22 August 2022

The triangle of fulfilment

“It’s 2022. Why hasn’t someone done it already!?", I find exclaiming frequently when stumbling upon things and ideas that are relatively simple and so obvious that they should exist, but for some reason, don’t. It is frequently about software, occasionally about physical things, and once in a while, about an organisation that focuses on a certain cause that really ought to exist. It is of course not about hard problems like cold fusion or disease and poverty eradication, but things like … a mailing list manager.

The impetus for me to start working on listmonk[1] in 2019 was frustration and surprise, as is the case with the genesis of many FOSS (Free and Open Source) hobby projects. At work, we had exhausted all available open source options for a self-hosted mailing list manager. Whatever was available, was dated, resource hungry, and non-performant. More than frustration, it was immense surprise from this train of thought:

  • Millions of organisations across the world have to send e-mails to lists almost on a daily basis.
  • Thus, millions of organisations need a mailing list manager. It is a universal requirement across industries. Even organisations without websites need to send e-mails.
  • Mailing lists are a multi billion dollar industry and countless SaaS options exist.
  • There are perhaps millions of small and large technology companies who have the capability to build a mailing manager and also the need for a mailing list manager.
  • A good mailing list manager of course takes time and effort to build, but it is not rocket science.
  • Surely, hundreds of thousands of companies would have written in-house software to send e-mails to lists.
  • And yet, only a tiny handful (around three in 2019) open source options exist.
  • Why!? What could possibly explain this?

It really did not make sense that multiple good implementations of such a universal, ubiquitous, non-rocket-science tool did not exist. I retrospected and searched for similar bafflements and examples were everywhere.

  • Why are banks with practically unlimited resources unable to produce half-decent netbanking software for end users?
  • Why does the modern Indian tech industry that has boomed to produce cutting edge innovation, that has billions of dollars in investments, produce little to no FOSS?
  • Why is it impossible to find good banana chips in Bengaluru despite its sizeable Malayalee population?
  • Why do large, experienced, multinational corporations that have been doing it for decades, manage to produce blunderous home appliances?
  • Why do many coffee shops across the world still produce bad coffee despite humanity’s multi-century tryst with coffee making?

While trying to make up my mind about re-inventing a mailing list manager, the simple, common sense realisation sunk in. Neither ubiquity nor obviousness guarantee fulfilment. For ideas to be fulfilled meaningfully, for even relatively simple things to be built, just like how good banana chips require good coconut oil, bananas of optimal ripeness, and great chips making skills, there are three distinct factors that have to come together in the right balance—intent, skills, and resources. The triangle of fulfilment.

Depiction of the triangle of fulfilment
A Venn diagram depicting the intersection of the three factors as a Reuleaux triangle
  • Intent: The intent, drive, motivation, and will to pursue a goal.
  • Skills: Physical and mental skills, and the knowledge required to execute a goal.
  • Resources: Time, money, material, and whatever other resources that may be required to fulfil a goal.

Since the necessity of luck (right place, right time, right circumstances) is implicit, it does not have to be considered separately in this context. Intent, skills, and resources are three factors that humans have to employ explicitly to fulfil ideas and to execute goals. While these three factors are commonplace in isolation, often, the presence of all three in a person or a group turns out to be exceptionally rare. The pool of people globally who can build a certain thing or fulfil a certain goal drops down exponentially from millions to often just a handful of people or sometimes even one when selected for the presence of all three factors. Otherwise, someone or some organisation would’ve already built that relatively simple thing, right? Especially, in the age of 24x7 connectedness where people are aware and are in the loop with infinitely more things happening around the world compared to just a couple of decades ago.

We come across (large numbers of) people who have the intent to do a certain thing, but lack the requisite skills. They may also have the intent to acquire the necessary skills, but may unfortunately be constrained by the lack of time or resources to do so. Filtering down further to the group of people who have the intent and the requisite skills, they may just not have the necessary time or resources. This seems easily observable in our personal and professional circles—skilled people with the intent to do a certain thing, but who are constrained by the lack of time or resources. There are of course smaller groups of skilled people with ample time and resources who just do not have the intent or motivation to do a certain thing.

Organisations with practically unlimited resources and skills that have the capability to build a certain thing, but utterly lack intent, are commonplace. Even more commonplace are organisations that outright baffle us with the amount of resources and drive they have, but can never seem to produce simple, good things.

Of the three factors—intent, skills, and resources—intent is a special one. It has to be intrinsic. It has to emanate from within, irrespective of whether it happens for no discernible reason, or whether it is induced by external factors, like the desire to acquire more resources or chase specific outcomes. In addition, intent has to be strong and sustained until fulfilment is attained. While it may be possible to acquire skills with resources, and resources with skills, neither of them can help “acquire” intent. Nor can intent be developed via practice like skills can be.

This little mental exercise, the triangle of fulfilment, has been helping me make sense of a number of perplexing questions around me, especially ones of rarity. Why did the capital markets industry players with deep pockets and experience not bother to start an enterprise like Zerodha[2], but an individual upstart, Nithin[3], did? Despite unprecedented digitisation globally, why do so few organisations like the EFF[4] in the US, or IFF[5] in India, exist? Why are there so few dictionaries in the world like Alar[6], and so few individuals like V. Krishna who have made one? How do some individuals end up successfully pulling off mammoth projects where mammoth organisations fail? Despite the undeniable success and utility of Wikipedia, why are there so few resources like it? Despite being a massive tech hub with countless tech companies and communities, why isn’t there a community hackerspace in Bengaluru?

Because, the triangle of fulfilment is elusive. It seems that the intersection of intent, skills, and resources, in both individuals and organisations, is counterintuitively, exceptionally, rare. If you are perplexed by similar questions, try looking through the triangle. It might just help make sense.