Clarify. Simplify. Implement.

February 21, 2008

Working through a wide range of projects, our IT team has settled into a consistent project methodology: Clarify, Simplify, Implement.

Clarify: Work with key stakeholders to understand drivers behind the process. Question motives and key assumptions. Turn over all the rocks to see what lies underneath. (In traditional software terms, this is requirements gathering.)

Simplify: Relentlessly question, review and challenge the processes and solution being developed. Drive for consistency. Search for well-known models or applications you can copy. Don’t be afraid to change basic assumptions, where simplicity can be enhanced. Always challenge the value of edge cases and try to eradicate them. Work hard to remove every single process, click, page view, icon, etc until you have something so simple that it feels right to everyone involved. (This is the primary value adding activity for IT.)

Implement: After the requirements are clear, and the solution distilled to its simplest form, start implementing. Do not start with a preconceived solution. Continue to loop through clarify and simplify while performing the implementation. (Use your preferred development methodology, provided it supports constant change and rapid prototyping.)

Tough love adds value

Consultants can gather requirements, and programmers can deliver code from anywhere in the world. But, tough love is only available from those you know and trust. This is the advantage and importance that internal IT teams offer.

External service providers make money through complexity and increased scope. It’s in their interest to understand your desires, validate them and then do more work to deliver the wish list. IT needs to reject this model, and help prevent the organisation from becoming as complex as it constantly tries to be.

Simplicity is making hard decisions up front so users can save time and effort in every interaction for all time. Assumptions must be challenged. The status quo should not be accepted as always correct. Trade offs must not be avoided.

Tough love and simplification change IT from a human power tool into a true business partner who provides both leadership and support. Tough love is different to just being tough, it includes love. IT should never be a blocker and will occasionally need to be forgiving. IT should be open in communication and have the best interests of the business at heart.

Design reviews: Brutal refinement and pixel-perfect goodness

An essential part of Clarify, Simplify, Implement are design reviews. These form the ongoing basis for a loop of improvement beyond the initial pass of requirements gathering, simplification and implementation.

A design review includes the application/process owner, the key implementation team and a set of trusted peers. They systematically move through and challenge every process, screen, button, decision, layout and definition. Pixel alignment is important. Removing every excess user decision and superfulous design element matters. Entire pieces of the process or application may need to be redesigned or thrown out. Consistency is critical.

Design reviews are hard and tiring, but ultimately hugely rewarding. Project deadlines and a desire to move onto new problems make it hard to continually refactor your solution design and implementation. It’s tempting to stop at good enough, when great is just around the corner. Hours spent discussing alternative user interfaces and nitpicking over definitions can seem like wasted or unproductive time, particularly when your not sure if anyone will notice.

Design reviews take good solutions and make them great.

Zero training

Every user is time poor. They have no interest or time for attending training sessions. Training is the first and biggest hurdle to adoption of your new system and process. While complexity exists and training is required, users can always reject or work around the process with a politically acceptable excuse - “It’s too hard”.

Our aim, through simplification, is to make people’s life easier, reduce the burden on their time and remove all the excuses. The reward is adoption, engagement and relief that that finally it’s been done the way everyone always thought (individually) it should be.

Staying simple

After launch, when everyone loves the new system because it just seems to easy, is when discipline becomes truly critical. Feature requests, small changes and extensions will flow from users and every single one “should be easy to add”. The hard part is deciding which requests are worthy while ensuring that the system remains simple and consistent.

Clear, simple solutions challenge traditional project economics

With a robust process of clarification and simplication, two things happen:

  1. The implementation phase is much easier. (e.g. multi-step, parallel workflow problems become one level approval).
  2. The solution becomes very agile and iterative, since it’s only through the project process that new clarifications and simplifications become apparent.

Traditional enterprise software projects start with large, feature rich solutions that cover the complexity of features and organisational behaviour that appear to be “requirements”. Clarify, Simplify, Implement refuses to engage in projects until the status quo has been challenged leading to changes or understanding.

For example, we recently set ourselves the IT procurement challenge that “it should be easier to buy something internally than it is externally”. On our journey to achieving this, the obvious first step was inclusion of a shopping cart (we were using Amazon as a benchmark). But, when we saw it working we realised that using enterprise context (e.g. cost centres tied to individuals using single sign on) we didn’t even need the complexity of a cart. One click ordering is now the default process.

Project economics and style change to become:

  1. Focused on user experience. All projects and features must provide a significant improvement to the user experience or process. If the cost of implementation outweighs that improvement, then keep looking for a simpler approach that is not so expensive to produce.
  2. Just in time development and design. Accept that clarity and simplicity are a journey, no one has the vision to see that far in advance. Be disciplined enough to realise that sometimes small feature additions need large architectural change just to keep the overall application as simple and consistent as possible.
  3. Optimised for lifetime value. The cost of an application must include the cost to end users of training, inconvenience and usage. For example, the cost of implementing single sign on must be compared to the cost of X users performing Y logins over Z years.

Small, simple projects are fast to prototype, easy to justify and responsive to business needs. Combining Clarify, Simplify, Implement with an iterative improvement process like the Continuous Application Release Cycle sets a journey of positive dissatisfaction and continuous improvement that will quickly change your organisation for the better.

Take the time to write short letters

Lack of time, politics and ego drive enterprises towards complexity. Complex solutions reflect our perception of the difficulty of our jobs, they reflect the important differences of every department involved and are an inevitable result of looking for quick wins by not challenging ourselves upfront.

As Mark Twain once wrote “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead”.

Unfortunately, most project teams take this approach, saving on delivery time and hard conversations and effectively hiding lifetime project costs in lost productivity, frustration and training courses.

Clarify, Simplify, Implement challenges this process and demands the writing of short letters. Users will thank you for it.

Comment by lookielouie on February 24, 2009 10:58 AM
This is excellent advice, though I am not in IT, I teach beginner computer users, often seniors making the great leap, windows coverts tired of that difficult and unreliable platform, or those wishing to upgrade to an newer operating system or simply want to more fully understand, and use the existing system they own.

Was looking for an image to illustrate an article on this very topic, and got caught up reading your blog. Perfect. Would like to use it in Mac computer group newsletter, which I edit and publish, Full attribution will be given.

Write on!
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