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Keep the sharp edges!

Smoothing
"Great software isn't created by committee." That quote came from James Gosling, at the developer "fireside chat" at the last JavaOne. And from Applied Minds tech wizard Bran Ferren, "Art isn't the product of a team." Is this true?

First, I don't believe James was necessarily talking about the functionality and code when he said "great software". Clearly, teams of great programmers can produce great code. I think he means the kind of breakthrough apps that people can become passionate about, and I also think it's less about the programming and more about the design and spec.

And we can all have our own interpretation of the word "team"--at what point does a reasonably small, synergistic group building and adding to one another's strengths turn into an idea-crushing, groupthink team? That depends... very few good novels are written by more than one person. Perhaps for novels, two is the maximum, and even that's pretty rare. And we all recognize that indie films today tend to be of much higher storytelling quality than the watered-down major studio films where there's often a huge gap between "the director's cut" and the final release edit.

But what about software or other products? What about the team responsible for decisions that affect the context in which users interact with your product, service, or company? How big can those teams be before they become completely dysfunctional? Obviously there's no absolute number... two people can cancel out each other's good ideas just as effectively as a dozen. If it's not simply about the absolute number, then what is it about?

It's about how hard the team/group works to exploit the smartest aspects of the team while maintaining the distance and diversity so artfully (and scientifically) suggested in James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds book. It's about aggregating the intelligence of the individuals rather than having the group make decisions as a whole. And those are two profoundly different things. If you haven't read the book, I made an earlier summary of one of the key premises here.

Most importantly, it's about working to keep the sharp edges instead of smoothing them all over. It's about avoiding the dreaded "morph".

You've seen the morph phenomenon, where products end up looking like a morph of all competing products until there's virtually no major distinction. Nothing remarkable. Nothing we love. Think of all the new cars you see today that look soooooo much like every other car. With a few exceptions (like the Honda Element, the MINI), most look like they've been run through a morphing program that found the perfect average. I was about to add the ScionxB to my list of examples, but then I realized that it's looking dangerously close to the Element... and if the car designers aren't careful, we'll just be exchanging a road full of lookalike rounded cards for a road full of box-like cars with very little difference between them.

This is the car I've wanted all my life:
Mustang64
The '64 Mustang. My dream car.

And though some of the newer Mustangs over the years have been nice-looking cars, the designs today now look like they've been morphed with that of many other cars:

Mustangnew

Metaphorically speaking, where are the sharp edges?

Where are the strong ideas that come from either an individual or the product of true brainstorming? (Not the kind of meetings that pretend to be brainstorming, but where someone always plays "devil's advocate" and kills innovation at the roots, or where we all know that if we don't go along with "the group", we'll be in trouble.)

When people aren't brave enough for one reason or another, ideas are morphed and the sharp edges are worn away until there's little left but a completely palatable, utterly unlovable lump. (Again, I don't mean "sharp edges" literally--I happen to love my iPod precisely because it has no sharp edges... very sexy indeed.)

But then what do you do when the sharp-edged ideas of individuals are all different? You pick one. Or, applying the wisdom-of-crowds model, you take the best of several. But rather than morphing, you aggregate the ideas in whatever way is meaningful to this kind of product, service, process, idea. And you read Surweicki's book to find out why forcing out anyone who doesn't "fit" with the group can be not just unproductive, but in some cases deadly (read his discussion about the Space Shuttle).

And I'm going to keep posting this picture, way past the point when you're sick of seeing it:Loveandhate_2

If we allow groupthink/consensus to win, smoothing over all the pointed edges, we'll indeed have something that nobody hates. How many of us can afford to be there today?

Posted by Kathy on October 2, 2005 | Permalink

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Comments

Mark Twain's eruptum quote comes to my mind

"Sane and intelligent human beings are like all other human beings, and carefully and cautiously and diligently conceal their private real opinions from the world and give out fictitious ones in their stead for general consumption."

The blogging is narrowing the gap and helping us voice our *real opinions*. I almost wrote off the whole blogging even before starting to work on it, but I was so wrong, see my very first posts,http://tarrysingh.blogspot.com/2005_04_01_tarrysingh_archive.html

The deal is that even the one's who reach a consensus know damn well (in their minds) that "it's oh-so-very-dullyfying(is it a word?) crap that we're selling!" We need to be able to communicate across the wall,break it open and make it ONE BIG SPICY UNGREY CONSENSUS!

Posted by: Tarry Singh | Oct 2, 2005 3:58:32 PM

I remember being at a staff session on 'the power of the team' - the age-old mantra of "there's no 'I' in team" was thrown at us to contemplate ... I shouted out - "you're right but there's a 'me'" ... always a fun one to use that!

;-)

Posted by: DK | Oct 2, 2005 4:52:08 PM

You're singing my song or I am drinking your Koolaid or both. I ask clients "what do you want to create?" And they sit in stunned silence. They want to know what others are doing or how some initiative has worked some place else. They resist owning the opportunity to be creatiively different - the opportunity to be loved or hated. But I have to admit, I love ripping the bandages off their eyes. I think you do too.

Have you read Peter Block's book, "The Asnwer to How is Yes"? You might like it.

Thanks for making public your thoughts; your blog is a great contribution.

Posted by: Michael Wagner | Oct 2, 2005 4:55:59 PM

I agree with you about the idea that ideas with sharp edges are good, but I disagree with your use of the term "consensus" to describe the process behind the production of "morphed" ideas.

