Alignable vs Non-Alignable Differences

Marianne Belotti makes an excellent point she credits to economics in Kill It With Fire1 that, if you want to convince someone of the merits of a change, there are Alignable Differences and Non-Alignable Differences.

You’d think that non-alignable differences would be more appealing, but no, they are not. A proposed change to something entirely novel might turn out to be useless, or it might turn out to be the next sliced bread. Whoever is looking at this proposal doesn’t know, can’t quantify that, and can’t make sense of it, whereas alignable differences are much simpler to analyse, and see if that makes sense for you.

There a sublety here. Namely, that what is alignable and what is not is dependent on the observer, not the proposer.2 This problem is commonly resolved by reframing the novel change in terms of outcomes, rather than in diffrences in ways of accomplishing something. A novel way to solve a problem would instead market itself on being better at solving the problem, rather than doing something more effectively.3 This is not always possible, at which point you have an interesting challenge ahead of you.

The difference between alignable and non-alignable is a useful perspective to keep in mind when you’re proposing a change to someone, because often the reason you are proposing a change is that you found a better way to do things - but what you can convince people of depends on what they have points of comparison for.

  1. An excellent book that I recommend to any software-adjacent person that has to wrestle with legacy systems at work. 

  2. This is the age-old “we built something wonderful but the customers don’t want it because they don’t understand it” problem that Hacker News loves to use to explain why their “Uber for gummy bears” startup failed after raising three rounds of venture capital. 

  3. Keeping with analogies, you’d market a teleporter based on decreased travel time, and not at how much faster it is than a car, because the teleporter wouldn’t move.