There is one joke I tell over and over. It is very old and it isn’t that funny. Here it is:

A woman sees a man searching for something under a streetlight and asks what he has lost. He says he lost his keys and they both look under the streetlight together. After a few minutes the woman asks if he is sure he lost them here, and the man replies, no, he lost them in the park. The woman asks why he is searching here, and the man replies, “this is where the light is.”

So why do I tell this old, unfunny joke so often? Because it is us. We are the man who lost the keys and is searching under the streetlight. Not all the time, but more often than we care to admit.

We have an outcome in mind that would be great for us. But we don’t know how to do what it takes to get there. In the meantime, there is another thing we do know how to do, so we do that instead. But it doesn’t get us closer to our goal. This is the equivalent of the political fallacy “something must be done, and this is something.”

To avoid finding myself in this position I work hard to separate a top down analysis of “what would be good?” from a bottom up analysis of “what is possible?” If those two things don’t overlap then we shouldn’t start work and just hope for the best. We have to figure out what other changes we need to make to either the product or the technology so that they connect.

And those changes have to be meaningful. Too often I see teams hit this impasse and get around it by expanding the definition of what is possible or what is good.

The problem is that we’ve set our hearts on something of value before understanding its cost. If you offer me an apple I’d be grateful. If it cost $100 I’d pass. But I’d still be hungry for apples having had the idea put in my head.

To balance this I try to always caveat my enthusiasm for a new idea against the possibility of its cost rendering it a bad one. If I can hold myself to always discussing value and cost together I find I am less inclined to build the wrong thing because I can’t afford to build the right one.

One more thing: if it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Every time a project comes across as cheaper than I expected I end up paying for it later. Usually with interest.