Vendoring in Culture

Independent thought and rate of culture chnage

I read a lot of other people's writing. I recommend it, especially in the form of good books. One of the unspoken rules of many writers is that you don't blackbox something if you don't need to. Writers quote authors—a dependency—for efficiency, not ignorance.

In my case, you can assume I've read at least one of their works for context on their thought process.

But in writing, as in thinking, you can also copy someone else's idea and modify it for a different purpose. The work you do to reframe a concept allows you to get a deeper understanding of how it works. Or to see its limits. Just like in a conversation.

For this thought, my dependency is Tom MacWright's excellent piece on vendor by default. If you're looking for a way into how engineers and programmers think, it's a good short article to read.

The concept of vendoring can apply to culture. It involves responsibility, and the willingness to incorporate the new idea as a seed into your thinking. Alan Jacobs suggests this is a way to do moral repair through vendoring code.” His light bulb went off after reading a short article about what is possible by Robin Sloan.

You can only correct something by making it your own. I'd like to extend and expand on this concept.


Making it your own

Reading a lot and thinking about what you read creates capacity. Capacity is how you're able to absorb things in your mind. But then repair in the form of rethinking, asking better questions, and/or upgrading code has to be there.

Jacobs says:

When the original is healthier, and stronger, the relation can be more equal and more constructively reciprocal. But even when the original code is destructive, even when it’s a kind of cultural malware, it can seed the act of repair — the act of repair that goes far beyond repair.

A seed is helpful.

As a child raised on the Montessori principles in a family of very modest means, I didn't want toys. I loved listening to people talk and explain things from a very early age. It was convenient, as I spent most of my time exploring environments physically. Climbing on furniture when trees where not available. And giving my mother a fright!

My preference was for making things. On the rare occasion when I did receive toys, I would immediately break them down to see how they worked. This is a good method to see things to their limits. It's a good path to making things your own. Soon, I was building things from parts.

Other people made the parts, but the new thing was my own.


Capacity vs. capability

At some point in my career, I worked with an ex-McKinsey CEO. He talked often about capacity and capabilities. Capacity is what you have right now. Capability is the highest level you can achieve. Think capacity as something you hold, capability as potential.

A person, company, or society can have the capacity to change, but may lack key capabilities to do it. Existing capacity has time, energy, and money constraints. You could figure out how to do something new easily, or be confident in acquiring new capabilities.

Many companies hold on to existing capacity. Reducing it when the market contracts. Building capabilities has become the responsibility of individuals. When the market expands, some rebuild capacity.

Capacity is what gets you in the door. Some companies have the capacity to see what makes you better at your job—skills and traits you have. Few consider mindset—how you adapt and learn new things. Even fewer look at your resilience and understanding of purpose. You'd figure these out through behavior, not personality tests.

Passion, purpose, values, and curiosity are the inputs that make up culture.


Vendoring in culture

Existing company culture has stabilized. It doesn't change that often, and when it does, it's minor. But the value it got from it's commercial cycles last year or even a few months ago, doesn't apply as well.

You also have patterns in the processes and rules that are probably impossible to remove. And they hold you back. Also, if your company is using a lot of third-party dependencies—as in what others are doing—you're probably inhering their bugs, too.

On the other hand, vendoring means you take responsibility for fixing what's wrong. Analysis of existing culture precedes the production of new things. Because you can only correct something after you've made it your own.

Vendoring is a concept that implies a certain opening. When you apply it to culture, it's an opening of the mind. Perhaps, like me, you're thinking that open equals good. It does wonders for creativity. Comedian John Cleese says:

the open mode, is relaxed… expansive… less purposeful mode… in which we're probably more contemplative, more inclined to humor (which always accompanies a wider perspective) and, consequently, more playful.

It's a mood in which curiosity for its own sake can operate because we're not under pressure to get a specific thing done quickly. We can play, and that is what allows our natural creativity to surface.

An open mind is more receptive to new things. It's a pathway to adapting, and pursuing potential. This is how you build capabilities. But we also need a closed mode to get things done. So it's not either/or.

When the rate of change is too high in mainstream culture, the safer bet becomes dependency. It's too expensive in energy terms to think independently. I'm wondering how much in culture right now is dependency, rather than vendoring.


* Alan Jacobs is the author of How to Think.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *