January 31, 2021


I just finished reading Factfulness and absolutely enjoyed it. If you are looking for a new book to read, I cannot recommend this highly enough, especially in the current state of the world that we are in. The book delves into facts and figures, enlightening you on the reality that the world has been getting, and is much better than you think it actually is. It then goes on, similar to the style of thinking, fast and slow to describe 10 different instincts” or ways our brains work that led us to believe the world is far worse off than it actually is.

What really stood out to me reading this book, was the applicability of the 10 instincts of factfulness to leadership, decision making and building technology. As such, I will start with an overview of the ten instincts in this blog post, covering the first, the gap instinct in detail and then cover the remaining 9 in 3 future posts. I’ll explain the instinct(s) and their relevance to leadership and engineering in each post. The book’s authors hopes are that increased knowledge and awareness of them will help us all avoid making overly dramatic evaluations and I hope these blog posts do as well.

As you read either the book, or these blog posts, keep in mind that we all share these instincts. We are all human and our human nature leads us to use these instincts. They are not a shortcoming but instincts we have evolved to have. However, the world we live in now is far different than it was hundreds of years ago. The instincts that served us well then, can inhibit us now. In understanding these instincts, we can use them to our advantage.

The 10 factfulness instincts are as follows. I’ve added links to the gapminder website which provides details on each:

  1. Gap instinct
  2. Negativity instinct
  3. Straight line instinct
  4. Fear instinct
  5. Size instinct
  6. Generalization instinct
  7. Destiny instinct
  8. Single-perspective instinct
  9. Blame instinct
  10. Urgency instinct

The Gap Instinct

The gap instinct is our tendency to divvy things up into 2 distinct groups, not realizing that most lie in that middle gap. In the book, the authors focus on our gap instinct to bucket the world into the outdated, so-called developed” and developing” countries. The authors then go to show that the majority of the world is actually in the middle and this gap instinct blinds us from both seeing and realizing that.

Reading about the gap instinct, I thought about how often this comes up at work. It really is everywhere! It is the fabled them and us” mentality and is very common among us all. I manage an infrastructure team and a common challenge we face, is supporting the large and diverse group of customers we serve. Given their different and often differing requirements, we eventually have to make trade offs in forming a globalized solution to cater to the different customers. This pleases some and displeases others.

Usually, there are teams that want/have a localized solution they believe solves their problem. They have neither intention nor will they migrate to the global solution. Everyone else (them) just needs to move to their systems. Or, the infrastructure team (them) should leave them be, running their own system. The crux, and what made me chuckle, reading the book is that in most cases this is a small group and the extreme. A lot of customers are typically in the middle, and willing to make migrations provided they are made easier to do. It is however, very easy to, and I personally am guilty of of forgetting about everyone else in between. The heated discussions, and the tug-of-war with these teams not only blind us, they lead us to feeling continually frustrated, reinforcing this view.

It is therefore important that we remind ourselves of this gap. Take a step back and look at the entire picture: How many teams are glad to move, willing to move with some changes, or adamantly against moving. Are you so focused on the extremes that you are missing the middle? Should your strategy change to cater to this larger but often, less vocal group? The answer as always, is that it depends. However, knowing this reality should help you with that decision.

Apply this same methodology to other scenarios at work. In cross team collaboration, are teams bucketed into allies and enemies? Does that capture everyone? Is everyone on the teams in question really that way? Are you viewing your systems as either stable or in dire technical debt? Is this all your systems? Anything in the gap? You get the picture. When faced with two extremes at work, take a step back and ask, what’s in the middle.

Previous post
To do something or nothing How to decide when to and when not to take action
Next post
Provide requirements not solutions No one goes to their doctor and tells them what to do. Why then do we do that to other engineering teams? Because WebMD came along...