Consensus, as it's used to describe a group decision-making process, doesn't involve a group of people who know an idea is crap but agree to it anyways. It doesn't involve taking bits and pieces of various ideas and making a boring, homogenous proposal.

In true consensus models, each person in the group can veto a proposal. Every single person in the room can nix a crap idea, and every single person in the room can propose a great one. Actual consensus is an extremely rare thing in the business world; it's egalitarian and non-hierarchical, and it requires that you convince someone of an idea's merit rather than simply order them to implement it.

"Consensus" gets bandied around a lot these days, to provide the usual managerial power plays with a modicum of respectability, but as you've said, that almost always involves someone in a role of authority shooting down ideas which they didn't come up with, and we know what that ends up producing. It's not a lack of bravery, really, but rather an acknowledgement of the truth of the situation: if you were to propose something more interesting that your boss, he or she would probably just shoot it down. Yay hierarchy.

In contrast, real consensus meetings are like brainstorming sessions without the idea-crapper in the corner (or at the head of the table, usually). I've been working with a group which uses a strict consensus model (each person has to be enthusiastic about a proposal) for about two years now, and while it takes more time than just marginalizing the people who disagree, we have the opportunity to transcend the dichotomy you've voiced. We don't have to choose between a brown blob and one person's proposal; we get to have an idea which actually works for everyone, and we have this opportunity because every person brings their different analytical powers together. We get to come up with sharp-edged ideas as a group.

Any decision-making process which involves "forcing out anyone who doesn't 'fit' with the group" isn't consensus. It's the usual corporate primate dynamics nonsense. Being creative is not a zero sum game.

For more information on consensus, check out:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consensus_decision-making

Posted by: Coda Hale | Oct 2, 2005 8:18:39 PM

My Scion xB is on order. When reading reviews online I came across a quote that I loved (paraphrased) "Honda Element owners will love the Scion xB because they will no longer own the ugliest car on the road."

The Element is certainly unique - but it is still an SUV. My favorite SUV, but an SUV none the less. Now, try to classify the Scion xB...

Some call it a wagon,but this doesn't really fit.

It's not an SUV - low ground clearance, no 4WD option, it's an urban vehicle.

Some have suggested a new category "micro-mini-van". THat's lame too.

The Scion xB is truely unique.

Sure it might looke a little like the Element, but the Element is an evolutionary step from the SUV. The xB is discontinuous innovation.

Nothing against the Element, I really like them too. But I object to the xB is a Element wanna-be thing.

Just wait unitl I get it and post pictures - you will see what I mean.

-Matt

Posted by: Matt Galloway | Oct 2, 2005 11:38:18 PM

Coda: that's a pretty inspiring and thought-provoking comment, I have to say. Thanks for giving me more to think about...

Matt: Passionate users 101--When users are passionate about your product or idea, they''ll defend it... *especially* against the typical koolaid point accusation of "nothing new here."
You're seriously getting an xB? My next door neighbor has one and I must admit I've been lusting. But Eric and Beth have an Element, so, you know, I had to throw that in.

I have a Subaru like, well, like virtually everyone else in Boulder. It's the requirement when you move here. (Unless you have a pickup, then you're exempt.) But I'm from southern California, and everyone *knows* that we can't drive for s*** in rain, let alone SNOW... so having an all-wheel drive car is nice.

I can't wait to see your pictures.

Michael: I haven't read that book; I'll check it out!

Thanks Tarry : )

DK: In one of our books there's a fake corporate memo that has the "There's no "I" in Team" in it, and the O'Reilly copyeditor had us smiling when she wrote back, "But there IS a "U" in Suck."

Posted by: Kathy Sierra | Oct 3, 2005 12:03:20 AM

Maximum two authors for a novel? Perhaps a good novel, but not this one:

http://www.eigology.com/unblokt/bookshelf.php
(completed works: volume 1)

Somewhere between 350 to 700 people came together to write this. Enjoy!

Posted by: Sean | Oct 3, 2005 8:42:54 AM

Design by consensus always ends up being a watered-down version of what it should be. That middle zone of mediocrity is also a middle zone of safety for many execs who either lack vision or insight or courage... or all of the above.

This post is so dead-on. Thank you for writing it. :)

Posted by: Olivier Blanchard | Oct 3, 2005 3:26:28 PM

DK,

Now I don't feel so unique. To
"There's no 'I' in 'TEAM'."

I would say,
"No, but there's an 'm' and an 'e' and that's 'me'."

Posted by: Dustin | Oct 3, 2005 4:46:16 PM

Kathy,

Well done! The "Sharp Edge" message cannot be told enough times, because it is basically counter-intuitive.

People will say, "Oh yes, right!" and proceed to pull all of the sharp edges out of the offering and the messages to conform to "conventional wisdom".

Sharp edges make things remarkable and Seth Godin has written extensively about the necessity of creating remarkable ideas. Sharp edges are vital for the success of any creative effort, and that includes weblogs as well.

Blogs with sharp edges are fun to read and generate traffic almost without trying. Screw the SEO campaigns, just write memorable content with sharp edges and all will be well.

Posted by: David St Lawrence | Oct 5, 2005 1:22:54 PM

My mother has always told me that old clothes never come back into fashion until the season after you throw them out. So I should have guessed it would happen, but it's still sad that box-shaped cars came back in as soon as I sold my beloved '82 Volvo.

Posted by: Graham Lea | Oct 6, 2005 8:51:40 PM

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