Random Acts of Architecture

Tales of an architect trying to bring order to the chaos that is modern information technology.

Creating an Innovative Environment

“Innovation” appears to have joined words like “synergy” in the buzzword nomenclature but is central to a software architect’s role, whether it be creating and driving either customer impacting or cost saving innovations. Unfortunately, many software architects and developers get frustrated when new ideas, features and improvements continuously are ignored, pushed to a nebulous future release or get anemic implementations. Innovation needs an environment and culture that allows it to succeed.
 
Many organizations feel that the greatest barrier to innovation is time. After all, many software development organizations are known for time specifically devoted to innovation. Google, for example, has “Google Time” where all employees spend a day a week working on their own projects. Atlassian, an oft quoted example, has “FedEx” days  where all the development staff spend 24 hours on their own projects and present them to the group afterwards. In both cases, this is where many new products or product features originate.
 
Unfortunately, organizations focusing solely on the time allocate it, expect developers to produce wonderful, insightful and customer worthy new products and features then scrap the exercise after initial disappointments or during the next crunch time. These organizations miss three important points.
 
First, these organizations put ideas created by developers (not just product management and support issues) into their product. This means that developers need the communication and exposure to customers or be customers themselves. Atlassian writes software for developers and they use their own products (or “Eat their own dogfood” as many people say) as does Google but most organizations lack this luxury. Software architects and developers need to create communication channels where they can get this information time efficiently. For example, start with requiring developers to use the product for basic tasks when they first join the team then periodically do manual testing in realistic environments (in addition to that done by QA) and have regular lunches with support.
 
Ideally, have architects and senior developers talk with customers directly, such as attending a support call or a conference. Development teams often receive a skewed view of the product consisting of support incidents and requirements from a few important, vocal customers only. Developers and architects ask different questions than non-technical people and hear the same answers with different ears. Even simple act of architects and developers watching customers use the product can reveal incorrect UI assumptions.
 
Build opt-in telemetry into the product, too. Two of the biggest issues with successful innovation are the self-supporting bias, where people over-estimate their own contributions to successes and under-estimate their part in failures, and the confirmation bias, where people interpret facts to support their own existing conclusions. Telemetry does not replace product management’s vision or support’s intuition but effective telemetry provides the most accurate information about what features are used, how often by when and by whom, particularly during A/B testing.
 
Second, innovative organizations have easily extensible or modifiable products, usually by people outside the development team responsible for that feature. No commercial software is ever perfect but the biggest hurdle to innovation execution is getting product quality to a manageable level and stopping endless “fire fighting”. This is particularly difficult on products with a small, maintenance staff or those with overly ambitious deadlines and usually requires extensive automated unit testing, refactoring, documentation and possibly new tools.
 
The team must also have room in the backlog (scheduled modifications or enhancements, some beyond the current release, for those unfamiliar with the agile term). Even brilliant ideas will have difficulty competing if the team has years of work outstanding or over-committed to customers. The team needs to focus, create a more effective and transparent prioritization mechanism and reign in the sales organization.
 
Third, innovation, when it occurs, must also be communicated and shared. If only the immediate manager knows about it, much of its value is lost. Similarly, innovation must be expected and rewarded with goals set, tracked and judged like other performance goals.
 
Software architects and development are not the only source of innovation, either. The best customer impacting innovations come from those that understand both the customer and the technology or product. Software architects are in a prime position to drive product and technology information to others that may innovate such as technical product management, professional services, support leads, architects from other products.
 
Software architects and developers must take responsibility to drive change throughout their organization. Organizations’ inertia often makes this a challenge but innovation does not spontaneously occur in a vacuum. As usual, start small, advertise successes and persist.

One response to “Creating an Innovative Environment

  1. Pingback: Is yours an innovative organization?

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