Beware of Fun & Useful: the Company

In my last blog I described how we need to beware of fun and useful. Using a bleeding edge technology is fun. Combing this with something good (useful) is usually an interesting way to fail. Most new tech doesn’t make it. These forces act on a company too. Let’s dissect that contradiction and see how we instead of giving up can take advantage of them.

We have two dimensions here – fun and useful. What do the quadrants mean? What type of companies (or projects) do we find?

Diagram: X-axis moves from useless to useful. Y goes from boring to cutting edge (which is usually fun).

First; Let us examine the aspects of fun and useful.

Useful

Often I find that people view the word useful as in ”good data to have” or ”good tool in itself”. I argue that we should instead define it as ”have a good effect or outcome”. It doesn’t matter if it is ”good” to collect some data if it isn’t used to some goal. A person or system need to use and take some decision or action based on that particular piece of information. In other words, it has to have an effect on the organisation or in reality to be useful. The same thinking applies to features, processes or functions.

In many cases, I find that people design systems or applications because they can. We settle for the more easy question; Is this good data/feature? We should answer what effect it can have.

Fun

Fun can mean many things to many people. I regard ”bleeding edge” as fun. It is great to explore and learn new things. However, it can hurt, hence the reference to blood. Whatever your definition, I believe that we have an intuitive understanding of fun.

It captures an aspect that is usually somewhat contrary to do useful stuff. Useful can be a product or service that someone is ready to pay for. Having fun is one of the intangibles that affect employees and makes them stay. Likewise, if we find ourselves at the bottom area, things look bleak. You will lose employees, at least when the economy favours switching jobs.

These dimensions make for some interesting analysis of different types of companies.

The Startup

The top right-hand corner is to be feared, at least in general. For some companies like startups, brand new technology offers new ways to solve (old) problems. They could be the cutting edge to out-do product companies stuck further down towards the centre of the diagram.

Apply with caution though. You aren’t selling new technologies per se.

The Consultancy

In my previous blog, I wrote about the individual and why we should be wary of the combination fun and useful. Those or two different goals and usually one of them will suffer given enough time. You’re likely to end up with bug fixing and no fun. The same thinking applies to a consultancy. Just like the individual you will probably go for the high-paying (yeah, right) gig and lose track of that ”useful time reporting tool” that you were working on.

I say we need to focus the fun. You will learn a lot that can be useful on the next gig (without the hangover). Here’s a fun twist; The more useless or outlandish project you tackle, the more newsworthy it might be. That’s good marketing, booth when attracting new customers or coworkers.

The Product Company

As a product company, you know that you will have to live with your decisions. Make the right choices and spend enough time developing your product mean fewer bugs. At the same time, you need to push new features out the market to stay competitive. Going back and fixing or improving can be a difficult choice, especially if you’re management. Over time the technical debt builds up. Your technology is probably already gathering dust as I write this. What once was the promising edge of choices slowly drifts to the bottom of the diagram (see red arrow). Your tech is now less fun. To make things worse; A competitor launched a great new feature. You drift to the left. Ouch.

What to do?

Recruit a junior

The easiest and fastest way is to hire some new people with potential. Go for someone junior where your tech is a step forward. After all, fun is a relative measure. Your seniors can teach the newcomer how things work and in good time hand over some of the responsibilities.

Divide and improve

The next step, which usually takes more work, is to develop your product. Divide it into areas where you can employ some new tech. Put it into your senior staff’s hands. It will be new plus fun stuff to do. Maybe you even can leapfrog your competition?

Of course, we can imagine more steps to help us. The point is that we need to put some effort to climb out of the boring-but-somewhat-useful hole. See the green arrow in the diagram.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this back and forth for a product company. Handled with care, you balance between fun (as in “expensive new bleeding tech”) and boring (as in “trusted”). Just make sure that you don’t fall too far to the bottom left.

Finally – no fun and useless

The bottom left corner sounds like a self-evident no-go zone. I defined useful above as ”have a good effect in reality”. It follows that useless means having no such discernible effect. My experience is that more work tasks and products end up in this quadrant than we like to admit. We allow products beyond the date where they should be euthanised. We push items in an issue system and produce reports that no one reads. We measure because we can, without thought on what good it might do. I can go on, but it makes me sad. Have mercy and kill that project or task or report. It’s going to take courage since it has probably been in this corner for some time. You’ll do us all a favour.

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