A question I sometimes get from executives when I showing them where key insights, innovations, and breakthrough occurred on projects is: “That’s great. But why didn’t you just plan a little more and discover those before you started the project?”
I get where they are coming from. They want certainty in an upfront plan. They don’t want any surprises. And they want their software projects to execute just like the power plants and factories they’re use to building.
Except software doesn’t work like that.
You can’t plan the upfront learning that comes from iterating a product or service with a customer, and helping them discover what they really want.
Some customers can tell exactly what they want. But many others don’t. They know they have a need. But they don’t know what is possible, or how to get there.
It reminds me of this story about pottery making (from the book “Art and Fear”).
The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups.
All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality.
His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: 50 pounds of pots rated an “A”, 40 pounds a “B”, and so on.
Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot — albeit a perfect one — to get an “A”.
Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity.
It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work-and learning from their mistakes — the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.
So by all means plan. But don’t count on planning alone to get you there. The best results come from building, iterating, and learning. And you can’t plan that.