Babylon 5 is a story about two differing philosophies. The Vorlons promote a life of order, stability, and peace. The Shadows promote a life of chaos, destabilization, and conflict. There is a similar philosophical difference in software development.
Hubris of Prescience
Most commercial software projects lean toward a philosophy of order, stability, and peace. Optimism leads to anticipating stable requirements, which would allow for a stable design. This outlook influences management and developers to behave in a particular way. We gain an expectation for requirements and design to be orderly, stable, and for a peaceful progression of events to ensue. Successful methods and techniques are expected to continue to be viable. The products of past investments into research are expected to retain their value with the passage of time. Knowledge of the present incubates confidence in being able to anticipate future needs. This confidence is reinforced by the belief that momentum has longevity. This belief is correct, but not in the way that we would hope for a healthy technology business.
The technology market relies upon continuous innovation. Innovation is about disruptive change. A strategy based on incremental improvement bets on a steady pace of change, where one’s own product is the market leader. Trailing competitors are constantly seeking to impose revolutionary change upon the market to overtake the market leader. If one is not in the lead, then it makes sense to disrupt the market to put oneself in an advantageous position. New markets are created, where old ones are destroyed. Competitive innovation radically alters requirements, thereby invalidating entrenched designs. Disruptive change accelerates demand for technology through obsolescence.
The lure for the market to adopt innovative products is efficiency gain. Gains in efficiency increase productivity or reduce costs – or both. A methodology promoting the entrenchment of a status quo is unable to adapt to an environment of unrelenting disruptive change. In technology, the status quo is precisely what must be destroyed in order to sustain a healthy market. A strategy of maintaining an entrenched design is a strategy of certain failure in the technology market.
Creativity and Renewal
While a life of order, stability, and peace breeds comfort, it also leads to stagnation and complacency. Creative individuals will recognize where the status quo is not good enough. A culture that institutionalizes the status quo cripples creativity, ensuring a disadvantage in relation to the competition, who seeks disruptive change.
Innovation is nurtured by an entrepreneurial spirit. There are several factors that are required to facilitate creative thinking: freedom, motivation, inspiration, and courage. Creativity needs a culture that promotes creative ideas by nurturing independent thinking, not obedience to instructions delivered by management or designated “thought leaders”; individuals will be willing to think if they are entrusted to do so. Motivation comes from achievable goals, incentives, and the rewards of a job well done. Inspiration comes from the growth and enjoyment of working with peers, who demonstrate competencies, which become a source of knowledge. Finally, courage is provided by the willingness to incur risk to achieve the rewards that come from unconventional thought; people who are confident enough in their ability to attempt great things should be encouraged to do so, because overcoming technical problems is daunting enough without the burden of an unsupportive culture.
The key characteristic of a technology business that is prepared for innovation is agility. It must be adaptable quickly to change. It must embrace disruptive change, and use change to its advantage, rather than being resistant or vulnerable to it. This includes a high degree of tolerance for risk, because change is inherently risky, and the more disruptive the greater the risk (and potentially the reward). Innovation opens opportunities, but a business must be able to pounce on an opportunity to benefit.
Until Moore’s Law no longer holds, we can expect innovative growth to continue. Technology innovation and obsolescence is the dominant trend. A technology business that does not institutionalize a culture that embraces disruptive change will not be a business for long.