The Universal Yardstick: Creating a Vision – Software Development by Oral Tradition

One of my favorite terms about software projects is the notion of “progressive elaboration”: software development, as a knowledge-acquiring activity, requires an approach where we over and over again refine what we do: what we do in development, how the UI looks, which languages and locales to support, how to handle roll-out and documentation and testing and a hundred other things. In order not to end up in an infinite loop, the first thing we need in any software project is a vision that guides everything else we do. Of course, that vision should not just be in one head, it should be shared across the entire project team so that it can guide and coordinate all the activities of the entire team.

Every management consultant will tell you a lot about how to distinguish a powerful vision from a weak one. But few can tell you how to create one.

Now… let’s look at some absurdly simple ideas following the spirit of oral tradition.

Before we begin, I’d like to point something out, something so obvious that most people miss it.

There is no vision without inspiration.

So, if it doesn’t inspire, it’s not a vision. It may be a goal, an objective, a task, science fiction, who knows. But we want, what we truly we want is something inspiring.

Let’s take the famous phrase “… landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth” – people still get goosebumps from hearing that, more than fifty years later. That’s not because Kennedy has created a S.M.A.R.T. goal. He has, but there are many S.M.A.R.T. goals that are plain useless. Kennedy was awe-inspiring because he hit the fine line between ambitious and ludicrous.

Not everybody has the resources of an entire nation at his disposition. The other day, a friend of mine invited his neighbour’s five-year-old daugther to bake a cake – alone, for the first time in her life. The girl was fired-up. Inspired. Enthusiastic. Energized. Impatient. For a five-year-old, this was awe-inspiring.

The other day, when a friend told me where the sweet spot is for changing how medical images are managed, it was like “WOW!” – the idea is of such a simple beauty. And at the same time, there is so much to do, so what are we waiting for? Let’s get going! And before we knew it, we had the first prototype, which encouraged us even more.

Everybody has his own sources of inspiration, his own passions. First thought, best thought: When thinking about your current project – which aspect of it are you passionate about? (If the answer is “none”: Have you ever heard of “Love it, change it, leave it”?)

If you are not inspired yourself, you will not inspire others. You go first!

In our modern, professional lives, we (especially here in Germany) are trained to be “professional”, and many people take that to include: “free from emotions”. But eventually, it’s our emotions that drive perfect performance. In our own work, in inspiring, motivating, energizing others, and in focussing everybody’s work so that the whole becomes more than the sum of the parts.

When was the last time you were really inspired? How did it feel? You want that feeling back, don’t you?

To cut a long story short, we are all equipped with an infallible compass towards an exciting vision: our own passion. By the way, the best catalyst to find your vision is somebody who asks questions. Intelligent questions are as useful as absurd questions, silly questions as useful as smart questions. That’s because questions demand our mind to deliver an answer, whether we reveal it or not.

So here’s a piece of oral tradition for developing a great vision: Talk about it, with as many people as you can, and then some. Absorb their questions, absorb their feedback, utilize it to enrich your vision. All the consultants’ advice… most of the consultants’ advice is helping you to make those discussions more and more inspiring. How can you tell whether you’re following “good” advice? Very simple: when following a certain style of discussion increases your inspiration as well as that of your audience, you are on the right track.
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