No-code product development

Anyone familiar with product development should recognise the image below. It’s a schematic for a start-up idea I was working on several years ago – for an employee engagement, reward and recognition app. It was the result of a number of workshops with a digital agency covering problem statements, user scenarios, workflow solutions, personas, UX/UI design and back-end architecture frameworks.

At the time, the cost quoted to build the MVP was easily 5-6 figures – and even to get to that point still required a load of work on story boards, wire frames and clickable prototypes….

Now, I would expect the developers to use something like a combination of open-source and low-cost software applications to manage the middle-ware functions, dial-up a basic cloud server to host the database and connect to external APIs, and commission a web designer to build a dedicated front-end. (I’m not a developer, programmer or coder, so apologies for any glaring errors in my assumptions…)

The growth in self-serve SaaS platforms, public APIs and low-cost hosting solutions (plus the plethora of design marketplaces) should mean that a developer can build an MVP for a tenth of the cost we were quoted.

Hence the interest in “low-code/no-code” product development, and the use of modular components or stack to build a range of repetitive, automated and small scale applications. (For a dev’s perspective check out Martin Slaney’s article, and for a list of useful resources see Ellen Merryweather’s post from earlier this year.)

There are obvious limitations to this approach: anything too complex, too custom, or which needs to scale quickly may break the model. Equally, stringing together a set of black boxes/off-the-shelf solutions might not work, if there are unforeseen incompatibilities or programming conflicts – especially if one component is upgraded, and there are unknown inter-dependencies that impact the other links in the chain. Which means the product development process will need to ensure a layer of code audits and test environments before deploying into production.

I was reflecting on the benefits and challenges of hermetically sealed operating systems and software programs over the weekend. In trying to downgrade my operating system (so that I could run some legacy third-party applications that no longer work thanks to some recent systems and software “upgrades”), I encountered various challenges, and it took several attempts and a couple of workarounds. The biggest problem was the lack of anything to guide me in advance – that by making certain changes to the system settings, or configuring the software a certain way, either this app or that function wouldn’t work. Also, because each component (the operating system, the software program and the third party applications) wants to defend its own turf within my device, they don’t always play nicely together in a way that the end user wants to deploy them in a single environment.

App interoperability is something that continues to frustrate when it comes to so-called systems or software upgrades. It feels like there needs to be a specialist area of product development that can better identify, mitigate and resolve potential tech debt, as well as navigate the product development maintenance schedule in anticipation of future upgrades and their likely impact, or understand the opportunities for retrofitting and keeping legacy apps current. I see too many app developers abandoning their projects because it’s just too hard to reconfigure for the latest system changes.

Next week: Telstar!

 

 

 

Social Distancing in Victorian Melbourne…

At the time of writing Victorians, like most of Australia, are living under a Covid19 “stay at home and practise social distancing” regime in attempt to “flatten the curve” and reduce the spread of this contagion. I have been working from home for 3 weeks, only going out for essential food shopping and a daily walk for exercise (since my gym is closed). This perambulation has revealed some lesser-seen aspects of Melbourne (apart from the empty streets), including the way the modern city’s 19th century founders went about their approach to urban design – including some examples of built-in social distancing.

The first example is the number of public parks and gardens close to the CBD that were established in the 1800s, and which have managed to survive the onslaught of developers. As we know, public parks, with their trees and green spaces act as the lungs of the city, and provide a place to exercise, relax and get some fresh air. So we need these facilities more than ever in times like these. (Strange why the Victorian Government still insists in allowing vehicles to use the culturally and historically significant Yarra Park as a public car park on so many days, with all the horticultural and environmental damage that this causes…)

Second, the decision to incorporate lane-ways into the grid design of the CBD, as well as throughout the 19th century expansion of the inner city suburbs. While their design was mainly pragmatic (ease of access for night carts, storm drainage), the result is that in densely-built areas such as Richmond, Carlton, East Melbourne, Fitzroy and Collingwood, lane-ways mean even terraced houses can have ample space between them and the next block, allowing for better ventilation, natural light and reduced risk of disease. (For an example of the lane-ways importance to Melbourne’s character and psyche, check out Daniel Crooks’ video, “An Embroidery of Voids”.)

Third, the decision not to build right up to the urban banks of the Yarra River (and the straightening and leveling of the river itself) has left them accessible to the public, both as a means of cycling and walking to/from work, and for recreational purposes. In many cities, riverfront access has largely been blocked off as adjacent land has been appropriated for private, commercial and industrial use.

At a time like this, I truly appreciate the foresight of Melbourne’s Victorian town planners – I just hope we can continue to enjoy their legacy in the coming weeks and months!

Next week: #Rona19 – beyond the memes

 

The Day of the Mavericks – the importance of intrapreneurship

As part of my notes on Melbourne’s recent Startup Week, I mentioned an interesting discussion on “innovation from within”, and the importance of intrapreneurship. There has been a steady stream of articles on the rise of intrapreneurship, an often overlooked skill set or resource that all organisations need to tap into, harness and deploy successfully. But what does it take to be an intrapreneur, and where can we find them?

