Giving Users What They Want (Maybe)

Tradition has it that users come up with a set of requirements which architects and designers take and turn into “a solution”. That is, a combination of bespoke and off-the-shelf, hardware and software components, that are assembled in such a way they address all the requirements (non-functional as well as functional). Another point of view is that users don’t actually know what they want and therefore need to be guided toward solutions they never knew they needed or indeed knew were possible. Two famous proponents of this approach were Henry Ford who supposedly said:

If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.

which is debunked here and of course Steve Jobs and Apple whose “Eureka” moments continue to give us gadgets we never knew we needed. As Adrian Slywotzky points out here however, the magic that Jobs and Apple seem to regularly perform is actually based on highly focused and detailed business design, continuous refinement through prototyping and a manic attention to the customer experience.In other words it really is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration.

One thing that both Henry Ford and Steve Jobs/Apple did have in common was also a deep understanding of the technology in their chosen fields of expertise and, more importantly, where that technology was heading.

If, as an architect, you are to have a sensible conversation with users (AKA customers, clients, stakeholders et al) about how to create an architecture that addresses their needs you not only need a good understanding of their business you also need a deep understanding of what technology is available and where that technology is heading. This is a tall order for one persons brain which is why the job of an architect is uniquely fascinating (but also hard work). It’s also why, if you’re good at it, you’ll be in demand for a while yet.

Remember that, even though they may not know it, users are looking at you to guide them not only on what the knowns are but also on what the unknowns are. In other words, it’s your job to understand the art of the possible, not just the art of the common-or-garden.

On Being a Versatilist

For some time now I’ve been discussing the idea of a versatilist as someone whose numerous roles (across business, science and the arts) assignments and experiences enable them to synthesize knowledge in new and exciting ways that may not have been possible if only one of these viewpoints were taken. I truly believe that this is such an interesting and fruitful topic that I have teamed up with David Evans, Principal Consultant and Owner at Koan Solutions Ltd and created a new blog on the topic of versatilism and what being a versatilist means.Check out our new blog The Versatilist Way and give us your thoughts and ideas.

Creativity at Scale

I stumbled across this article by Grady Booch today whilst doing some research on complex systems. It’s quite old (well 3 years is an age in this profession) but what it has to say about developing complex systems is, I believe, timeless. In particular I loved Grady’s point about the importance of “developing social structures that encourage innovation whilst still preserving predictability”. Interestingly another post by Seth Godin says:  

The challenge of our time may be to build organizations and platforms that engage and coordinate the elites, wherever they are. After all, this is where change and productivity come from.

Seth’s definition of an “elite” is anyone who is “actively engaged in new ideas, actively seeking out change, actively engaging.

The internet is a great platform for bringing people together. The challenge is in how to scale the creativity, that can be easily bought to focus in a small, co-located team, across the internet. The boundaries of the enterprises that used to do this are beginning to crumble. There is often more creativity outside the enterprise than is in it and new architectures (new platforms) need to learn how to make use of this. This is more than just what has been happening with the open source movement, where a group of people come together to build new products, its about how to use creativity at scale to build new platforms.


Spookily (well it is Halloween) and with a great bit of webendipity just as I was about to push the publish button on this article up popped in my twitter feed this article by my colleague Jeremy Caine about platforms (e.g. Facebook, iTunes, Twitter) and the creatives that build them.

What Would Google Do?

Readers of this blog will know that one of my interests/research areas is how to effectively bring together left-brain (i.e. logical) and right-brain (i.e. creative) thinkers in order to drive creativity and generate new and innovative ideas to solve some of the worlds wicked problems. One of the books that have most influenced me in this respect is Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind – Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future. Together with a colleague I am developing the concept of the versatilist (first coined by Gartner) as a role that effectively brings together both right- and left-brain thinkers to solve some of the knotty business problems there are out there. As part of this we are developing a series of brain exercises that can be given to students on creative, problem solving courses to open up their minds and start them thinking outside the proverbial box. One of these exercises is called What Would Google Do? The idea being to try and get them to take the non-conventional, Google, view of how to solve a problem. By way of an example Douglas Edwards, in his book I’m Feeling Lucky – The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59, relates the following story about how Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, proposed an innovative approach to marketing.“Why don’t we take the marketing budget and use it to inoculate Chechen refugees against cholera. It will help our brand awareness and we’ll get more new people to use Google.”

Just how serious Brin was being here we’ll never know but you get the general idea; no idea is too outrageous for folk in the Googleplex.

To further backup how serious Google are about creativity their chairman Eric Schmidt, delivered a “devastating critique of the UK’s education system and said the country had failed to capitalise on its record of innovation in science and engineering” at this year’s MacTaggart lecture in Edinburgh.  Amongst other criticisms Schmidt aimed at the UK education system he said that the country that invented the computer was “throwing away your great computer heritage by failing to teach programming in schools ” and was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even taught as standard in UK schools. Instead the IT curriculum “focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.” For those of us bought up in the UK at the time of the BBC Microcomputer hopefully this guy will be the saviour of the current generation of programmers.

