Last week, I introduced the challenge of balancing innovation and infrastructure, including how our product team made a strategic pivot to slow new developments and give the foundations of our technology a little more TLC. Early on, we identified the different layers sustaining our products and strategized how we might better tend to each of them. During this planning stage, a round of difficult questions came up:

  • What impact did we want to have in 10 months? 10 years?
  • How might our products need to adapt over time to get us there?
  • What exactly did we need to sustain? What was worth migrating? What wasn’t?

These questions helped us determine the infrastructure necessary to support the success of innovative and experimental projects to come. It was an exercise for our temporal framing that allowed us to perceive innovation as fast-changing and impactful within short periods, while infrastructure would be slow-changing and naturally show its impact over long periods. The unique paces of innovation and infrastructure gave us clues on how to work with them respectfully.

One of my favorite lessons for long-term thinking is the story of oak trees at New College in Oxford. As the story goes (read, listen):

Founded in 1379, at its heart lies a dining hall that features expansive oak beams across its ceiling. About a century ago, an entomologist discovered that the beams were infested with beetles and would need replacing. The College agonized over where they might find oaks of sufficient size and quality to make new beams.

One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be some worthy oaks on the College lands… They called in the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him if there were any oaks for possible use…

Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for over five hundred years saying “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

The purpose of this dining hall could have just been a building to host the next generation of scholars, but it wasn’t. Instead, it was thought of as a system of local resources that would host many future generations. You might have also picked out other relevant infrastructure lessons:

  • Localization: Nurturing relationships with local talent and resources over time.
  • Problem framing: Questioning whether the problems you’re encountering are just natural occurrences of the environment you’re in.
  • Institutional knowledge: How have past generations been caretakers for your work? How are you to others?

Matthew Rascoff, Vice Provost for Digital Education at Stanford, recently reflected on this story as well, saying, “The wise caretaker teaches that the resources passed down to us are meant to be used. We should put them to work to accomplish our mission. [And] we should plant the seeds of new ones at the same time we harvest the old.”

Brand concludes, “That’s the way to run a culture.”

Practicing long-term thinking

So, how can we practice this long-term thinking with slow-paced infrastructure in mind?

Chances are, you’re already doing it!

You might recall the classic proverb: “an apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Well, it certainly fits in organizational and product health just as well as in our personal lives. For example, on API’s product team, we’ve proudly adopted this practice into our Monday standups to share the ‘apples’ we plan to eat throughout the week to sustain our collective health. This mindset of eating apples regularly helps us think about long-term needs and how we can hold ourselves accountable for those today. It becomes a type of stewardship that feels organic. We can still run innovative products or programs (i.e., eating chocolate) knowing that the infrastructure is taken care of (i.e., eating apples).

Besides apples, here are a few other approaches for this practice:

The more mindful you are about tending to the fast and slow layers of your work, you’ll sense the balance that needs to take place.

Now, with this fresh on your mind,

  • What are the oak beams of your organization?
  • What potential scenarios will they encounter in 10 days? 10 months? 10 years?
  • What ‘apples’ can you take today to help prepare for those situations?
  • How can your organization and team be more inclusive to ‘apples’ regularly?

Share with your network

You also might be interested in: