Art, Creativity and the Tyranny of the Timesheet

Apparently lawyers are some of the glummest groups of professionals out there! One of the reasons for this is the very nature of their profession; it’s usually a “zero-sum” game, if somebody wins someone else loses (and in extreme cases loses their life). Another theory, put forward by Dan Pink in his book Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, is that lawyers have to deal with one of the most “autonomy crushing mechanisms imaginable – the billable hour”. Lawyers have to keep careful track of every hour they spend, sometime to the level of granularity of six minute time chunks, so they can bill their time to the correct client. As a result their focus inevitably shifts to from the quality of the work they do (their output) to how they measure that work (its input). Essentially a lawyers reward comes from time, the more hours they bill, the higher their (or their legal practices) income. In today’s world it is hard to think of a worse way to ensure people do high quality and creative work than making them fill in a timesheet detailing everything they do.

Unfortunately the concept of the billable hour is now firmly embedded into other professions, including the one I work in, IT consulting. As IT companies have moved from selling hardware to software that runs on that hardware and then to providing consulting services to build systems made up of hardware and software they have had to look for different ways of charging for what they do. Unfortunately they have taken the easy option of the billable hour, something that the company accountants can easily measure and penalise people for if they don’t achieve their billable hours every week, month or year.

The problem with this of course is that innovation and creativity does not come in six minute chunks. Imagine if the inventors of some of the most innovative software architecture (Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook) had to bill their time. When such people wake up in the middle of the night with a great idea that would solve their clients business problem what’s the first thing they reach for: a notebook to record the idea before its gone or a spreadsheet to record their time so they can bill it to the client!

As Dan Pink says, the billable hour is, or should be, a relic of the old economy where routine tasks (putting doors on cars, sewing designer jeans or putting widgets into boxes) had tight coupling between how much effort goes in and the work that comes out. In the old economy where a days work equaled a days pay and you were a day laborer you essentially sold out to the highest bidder. Isn’t what we do worth more than that? As Seth Godin points out “the moment you are willing to sell your time for money is the moment you cease to be the artist you’re capable of being”.

But what’s the alternative? Clearly IT consulting firms need to be able to charge clients for their work; they’re not charities after all. Here are my thoughts on alternatives to the tyranny of the timesheet which enable the art and creativity in building IT systems to flourish.

  1. Start with the assumption that most people want to do good work and incentivise them on the work products they create rather than the work inputs (time recorded).
  2. Recognise that creativity does not fit nicely into a 9 – 5 day. It can happen at any time. Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert) has his most creative time between 5am and 9am so is just finishing his work when the rest of us are starting. Creative people need to be allowed to work when they are at their most creative, not when company accountants say they should.
  3. When charging clients for work agree on what will be delivered by when and then build the right team to deliver (a team of shippers not time keepers). Of course this gives company lawyers a nightmare because they get involved in endless tangles with clients about what constitutes a deliverable and when it is complete (or not). Maybe giving lawyers a creative problem to solve will cheer them up though.
  4. Give people time-out to do their own thing and just see what happens. Google famously give their employees 20% time where they are allowed to spend a day working on their own projects. A number of google applications (including gmail) were invented by people doing their own thing.
  5. Allow people to spend time having interactions outside their immediate work groups (and preferably outside their company). Innovative ideas come from many sources and people should be allowed to discover as many new sources as possible. If someone wants to spend half-a-day walking round an art gallery rather than sitting at their desk, why not? Frank Gehry allegedly got his idea for the shape of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao from Picasso’s cubist paintings.

In the new economy, the conceptual age where creativity and versatilism is the order of the day the timesheet should be firmly assigned to the shredder and people should be treated as innovaters not just cogs in the big corporate machine.

How Not to Create Artitecture

Following on from my previous post what should we do if we just want to create a SOA (same old architecture) rather than a TOA (totally outrageous artitecture)? Here are five things you should do if you want average rather than exceptional architectures (anti-patterns for ineffective architecture if you like):

  1. Focus on what your employer wants you to do (your job) rather than what your client wants you to do (your work). How much time is the project team spending excessively networking obsessing over recording data that is not project related and of dubious use anyway or attending endless meetings which don’t have a clear agenda or any useful outcome.
  2. Start committees instead of taking action. Like most things in life the best architectures don’t come from committees but come from the focussed efforts of a small team of architects. Sometime that small team can be just one person (consider Tim Berners-Lee’s world-wide web or Ray Ozzie’s Lotus Notes). Committees (we call them Design Authorities in technical circles) may have their place when multiple stakeholders need to be bought together but don’t confuse governance (i.e. controlling the steady-state) with design (i.e. initiating a change of state). Unfortunately there is safety in committees where there is no single person responsible for decisions and no one individual can be blamed when something goes wrong.
  3. Create a culture of blame and negative criticism where everyone has to watch their back. Many people on projects interact with others as though they are better than their peers or want to teach them a lesson. Others assign motivations and plots where there are none. Still others criticise anyone who is doing something differently from the norm. Mistakes happen and are usually the result of a series of unfortunate events rather than deliberate negligence or dishonesty. Learn from mistake and move on.
  4. Stop people from learning. Not allowing or fostering a learning culture is probably one of the gravest crimes that can be committed in the conceptual age. Learning does not just have to come from attending classroom based courses (or the dreaded “online training”) but should come from everything we do. Treat every type of interaction with a person (talking to them, reading their blog or whatever) as an opportunity to learn something new.
  5. Produce overly complex and outlandish work products. The problem with many delivery processes is that they can demand large numbers of work products that, when taken literally, will pull the team down into a never ending spiral of “document production” where every deliverable has to be signed off before progress can be made. Delivery processes and the work products they produce should be highly customised to the projects needs not the needs of stakeholders that demand huge volumes of written material which no one needs let alone reads.

Not having any/all of these is not a cast-iron guarantee you will succeed in building great systems based on innovative architectures but having them will certainly ensure you have architectures not artitectures.

On Being an Artitect

My mum, who just turned 85 this month, mispronounces the word architect. She says “artitect” where a “t” replaces the “ch”. I’ve tried to put her right on this a few times but I’ve just finished reading the book by Seth Godin called “Linchpin – Are You Indispensable?” and decided that actually she’s probably been pronouncing the word right after all. I’ve decided that the key bit she’s got right and I (and all of the rest of us haven’t) is the “art” bit. Let me explain why.

The thrust of Seth’s book is that to survive in today’s world of work you have to bring a completely different approach to the way you do that work. In other words you have to be an artist. You have to create things that others can’t or won’t because they just do what they are told not what they think could be the right creative approach to building something that is radically new. Before I proceed much further with this thread I guess we need to define what we mean by artist in this context. I like this from Seth’s book:

An artist is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity and boldness to challenge the status-quo. And an artist takes it personally.

As to what artists create:

Art isn’t only a painting. Art is anything that is creative, passionate and personal.

I’d also add something like “and changes the world for the better” to that last statement otherwise I think that some fairly dodgy activities might pass for art as well (or maybe even that is my lizard brain kicking in, see below).

Of course that’s not to say that you shouldn’t learn the basics of your craft whether you are a surgeon, a programmer or a barista in a coffee shop. Instead you should learn them but then forget them because after that they will hold you back. Picasso was a great “classical” artist. In other words he knew how to create art that would have looked perfectly respectable in traditional parts of the art galleries of the world where all the great masters work is displayed that follows the literal interpretation of the world. However once he had mastered that he threw the rule book out completely and started to create art that no one else had dared to do and changed the art-world forever.

So an artitect (rather than an architect) is someone who uses creativity, insight, breadth of vision and passion to create architectures (or even artitectures) that are new and different in someway that meet the challenges laid down for it, and then some.

Here are the five characteristics that I see a good artitect as having:

