Innovation in software design

The Invisible Trap of Stale Ideas

It’s a bit surreal to be in a room full of people excited about a new initiative you’re all a part of, and to realize that every idea put forward is not only uninspiring, but it could have been pulled straight from the pages of the very system the team is trying to replace.

A few years ago, I was a solution architect on a business-critical project that suffered from exactly this. One day, when I stopped in on the business analysis (BA) team, they closed the door and vented to me about it. They’d had just finished a round of workshops with the key members of the business and representatives from each department that left them feeling deflated. Despite the new system’s purpose to unify the entire company, drive efficiency, and make everyone’s job easier, all the BA team kept hearing was demands for the very same features that already existed in the systems everyone readily complained about.

I sat in on the next two workshops as an observer. I watched and listened as the BAs asked questions and the room full of people offered answers. On my way home, I kept asking myself one question over and over, never fully satisfied with whatever answer came up:

“Why couldn’t these people come up with a single new idea? Why were they trapped in the proverbial box?”

Where did the good ideas go?

In the middle of the night, it hit me. Climbing out of bed, any semblance of sleep gone, I went to the kitchen table, opened my laptop and started on a few slides for the next day’s workshops intended to shake things up.

I was waiting for the BAs that morning with a tired but satisfied smile on my face.

“The reason they can’t come up with anything new, is because we’ve trained it out of them. They’ve been asking for particular features, and since they know they’re not supposed to do that, they’re rephrasing it as very specific requirements,” I explained.

The BAs offered to let me run the next workshop.

At the beginning of the session, I asked about a requirement that had come up. One of the departments needed to be notified that a document had been checked in, so that they could have a chance to add content before it would be locked again. The owner of the idea confirmed that this was extremely important. I then asked,

“Ideally, would you like to be able to make changes while others are making changes?”

“Of course, but I know that’s not possible.”

“Well,” I said lowering my gaze and scratching the back of my neck, “it actually is.” I went on to explain that with the latest version of Microsoft Office we could collaborate on a document at the same time and then described how that works.

“I had no idea. If we can have that, then we don’t need that other feature,” he added.

With that earning the group’s attention, I had everyone take a step back. I asked them to pretend we had just joined the company and our job was to think of the ideal system. I then proposed three tenants to govern our thinking, the most important one being simplicity. The plan was straightforward. Every feature had to hold true to the three tenets, and each time we found ourselves getting bogged down by something complex, we would stop, back up, and try to simplify. With this approach, we eliminated the need for intricate workflows, replacing each one with a more flexible, uncomplicated solution like a state machine.

Building up a culture of great ideas

Not every project needs to be innovative, but every endeavor deserves the best ideas. So, how can we do that?
We can start by training our people to ask great questions. Break the confines of what’s been done before and instead be bound only by our imagination. There are some great books that can help with getting there, like A More Beautiful Question by Warren Berger, which I’ve been recommending to those around me. Building a culture of asking great questions is not simply a good idea, it can be a strategic advantage.

Developing a culture of great ideas takes time, and sometimes we need to do the important thinking now. At DevFacto, we offer facilitated brainstorming sessions called Ideation. We’ve helped many clients get out of their rut, like a car lender that realized they had more than two times as many opportunities to engage with customers than they’d thought.

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