Tuesday, April 28, 2009

How to Get Real in Corporate Development, Part III

This is the third part of an essay on how the concepts of Getting Real from 37signals can benefit development groups in corporate environments. Part I introduces the concepts of Getting Real and part II looks at the idea of building less. To build less, you need to select one problem to solve and focus just on that. Part I introduced this, so let's continue to look at that aspect.

Focus on one idea. Start with the big problem, build the large scale functionality and don’t sweat the details.

One challenge every development effort has is where to stop. That is, where to define the edge of the application. Otherwise stated as, "how far out from the core idea is it reasonable to extend?" For example, should the document handling system not only import PDF's, but generate PDF's and fax them?

One helpful concept is the constraint of time and budget. However, it is not uncommon in corporate development shops to have projects loose the continuity of effort that makes a strict delivery time or budget tracking approach overly challenging. Here is where having one focus pays of immensely.

The thinking is: We are going to solve only the problem at hand (Today's Problem). Building less gets us a solution more quickly. Focusing on the problem helps us meet the goal of solving only the problem at hand.

Engineers with are much easier to keep focused and on-task when they have a delivery due in only a few weeks. Assigning a single, short-term purpose accomplishes this. Part of the standard challenge in corporate development shops is that the an engineer wears many hats as she maintains existing applications, develops one or more concurrent projects, and concurrently designs and plans future applications.

Switching between different types of tasks is a known productivity killer. The well-known blog by Joel on Software lays out the trouble with human task switching. You know it yourself, having your concentrated thought process interrupted is, literally, disruptive. For your team, this means that they need quite, private work spaces, few meetings during sprints, and very long periods of uninterrupted time. It also means you need to keep their plates clear of other tasks.

When you do this, your engineers will be able to stay focused on delivering that one idea.

"Hmmm, good," you say, "but what is the correct one idea?" Good question. After all, "solve global poverty" is one idea, but it's obviously not at the right level.

You're looking for an idea that represents a specific business pain point with a solution that can be produced by a small team in a few quick iterations. Since your team of three engineers can't bang out a solution to global poverty in a few three-week sprints, it's not at the right level. (But you already knew that -- this was an illustration :-)

Let's try some on for size. "Create a portal that allows secure transmission of documents from customers to service representatives." Or how about, "Replace a key paper form with an internal website." Here's what each of these have going for them:
  • Each of these have a good change of being produced rapidly in only a few iterations.
  • They both address only one problem.
  • They require one small application to successfully meet the business need
  • They both are probably very well understood by stakeholders and engineers.

Given all this, there is very likely little risk of implementing the wrong software. Even if the end product doesn't work out completely, you have only invested a small amount of time and effort and you're team has more clearly illustrated the business need.

Are you thinking that you don't have any small, simple problems to solve? Are you thinking that you need complex applications to solve complex business problems? Are you thinking that there isn't any opportunity to do something small and elegant like this in your shop?

If you have any of these thoughts, or thoughts similar to them, please try an experiment. Find a key stakeholder at the line level. Perhaps a manager of customer service, or a project manager who executes key services repeatedly. Take them to lunch and ask them about the most challenging aspects of their work and the work their team or group does.

You will probably learn some things you didn't know. And some of what you learn could very well fall right into this camp of creating high-value for the business with a light, flexible, low-risk and low-cost development approach.

The next part is to work with wide brushes and big strokes. You're not looking for a whiz-bang gizmo that does everything. Get the big pieces right first. Now that you know about some business pain points (if you already knew some or knew the ones you talked about over that lunch, then kudos for you!), you're looking to address just that need. Nothing else right now, just that one need.

Yes, the fund accounting deals with mutual funds, 401(k)'s of mutual funds, annuities, closed-end funds, etc. But the bulk of the work is mutual funds. Or the bulk of the time is 401(k)'s. Or the bulk of the revenue is generated by something else. It's up to you to figure out, with your key stakeholders, what the most valuable problem to solve will be, then it's up to you to focus on that one factor.

The mandate you give your team is to fix just that one piece, make it better for the business and don't worry about the details. You will re-work and re-engineer as you dig down into the next set of priorities on upcoming iterations. But you will be providing a high-value solution in very short order, and that is worth more to the business in the long run.

Thanks for staying with me as we continue exploring the approach of Getting Real in your corporate development shop.

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