I once attended a talk by a documentary filmmaker about Bob Marley that described how he and his band The Wailers were able to deliver timeless recordings but also deliver amazing live performances. At the height of Bob Marley's career (before his untimely death) the filmmaker once attended a rehearsal waiting to get an interview with Bob. What he described struck me as both intense and deliberate. The interviewer witnessed the band practice a single song for more than 8 hours. From time to time Bob would stop the rehearsal to discuss his vision for the song and how it could be improved. Periodically Bob would call out "switch" and each band member would move to a different instrument and pick up the song from the top. Flabergasted by what he'd just experienced, when the time was finally granted with Bob he asked about what he had just witnessed. Why would a band rehearse the same song for so long but also learn the instrument of other members of the band? What Bob had to say was telling of his perfectionism but also his dedication to his craft. He described how important it was for each band member to know their parts, but to also have an appreciation for how each instrument worked with their own to become something more.
What does that have to do with product design?
Software design and development are a team sport. It starts with vision but requires flawless execution by a team to deliver an exceptional product. I don't feel many organizations recognize how important shared vision and appreciation of each members contributions are. Bob Marley relayed his vision for a song and then he and his band did more than practice to perform their best, each member developed a sound appreciation for what each contributes by learning one another's instruments. I feel software teams can do more to develop a product vision, practice and cultivate an appreciation for what each is contributing.
A vision is important. It is not a pithy statement about becoming the best, but something bold, meaningful and compelling.
- A computer in every home... was an early Steve Jobs' vision.
- Putting a man on the moon and return him to earth safely... was John F. Kennedy's vision.
- One laptop for every child.. is Nicholas Negroponte's vision.
A vision serves to unite people and harness their energy.
What makes a vision? Vision is a product of deep understanding of the state of industry (technology and human values) and a desire to explore what is possible. This is no recipe for creating a compelling vision some would say it's a matter of thinking deeply and systematically removing the limitations for the current state of the industry. A vision is driven by "What if?" Ask "What if" questions for every limitation your product or industry currently has.
- What if we could produce computer chips half the size of todays chips?
- What if our software could run twice as fast as it does?
- What if all cellular data packages were unlimited?
- What if a quality laptop could be produced for less than $100?
Perhaps you can see Nicolas Negroponte's vision of One Laptop per Child in the last question?
How is it possible to practice when you have an aggressive schedule and endless deadlines? The same way other professions do it; make practice part of the schedule. Practice should be scheduled as team building events and should be fun. Fun ideas for practicing skills and techniques might include events like design improv (Interactionary by Scott Berkum) or exercises from the Stanford d.school. An event I helped create at IBM involved developers designing a planned program for Take Your Kid to Work Day. This event put a team of developers in the role of experience designer with mentorship from a seasoned experience designer. It was a fun way for developers to learn about experience design and grow their appreciation for the role.
Find your own ways get teams involved in one another's work. Whether that is events like those described or information sharing sessions and job shadowing. I believe a better appreciation for each others skills build better teams and better teams build better products.
Are your products exceptional?
Is your product team operating at it's potential?
Perhaps it is time to listen to Bob Marley and cultivate your vision and your team?