency means you act now even if you have to pull off the road at that tree up ahead.

Eisenhower and Software Architecture 

For software architecture, the urgent and the important need to be kept separate because the important parts of the project should inevitably be the most stable code in the system. The least stable code is the stuff you write out of urgency, when things are likely to change, but we can't wait until we understand all the factors that cause change.

Don't believe the Eisenhower Matrix, it is a fallacy. Important and Urgent are like North and South ends of a magnet. Anything that is equally Important and Urgent lies in the middle, and that part of the magnet is neutral. The neutral zone is where we find the mindless and repetitive tasks that only become urgent when they are neglected for too long and only become important when something out of the ordinary arises.

For Tim Toady on our road trip, he appreciated waiting for a sandwich on Dutch Crunch and a clean restroom because he values good food; it's important as long as he doesn't have more urgent needs.

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