US readers of this blog should not feel too smug, check out this YouTube video from Dr. Michio Kaku who gives an equally devastating critique of the US education system.

So, all in all, I think the world definitely needs more of a versatilist approach, not only in our education systems but also in the ways we approach problem solving in the workplace. Steve Jobs, the chief executive of Apple, who revealed last week that he was stepping down once told the New York Times: “The Macintosh turned out so well because the people working on it were musicians, artists, poets and historians – who also happened to be excellent computer scientists”. Once again Apple got this right several years ago and are now reaping the benefits of that far reaching, versatilist approach.

Creative Leaps and the Importance of Domain Knowledge

Sometimes innovation appears to come out of nowhere. Creative individuals, or companies, appear to be in touch with the zeitgeist of the times and develop a product (or service) that does not just satisfy an unknown need but may even create a whole new market that didn’t previously exist. I would put James Dyson (bagless vacuum cleaner) as an example of the former and Steve Jobs/Apple (iPad) as an example of the latter.Sometimes the innovation may even be a disruptive technology that creates a new market where one previously did not exist and may even destroy existing markets. Digital photography and its impact on the 35mm film producing companies (Kodak and Ilford) is a classic example of such a disruptive technology.

Most times however creativity comes from simply putting together existing components in new and interesting ways that meet a business need. For merely mortal software architects if we are to do this we not only need a good understanding of what those components do but also how the domain we are working in really, really works. You need to not only be curious about your domain (whether it be financial services, retail, public sector or whatever) but be able to ask the hard questions that no one else thought or bothered to ask. Sometimes this means not following the herd and being fashionable but being completely unfashionable. As Paul Arden, the Creative Director of Saatchi and Saatchi said in his book Whatever You Think, Think The Opposite:

People who create work that fashionable people emulate do the very opposite of what is in fashion. They create something unfashionable, out of time, wrong. Original ideas are created by original people, people who either through instinct or insight know the value of being different and recognise the commonplace as a dangerous place to be.

So do you want to be fashionable or unfashionable?

Keeping Your Creative Mojo

In this article Mary Beth Maziarz proposes nine ways to “screw up your creative mojo”. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we inevitably find ourselves in a bit of a creative cul-de-sac that we feel unable to get out of. At times like this, or just as a way of approaching our work from a new angle, it helps to try and bring some creative, right-brained, thinking to problem solving. Here’s how Mary’s creativity tips might apply to the world of architecture.

  1. Collect the pieces when they come. Solutions to problems rarely arrive fully formed and on-demand. Sometimes solutions to problems arrive at inopportune times. We have enough digital devices at our disposal these days never to have the excuse of not capturing those thoughts as they occur whether it be in the middle of the night or when out walking the dog.
  2. Stop talking and do it. Architects, especially it seems, are very good at talking around all aspects of a problem endlessly. Sometimes you just have to get on and do it. If you are not sure about something use prototypes or proofs of concept to help crystallize your ideas.
  3. Decide the time is now. Architecture is all about compromise. The role of the architect is, as much as anything, about making decisions based on the best information available at the time. Don’t prevaricate endlessly until you have the perfect solution, you never will!
  4. Detach from critical thoughts and circles.You are your own worst critic, there are always many, many reasons for not doing something but usually only one for doing it. Do what you think is right and learn from your mistakes.
  5. Find and believe in your strengths. Not thinking you are clever enough, educated enough or simply having the right level of authority in your organisation can sometimes prevent you from coming out with that great idea.This is about believing in yourself.
  6. Focus your energies. This is about avoiding the distractions and trivia of everyday life (email, filling in that expense form, tweeting you’re in the coffee shop etc) that prevent us from doing our art. Read Steven Presfield’s War of Art (no, this is not written the wrong way round for all you business “warriors” who have read Sun Tzu’s book).
  7. Try anything. Architects tend to be more logical, left-brain thinkers. Reach out to your left-brain to unblock your thoughts and improve your creativity.
  8. Enjoy the journey and your companions. Getting there is part of the fun. Work with others to make the journey more pleasant. Learn from your colleagues (both junior and senior to you) and let them learn from you. Work together, not against each other and reject the cynics and the ne’er-do-well’s.
  9. Be nice to yourself. It’s increasingly difficult these days to justify that long lunchtime walk or afternoon away from the office as proper work. Enjoying yourself (as part of your work) helps those creative juices to flow though.

