The importance of trade-offs

Throughout lockdown, Becky has taken to cutting my hair. She’s gotten so good, that going back to the barbers is out of the question. The only problem is, she takes ages. It made me think of trade-offs and how important they are. In commerce, there is the well known ‘trade-off triangle’. Pick two of three: fast, cheap, good. Right now I’m getting a good, free haircut, but at the cost of speed.

“You can’t have it both ways” is a phrase that echoes a lot of truth about the world we live in. Everything has a trade-off from the molecular to the philosophical. Every action has an opposite and equal reaction. Consider the marathon runner versus the sprinter. One can go extraordinary distances but at the cost of speed. One can go at an exceptional pace but at the expense of distance.

In product design, it’s no different. If you want all the features, you must accept the complexity that comes with it. If you don’t include the whole team in a session, you must accept the communication overhead as a result. The hardest one to grasp it seems is one of speed. Everyone wants everything done yesterday, but without the trade-off of quality, let alone cost.

When we don't take the time to consider trade-offs, we get faster decisions, but for riskier future circumstances. This might seem okay if you’re “moving fast and breaking things”, except you then never get time to slow down and fix them. It creates a chaotic cycle that probably explains the short-termism consumer culture that is melting the planet.

When you’re next presented with a decision, consider the trade-offs. It helps you think about the long-term consequences of your actions. “What are we losing, for what we are gaining?” If the answer isn’t immediately apparent, then it’s worth digging into. And don’t try and save the world. Try and save the teeny-tiny slice of it that's in your control.