Thursday, March 04, 2021

Never just "should"!

 TLDR: never use "should" without explaining why.

It should never have come to this
Photo by Brett Sayles on Pexels

How many times today have you used the word "should"?

"You should do X."
"They should do Y."
"It shouldn't be like that."

Or any variation on that theme?

"should just" is even worse.

"You should just do X."

This use of "just" implies it's simple or easy to do. It implies little effort will be needed. But, that isn't always the case.
What may be simple for you may not be for someone else. 
What may seem simple from the outside belies what may actually be required to make it happen.

Avoid saying "just" when it implies simplicity unless it's something you're doing and already know how to do.

"Should" is more complicated.

You may be familiar with the MoSCoW method of prioritization. I was taught this at university and have never liked how vague and open to interpretation the categories still are. I've been in far too many meetings throughout my career that have come down to different understandings of what needs to be delivered. In these situations, "should" is either considered to mean:
  • It would be nice if this was included, but it isn't strictly necessary. 
  • It's used to indicate or identify something that can be deferred until another time.
  • Or it's understood to mean something that can only be left out without a VERY good reason. 
"Should" can cause confusion.

Or, maybe you're used to seeing SHOULD in documents where it takes the definition from RFC2119.


This word, or the adjective "RECOMMENDED", mean that there may exist valid reasons in particular circumstances to ignore a particular item, but the full implications must be understood and carefully weighed before choosing a different course.

This is the crux of my issue. It admits that there are one or more reasons why something should or shouldn't be done.

If you say that "something should be done," why should it be done?
Because of your personal preference?
Because of a contractual reason?
Because of knock-on effects and dependencies or consequences elsewhere?

Without knowing the reason(s) that something "should" be done, we're forced to guess.

If the person saying "we should do X" has the ultimate authority to make decisions, then knowing why has less importance. It might be helpful, useful, or empowering to understand why, but it's not essential. 
In this scenario, a different word is more appropriate. "Please do X." is more specific and more helpful. Even if it's a bit abrupt, it's better than adding unnecessary and potentially confusing words.

If not direct instruction, knowing why is essential. If an opinion, we may be free to ignore it. If a contractual requirement, then we need to know to make sure it happens. If a pressing priority, time-sensitive or will have considerable consequences if not know and acted upon, then we need to know.

It might not be as severe as "you should stop that small child walking into traffic," but explaining why something "should" be done is considerate.

"You should do X" is rude.
"If you do X, it will help me..." or "if X is done first, it will unblock this other work" or "we need to make sure that we do X" are respectful and collaborative. 

Words matter.


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