Monday, April 27, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part II

This is the second part of an essay on how the concepts of Getting Real from 37signals can benefit development groups in corporate environments. Exploring this mash-up is worthwhile because at first glance, there seems to be very little in common between the web-application, small-team, product bootstrap philosophy in Getting Real and the realities of corporate development teams. These realities include governance, oversight, processes, controlled systems and similar best practices. But pull the covers back a bit and enough similarities appear to make for a compelling argument. Let's dive right in and take a closer look at the key concepts from the first essay.

Build less. Build smaller applications with only the most important features and delivery it quickly.

This is sage advice because the corporate development life cycle is typically beset with serious birthing pains. Life cycles are heavy with process, stages, gate reviews and sign-offs. The corporate process inevitably includes requirements gathering and documentation, which involve meetings, drawings, documents and reviews. The requirements themselves transform from stakeholder statements to business requirements to technical requirements to design documents. After all that, there is finally the build, test, deploy, train, support and maintain functions. All to get one release to the business users.

Some problems with this model is that it takes too darn long and is too darn expensive. Half a year can pass filled with stakeholder interviews, document drafts, reviews, modifications and so forth that will ultimately produce a few dozen pages of specifications and diagrams. One team of stakeholders, business analysis and engineers can easily spend multiple person months or even a person year (or years) producing 60 pages. If you have a blended team salary rate of $90K, then each page costs $1,500. And you haven't built anything yet!

"No" you might be answering resolutely right now, "but we know know what to build! And we have a plan to build it."

True. I've worked this way too and I know that it helps to reduce the risk of development in the long run. You can plan for a three-phase development effort, get the budget lined up and all that. However, please consider an alternative.

Your team knew -- on day one -- what was the most important functionality needed. You, and they, don't need 6o expensive pages for that. Here's how it would work for you when you Get Real.

Two good engineers and a business analyst -- your development team -- meet with the key stakeholders. The stakeholders are asked to identify their top problems within the problem space. Then they have to choose only one. The top problem. Your development team ask enough questions to fully understand that problem and how it relates to the other top problems.

Then, they go away and produce something small to fix that top problem and only that top problem. This takes three weeks. After all, they are focused on only one key important problem.

Next, the key stakeholders begin to use the new application. After one week, the team reconvenes and the development team learns what works, what doesn't and what the next most important problem to solve is.

At this point, you've spent a tiny fraction of the expense and effort of that functional specification we taked about earlier and you have an application that, hopefully, solves an immediate business problem. If it doesn't, it has shone a big, bright light on that problem. How much longer do you think it will really take your development team to get it right? One more iteration? Two? Fine; because at that point three months will have gone by and you will have a demonstrable ROI. Compare that to a functional spec that takes six to nine months to write. You are seriously ahead of the curve.

OK, another valid concern is that when your development team learns about the next problem they will have to throw away a lot of what they've done. And they might. This is why we focus on solving one problem within the context of the larger scope. However, it is critical to solve only one problem at a time. Fix the problem you have today, not the problem you anticipate having tomorrow.

The way to do this is to build only what you need to fix that problem. Build less. What is the smallest, most elegant solution to the business problem?

Keep in mind that the business problem might not be the problem the users report. They may be unhappy with emailing spreadsheets around and want the population, generation and transmission automated. However, what they really need is a way to exchange and store information centrally instead of relying on spreadsheets.

Thanks for reading. We will continue to peel back this onion in the next essay on Getting Real in your corporate development shop.

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