Daniel Harrison's Personal Blog

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20/20 Vision April 18, 2008

Filed under: development — danielharrison @ 4:53 pm

This weekend downunder there’s a conference called Australia 2020. We have a fresh new government and a group of luminaries will meet in Canberra to discuss what Australia’s future should be.

Will this actually result in anything? The cynic in me, says no. With the range of idea’s that come out it becomes an opportunity to cherry pick those ideas that align with the party of the days policies and then flag that it was done with full community consultation. But maybe I’m wrong. It just strikes me that high level visions are meaningless without a vision as to specifics and how to get there. Maybe the conference needs a followup with how this should be achieved and what it looks like in specifics. I’ll be interested to see the outcomes and see if they devolve into how we’re going to achieve that vision.

I think politicians have a hard task nowdays, vision means putting a concrete view of how things should be up for discussion which provides an immediate option to kick in the media machine on how it’s not practical, it’s not shared by the community, it’s too expensive, … . My feeling generally is the contrarian view is often over reported as groups of people vigorously agreeing doesn’t sell well. For parties to have a specific strong vision as to how something should be done and achieved becomes in a lot of cases a political liability.

I think this tends to self select large visions that are non controversial, eg World Peace, meaningless platitudes. Specific visions mean it can be cut down. It’s possible to discuss it in specifics. The previous Howard government had a vision of workplace reform but the specifics are what eventually brought them down. The high level vision was sold but the vision of how this was to be achieved was not, so when it came and was delivered it shocked alot of people who felt that it unfair and cheated.

Shipping products I think actually has a lot to learn from politics. A high level vision doesn’t a shipping product make. It’s the first step, not the end result. Getting to the stage of a shipped product is ultimately all about the people. If the team doesn’t have a vision and someone that can drive the vision then I think the product is doomed to failure.

Specific vision is hard though. Leadership means not only the ability to have a vision but to get people to adopt the vision as their own and deliver on it. This is a lesson I’ve seen in action and been learning from my companies CTO. (He put me onto the Silicon Valley Product Group articles which has good writing on leadership and people).

Vision is pretty much the thing that turns a small startup into a successful company but is also something that can break it. When a company’s small and a couple of people the vision is strongly shared. It has to be, the reduction of income, long hours mean that the vision is what drives the ability to make sacrifices. When the company starts to grow and acquire employees they’re not required to adopt the vision, you can’t put it in the contract. Vision I think is like one of those communication node problems, for each extra person the vision has to communicate through, the less it is shared and adopted . I hypothesise it’s one of the reasons to keep a flat management structure in product shipping companies. Companies that are successful can ultimately get a group of people to adopt a vision. That makes things happen. People are enthused and do what needs to be done to deliver on it. If the management or the founder can’t get people to adopt and indeed grow the vision then I think it’s ultimately going to be an unsuccessful company.

I was previously a consultant, senior J2EE consultant for a large multinational services company. I left after about 2 years. I was onsite, the applications I was team lead for were interesting, had a vision which I helped deliver with some cool technology, but ultimately I felt that the company as a whole didn’t have a vision (apart from make money), or at least I wasn’t part of it. I think this is a common theme of some of the developers we have in the company I work for. Refugees from services/consulting/contracting in search of a vision. You give up the consulting and contracting rates but you gain a vision and the ability to shape and grow it.

At my work at the moment we’re trying a change to the product development process. Basically it’s a quick spec with some high level scenarios framing the problem. When this actually becomes concrete, we’ve decided it’s worth doing and the resources available we get all the developers, testers, analysts, managers in the room and storyboard and brainstorm ideas. Iterating between the solution and prototyping and more brainstorming. It’s all about building a shared vision and team. The people in the room must be the people doing the work. There’s no over the fence with a solution. The solution and innovation comes about as the team develops the vision for solving the problem. Sounds obvious but getting this to work smoothly can be very challenging. Smart, passionate people mean that disagreement is a natural and expected outcome. Harnessing that into a shared vision that can be focussed like a laser can be a tricky problem. The joke at the moment is well at least we don’t have a problem with passion.

The problem was that all previously this was too disjoint, people would come late to the party and didn’t share the same vision or thought it should change. Because they didn’t own and share the original vision it meant a lot of rework and too much of a over the fence culture which meant while it was a team, there was too much of the developers, testers, documenters, analysts subteams rather than a single focussed team solving a shared problem. Rework for what should be done was too high and meant friction over the vision.

It will be interesting to see how this goes and it’s effectiveness building and shaping vision. The same can be said of the 2020 summit.

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