Handrails and BackstopsEvan Travers
Orienteering is a sport that practices navigation by map and compass, constantly reassessing your current location and readjusting your course towards your next objective.
The first time I set out, I consulted my friend who is a competitive orienteer. He gave me two mental models to interpret the map for effective navigation across unknown terrain: He told me to find handrails and backstops.
A “handrail” is a terrain feature that runs alongside your prospective route. As long as you keep it on one side and in sight, you can follow it to your goal.
A “backstop”1 is a terrain feature usually perpendicular to travel and just beyond or right at your next waypoint. If you cross the backstop, you’ve gone too far.
These principles work in my nearby state park… but also apply to more abstract problem terrains.
Effective planning requires identifying your current position in the problem space, and realigning with your desired outcomes. Classifying elements of your domain as “handrails” or “backstops” can speed decision-making and course selection.
Two examples: when working on a front-end performance budget, your current bundle size can be a backstop2. If your bundle size increases, it’s time to turn around, you’ve gone too far. North Star metrics3 (if well constructed) can serve as a handrail. As long as that KPI continues to improve, you are headed in a good direction.
By classifying possible outcomes or KPIs as handrails and backstops, I can give my team the ability to move with autonomy knowing the right direction to sprint… and a safety net to avoid overcommitting.
Our budget for [metric] is never-worse-than-it-is-right-now.
Custom metrics connected to the humans getting value from your product – and how they are getting value from your product – are much more compelling. Our key product bet manifests in the metric, and that transparency is powerful. ↩
2021-01-29 16:28:56 +0000
Remove trailing spaces
2021-01-20 14:52:13 +0000
Adding `work` tag
2021-01-19 16:29:04 +0000
New post: Handrails and Backstops