Businesses need to look beyond the whiteboard draft and develop systems that will work, not ones that might work, says Colin Beveridge.
Before he discovered sick animals Britain’s favourite Aussie, Rolf Harris, was a homely singer with a penchant for painting large-scale, mildly amusing pictures using a very large brush and big cans of emulsion paint; all the while keeping up a constant stream of gutteral, but indistinct, noise to accompany his artistic endeavours.
And I think that he must have been a tremendous subliminal influence on computer departments everywhere, because I have regularly seen business-critical systems boldly conceived on whiteboards and flipcharts with exactly the same sort of broad brush-strokes employed by Harris and accompanied by very similar clucking and sucking noises.
Believe it or not, in my experience that’s really how many companies still evolve their business systems. And what we usually get from this process is not so much a work of art, but more of a caricature.
Sadly though this will invariably be a caricature that we will have to live with for the next 10 years, or more. Which isn’t quite so amusing, once the initial novelty of the caricature has worn off.
I would much rather that we have a system design that is an accurate portrait of a business function, even if it takes longer to produce, rather than a slapdash impression that gives particular emphasis only to certain distinctive features of the subject.
Perhaps by now you will have begun to recognise my artistic analogy in your own organisation. You may well have your own portfolio of business system caricatures, masquerading as works of art, that don’t quite represent the original purpose; although you may still be reasonably happy with the situation, comfortable that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
After all, even Leonardo Da Vinci drew cartoons, didn’t he? Long before Harris discovered his Dulux and didgeridoo routine.
Of course, but most of Da Vinci’s cartoons were simply preliminary drawings, executed in pencil and chalks, which were then translated into lasting treasures with oil paints on canvas.
Our problem, however, is that we are too reluctant to develop and discard our early whiteboard drafts; preferring to persist with our quick and dirty first impression – particularly if it is quickly drawn and looks something like the desired object.
That is because the prevailing climate in too many development departments is to design quickly and iteratively, with the emphasis at every stage always being on speed to the keyboard and scarcely a passing thought to an operational flowchart.
Time is money, after all. So rapid progress, albeit in small increments, is more important to us sometimes than the quality of the final design, which is highly likely to be compromised if it takes “too long” to resolve.
The problem is, however, that this seat-of-the-pants approach flies in the face of our declared policy of spending a fortune on design methodologies that leads our investing patrons naturally to expect detailed portraits of their requirements from us. And they may be disappointed if all we deliver is a caricature, painted while they watch bemusedly and we enquire plaintively at intervals: “Can you see what it is yet?”
Maybe we need to start emulating Da Vinci more often and leave Harris to look after the sick goldfish…
Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
This was first published in July 2004