On Lego, Granularity, Jamie Oliver and Architecture

There’s a TV program running here in the UK called Jamie’s Dream School where the chef, entrepreneur, restaurateur and Sainsbury’s promoter Jamie Oliver brings together some of Britain’s most inspirational individuals (Robert Winston, Simon Callow, Rankin and Rolf Harris to name but four) to see if they can persuade 20 young people who’ve left school with little to show for the experience to give education a second chance. The central theme seems to be one of hands-on student involvement and live demos, the more outrageous the better. The highlight so far being Robert Winston hacking away at rats and pigs with scalpels and a circular saw resulting in several students vomiting in the playground.This set me thinking about how best to demonstrate software architecture to a bunch of students of a similar age to those in the Jamie Oliver program for a talk I gave at a UK university last week. Much has been written about the analogy between LEGO (R) and services (see this article from Zapthink and another from ZDNet for example). Okay it may not be quite as imaginative as pig carcasses being hacked about but LEGO was the best I had at hand! Here’s how the demo works:

  1. First I give them my favourite defnition of architecture, namely: Architects take existing components and assemble them in interesting and important ways. (Seth Godin).
  2. Then I invite an unsuspecting candidate to come and assemble the body (importantly excluding the wheels) of a car out of LEGO (actually Duplo as its bigger) making a big thing of tipping a bag of bricks out onto the table. This they usually do without too much hassle, the key learning point being that they have created an “interesting” construct out of “existing components”.
  3. I then ask them to add some wheels and tip out a bag of K’NEX (R). As I’m sure even non-parents know K’NEX and LEGO are essentially different “systems” and the two don’t (easily) connect to each other. This usually ends up in bemused looks and a good deal of fiddling around with wheels and bricks trying to figure out how to make the two systems connect to each other.

Depending on how much time and energy you have as well as the attention span of the students there are lots of great learning points to be made here. In order of increasing depth these are:

  1. LEGO (components) have a well defined interface and can easily be assembled in lots of interesting ways.
  2. K’NEX is a different system and has been designed with a different interface. K’NEX and LEGO were not designed to work with each other. One of the jobs of an architect is to watch out for incompatible interfaces and figure out ways of making them work with each other. This is possibly done using a third party product e.g Sellotape (R). I guess an extension to this demo could be a roll of this.
  3. It may be in the component providers interest to use different interfaces as it results in vendor lock-in which means you have to keep going back to that vendor for more components,
  4. Granularity (i.e. in the case of LEGO the number of “nobbles”) is important. Small bricks (few nobbles, fine-grained) may be very reusable but you need lots and lots of them to do anything interesting. Conversely LEGO have now taken to quite specialized pieces (not “bricks” any more but large-grained pieces) that perform one function well (the LEGO rocket for example) but cannot be reused so easily. The optimum for re-usability is somewhere in-between these two.
  5. LEGO may be aimed at children who, with relatively little expertise or training, may be able to assemble interesting things but they are not about to build LEGOland. For that you need an architect!
  6. Finally, if you are feeling really mean, disassemble the lovingly built construction of your student then ask her to re-build it in exactly the same way. Chances are that even for a relatively simple system they won’t be able to. What might have helped was some type of document that described what they had done.

I’m sure there are other interesting analogies to be drawn but I’ll finish by saying that this is not quite as trivial as it sounds. Not only was this a good learning exercise for my students I happen to know a client who is using building blocks like LEGO to help their architects architect systems. The key thing it helps demonstrate is the importance of collaboration in assembling such systems.

Versatilism and Wicked Problems

The world is full of wicked problems. As stated previously a wicked problem is one that is:

  • Unique
  • Difficult to define
  • Linked to other problems
  • Not always clear when its been solved

Some wicked problems can benefit from the reasoned application of information technology to help in solving them. Solving wicked problems needs an innovative approach and the use of design thinking. A versatilist is someone who knows how to apply design thinking and can orchestrate the skills of multiple disciplines in solving wicked problems. A versatilist is also someone who:

  • Applies both left (logical) and right (artistic) brain thinking to the problem.
  • Uses rapid prototyping to test out solutions.
  • Understands that everything is connected to everything else and that sometimes solving one problem results in many more.
  • Is not afraid to disrupt the status quo and risk ridicule from his peers.
  • Is not afraid to propose a solution to a problem before the problem is completely understood.
  • Iterates (maybe many times) rather than expecting to arrive at a solution following a (simple-minded) analysis of the problem.

The world needs more versatilists if we are to solve the truly wicked problems. Solving wicked problems is one of the things we must do if we are to build a Smarter Planet.

Why Didn’t I Do That?

You know how annoying it is when someone does something that is so blindingly obvious in retrospect you ask yourself the question “why didn’t I do that”? I’m convinced that the next big thing is not going to be the invention of something radically new but rather a new use of some of the tools we already have. When Tim Berners-Lee invented the world-wide web he didn’t create anything new. Internet protocols, mark-up languages and the idea of hypertext already existed. He just took them and put them together in a radically new way. What was the flash of inspiration that led to this and why did he do it and not someone else? After all that is basically the job of a Solution Architect, to apply technology in new and innovative ways that address business problems. So why did Tim Berners-Lee invent the world-wide web and not you, I or any of the companies we work for? Here are some observations thoughts.