Idea Machine - image sourced from Vocoli

Idea Machine – image sourced from Vocoli

The panel discussion on “Innovation from the inside out” was mostly about what leaders are doing to foster entrepreneurial-thinking from within their own organisations, featuring Janet Egber (NabLabs), Phil Harkness (EY), Martin Kennedy (GE) and Liza Noonan (CSIRO). Much of this effort revolves around connecting individual purpose with collective purpose (team, organisation, society). For example, at EY, there is a program to “promote purpose-led transformation, grounded in humanity and a call to action”, while GE also places importance on purpose. CSIRO, meanwhile, is clearly undergoing some huge transformational change of its own, with a key focus on “making the treasure chest of ideas happen.” (For a couple of related blogs, see here and here.)

When asked about how to incentivize intrapreneurship, and how to prioritise efforts, Liza Noonan was of the view that the “grass-roots” of the organisation “give us permission” to pursue particular projects. While Phil Harkness talked about the need to develop appropriate career paths, and the importance of change management engagement.

In my own experience, intrapreneurs are likely to display a healthy mix of the following characteristics:

Curiosity – This is critical. If you don’t display any interest in what is going on around you;  if you don’t think about how things could be done differently, better or more effectively; or if you don’t care about how things work, you are unlikely to discover anything new or uncover new business opportunities. This is not only about formal technical skills, this is also about personal outlook. It’s not intended to be disruptive, but maverick thinking is often what gets results.

Creativity – While I am not a big fan of formulaic management methodologies, I do see some value in certain aspects of the Six Hats model – of which Green for Creative Thinking is key here. As well as being a vital part of ideation and innovation, having a creative mindset (coupled with innate curiosity) is essential to problem solving – especially when it comes to “what if?” scenarios, and joining the dots between seemingly disparate data.

Commercial – Intrapreneurs don’t need to be financial wizards, or be the best sales people – but they need to be grounded in the commercial realities of how businesses work, how markets develop, what customers think, and what it takes to launch a new product or service. Being open and receptive to customer feedback is essential, along with an ability to manage solution sales and consultative selling.

Uncertainty – Being comfortable with uncertainty, and learning to be resilient, flexible and adaptive are essential to the intrapreneurial mindset. This may include a different approach to risk/reward models, as well as being able to look beyond the normal business plan cycle into the “unknown” of the future.

Scepticism – Having a healthy degree of doubt and not falling prey to over-optimism can help to manage expectations and enthusiasm built on irrational exuberance. We know most new ideas never get off the whiteboard (which is OK!), so the skill is to challenge everything until proven, but in a constructive, pro-active and collaborative way.

The key to intrapreneurship is being able to find your role or niche in the organisation, from where you can develop your expertise, establish your influence and build a foundation for solid outcomes. While at times it can feel a bit like “right person, right place, right time”, there are strategic steps you can take to manage your own career as an intraprenuer, including networking, self-directed learning, volunteering for new projects and taking responsibility for fixing things when they go wrong, even if they are outside your immediate responsibilities. It’s these sorts of behaviours that get noticed.

I know from personal experience that being curious and asking the right questions can lead to exciting new opportunities (in my case, six years in Hong Kong to establish a greenfield business). I also value the advice of a senior colleague soon after I joined an organisation: “You need to be part of the solution, not be part of the problem” when it comes to organisational change. And some of the best indirect feedback I ever received was from a colleague who introduced me to a new hire: “This is Rory, he’s our lateral thinker”.

Finally, it’s not always easy or comfortable to challenge the status quo from within (which is what a lot of intrapreneurship involves). Intrapreneurship can also feel lonely at times, which is why it’s vital to make the right connections and build sustainable relationships because, in army terms, you don’t want to get a reputation for being part of the “awkward squad”.

Next week: “Language is a virus” – a look at coding skills

Re-Imagining Human-led #Innovation

Following my previous blog on Innovation, I recently participated in an on-line forum on the Future of Innovation, hosted by Re-Imagi, and facilitated by Jesper Christiansen from NESTA, a UK-based think-tank. You can read about it here, including the infographic output of the discussion. As a result of working with my fellow Re-Imagineers, I developed some ideas on what I call the “Innovation Dichotomy”, which I shared last week at an Re-Imagi event on the Future of Financial Services, hosted at NAB Village in Melbourne.

Screen Shot 2016-08-07 at 3.03.52 PMThe Innovation Dichotomy revolves around an over-emphasis on technology, as illustrated by the following:

  1. Innovation is heavily tech-led, but design thinking is very much human centred and is all about mapping people’s’ needs;
  2. Innovation is often based on digital disruption, and is mostly about devaluing existing processes, de-layering management levels, and increased automation; and yet human skills (cognition, empathy, client-facing, service delivery) are going to be in increasing demand;
  3. Innovation usually happens in tech-labs and silos (external and internal), but it will be people (employees, customers, stakeholders) who actually implement the changes – so there has to engagement through alignment of values and purpose.

And as one of our participants at NAB Village commented, if the organisational culture and communications are not right, any innovation-led change will be destined to fail.

Finally, Re-Imagi will be in Sydney this week, so get in touch if you’d like to find out more: rory@re-imagi.co

Next week: The Day of the Mavericks – the importance of intrapreneurship