  1. Artitects are always creating new “mixes”. Some of the best IT architects I know tell me how they are creating new solutions to problems by pulling together software components and making them work together in interesting and new ways. Probably one of the greatest IT architects of all time – Tim Berners-Lee who invented the world-wide web – actually used a mix of three technologies and ideas that were already out there. Markup languages, the transmission control protocol (TCP) and hypertext. What Tim did was to put them together in quite literally a world-changing way.
  2. Artitects don’t follow the process in the manual, instead they write the manual. If you find yourself climbing the steps that someone else has already carved out then guess what, you’ll end up in the same place as everyone else, not somewhere that’s new and exciting.
  3. Artitects look at problems in a radically different way to everyone else. They try to find a completely different viewpoint that others won’t have seen and to build a solution around that. I liken this to a great photograph that takes a view that others have seen a thousand times before and puts a completely different spin on it either by standing in a different place, using a different type of lens or getting creative in the photo-editing stage.
  4. Artitects are not afraid to make mistakes or to receive ridicule from their peers and colleagues. Instead they positively thrive on it. Today you will probably have tens or even hundreds of ideas for solutions to problems pop into your head and pop straight out again because internally you are rejecting them as not been the “right approach”. What if instead of allowing your lizard brain (that is the part of your brain that evolved first and kept you safe on the savanna when you could easily get eaten by a sabre-toothed tiger) to have its say you wrote those ideas down and actually tried out a few? Nine out of ten or 99 out of a 100 of them might fail causing some laughter from your peers but the one that doesn’t could be great! Maybe even the next world-wide web?
  5. Artitects are always seeking out new ideas and new approaches from unlikely places. They don’t just seek out inspiration from the usual places that their profession demands but go to places and look to meet people in completely different disciplines. For new ideas talk to “proper” artists, real architects or maybe even accountants!!!

Perhaps from now on we should all do a bit less architecture and a bit more artitecture?

Software Complexity and the Breakdown of Civilisation

Clay Shirky has written a great entry on his blog called The Collapse of Complex Business Models which has set me thinking about the whole issue around complexity; especially as it applies to complex software systems.The article uses Joseph Tainter’s book called The Collapse of Complex Societies for the basis of its premise. In that book Tainter looked at various ancient, sophisticated societies that suddenly collapsed (the Romans and the Maya for example). Tainter postulated that these societies “hadn’t collapsed despite their cultural sophistication, they’d collapsed because of it”. His theory was that as societies become more organised and efficient they find themselves with a surplus of resources and managing this surplus makes the society more complex. The spare resources go more into “gilding the lily” than creating what is strictly required. Early on the value of this complexity is positive and often pays for itself in improved output. Over time however the law of diminishing returns reduces this value and eventually disappears completely at which point any additional complexity is pure cost. The society has then reached a tipping point and when some unexpected stress occurs it has become too inflexible to respond. As Tainter says when “the society fails to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t”.

Shirky’s theory is that today, the internet means many businesses are facing similar challenges: adapt to a new way of working or die. In particular the media industry is failing to recognise it has built hugely complicated edifices around the production of media (that’s TV, movies, newspapers and music) that the internet is wiping away. Media execs like Rupert Murdoch are looking for ways of maintaining their status quo by just using the internet as a new delivery channel which allows them to continue with their current, costly and complex, business models. What they don’t realise is that the internet has changed fundamentally the way the media industry works with practically zero production and delivery costs and unless they change their complex and expensive ways the old order will die out.

So what’s this got to do with software systems? Although we might think the systems we are building today are complex we are about to start building a level of complexity that is an order of magnitude (at least) above what it is today. If we are to address some of the worlds really wicked problems then we need to make systems that are not just the siloed systems we have today but that are systems-of-systems interconnected in ways we cannot yet imagine or envisage. Whilst such interconnected systems might enable collaborations that help solve problems we should remain aware that we are adding new levels of complexity that may be hard to manage and even harder to do without if we ever hit some unexpected “stress” situation. In 1964, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke wrote a short story called “Dial F for Frankenstein”. In the story the phone network (this was before the internet had even been thought of although, interestingly Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web, suggested this was the story that anticipated that technology) had become so large and complex it was effectively a giant brain that becomes self-aware. Not only could it not be turned off, it started to think and eventually took over the world! Clarke himself even says “Dial F for Frankenstein is dated now because you no longer dial of course, and if I did it now it wouldn’t be the world’s telephone system it would be the internet. And that of course is a real possibility. When will the internet suddenly take over?”

We should be very aware therefore, if we are to learn anything from the history of those ancient civilisations, that adding more and more complexity to our systems is not without cost or risk. Although in the short-term we may reap rewards, in the longer terms we may yet regret some of the actions we are about to take and therefore make sure we remember to provide an on/off switch for these systems!