  1. Tim had a clear idea of what he was trying to do. If you look at the paper Berners-Lee wrote, proposing what became the world-wide web, the first thing you’ll see it has a very clear statement of what it is he’s trying to do. Here is his statement of the problem he’s trying to solve together with an idea for the solution: Many of the discussions of the future at CERN and the LHC era end with the questions – “Yes, but how will we ever keep track of such a large project?” This proposal provides an answer to such questions. Firstly, it discusses the problem of information access at CERN. Then, it introduces the idea of linked information systems, and compares them with less flexible ways of finding information. It then summarise my short experience with non-linear text systems known as “hypertext”, describes what CERN needs from such a system, and what industry may provide. Finally, it suggests steps we should take to involve ourselves with hypertext now, so that individually and collectively we may understand what we are creating. Conclusion: Having a very idea or vision of what it is you are trying do helps focus the mind wonderfully and also helps to avoid woolly thinking. Even better is to give yourself a (realistic but aggressive) timescale in which to come up with a solution.
  2. Tim knew how to write a mean architecture document. The paper describing the idea behind what we now call “the web” (Information Management: A Proposal) is a masterpiece in understated simplicity. As well as the clear statement on what the problem is the paper goes on to describe the requirements that such an information management system should have as well as the solution, captured in a few beautifully simple architecture overview diagrams. I think this paper is a lesson to all of us in what a good architectural deliverable should be.
  3. Tim didn’t give up. In his book Weaving the Web Berners-Lee describes how he had a couple of abortive attempts at convincing his superiors of the need for his proposal for an information management system. Conclusion: Having a great idea is one thing. If you can’t explain that idea to others who, for example have the money to fund it, then you may as well not have that idea. Sometimes getting your explanation right takes time and a few attempts. The moral here is don’t give up. Learn from your failures and try again. It will test your perseverance and the faith you have in your idea but that is probably what you need to convince yourself it’s worth doing.
  4. Tim prototyped. Part of how Tim convinced people of the worth of what he was doing was to build a credible prototype of what it was he wanted to do. Tim was a C programmer and used his NeXT computer to build a working system of what it was he wanted to do. He actively encouraged his colleagues to use his prototype to get them to buy into his idea. Having a set of users already in place who are convinced by what you are doing, is one sure fire way of promoting the worth of your new system.
  5. Tim gave it all away. In may ways this is the most incredible thing of all about what Tim Berners-Lee did with the web; he gave it all away. Imagine if he patented his idea and took a ‘cut’ which gave him 0.00001¢ every time someone did a search or hit a page (I don’t know if this is legally possible, I’m no lawyer, but you get the idea). He would be fabulously rich beyond any of our most wildest dreams! And yet he (and indeed CERN) decided not to go down this path. This has surely got to be one of the all time most altruistic actions that anyone has ever taken.

The Three C’s of IT Architects

This is a completely unscientific observation but over the years of being an architect I have observed the following characteristics in people that claim to be members of this profession.  I refer to these as the three C’s of being an IT architect. Some people have only one of these but most have a mix of all three, with maybe one being dominant. The three C’s are: 

  • Creatives – These are the ideas people, that are keen to do new stuff. They are the people that build the solutions that address the business requirements. They have an intimate knowledge of technology (in their particular area of interest or concern) and want to use that technology. If you don’t have these people in your project/team/organisation then nothing will actually get done. The downside of having too much of this attribute is that eventually you have to stop creating and ship something so you need to know when to stop. 
  • Consumers – These are the people that use what the creatives create. Whilst they may not create anything new this type of architect is not without merit. They often combine what others have done in new and innovative ways. We sometimes refer to this activity as reuse, one of the Holy Grails of IT so it is not to be underestimated. If you don’t have these people in your project/team/organisation then chances are the ideas from the creatives will not get fully realised. The downside of having too much of this attribute is that there is a limit to what you can build out of reusing stuff and eventually someone has to come up with some new ideas. 
  • Connectors – These are the people that don’t create or reuse but know people that can do these things and join the two together. Again this is not to be an underestimated skill. After all if a seller cannot find a buyer what’s the point! If you don’t have these people in your project/team/organisation then the two previous types won’t find each other. The downside of having too much of this attribute is that you ain’t going to do anything if all you do is push ideas of others around without creating or reusing things.

From my observations I reckon a ratio of Creatives to Consumers to Connectors needs to be something like 4:2:1.

Incidentally, my guess is that these actually apply to other professions as well but I have even less scientific evidence about those.