The Importance and Hazard of Inspiration in Software Development

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One of the phenomena we experience during the course of every software development project is inspiration. As user teams engage in the creative process of developing software solutions, they feel pride and ownership in what is being built. As a solution starts to become reality, they become inspired with what is possible which in turn leads towards ideas for new approaches, process and functionality.  Having worked with large, medium and small companies, public, private and non-profit, the effect is universal. It occurs across the spectrum of software development ranging from scratch programming to configuration of industry leading CRM platforms where the tools are flexible and capable of quickly creating working prototypes.

Inspiration is important. It allows user teams to become invested in the solution being created, which helps motivate adoption. It drives the creation of more usable and business relevant solutions. It can also be dangerous. Inspiration is a part of the process which cannot be easily estimated because every business and its user team is unique, and uncontrolled can easily drive a project over timeline and budget.

At the beginning of a project, an estimate is created based on first productive use understanding of the requirements. These requirements are based on analysis of either current or desired business processes and systems, interviews with subject matter experts, and prioritization by the executive sponsors. As the project progresses, the requirements become more refined as more and more detail is learned about what is needed.  At the same time the user teams learn more about what the software is capable of doing. This is expected and desired.

However, to be successful the creative process has to be tempered with self-control and discipline. User teams can become so inspired and bought in on the vision, that brand new concepts are suddenly deemed necessary for first productive use. Most people understand that if you add packages or options to the new car you’re purchasing the cost will increase. However, that understanding doesn’t seem to translate easily to software. Too often, user teams are surprised when you explain the impact to budget and timeline after they have specifically requested new functionality or additional services.

Factors leading to higher levels of inspiration:

  • New technology or platform - even if the requirements are based on recreating an existing application on a more modern platform, the new platform capabilities can give users the opportunity to reimagine the functionality
  • Customer facing application – concern about the look and feel for customers can generate additional effort to perfect the user experience
  • Size - the larger the budget the more likely the misimpression that changes can be absorbed into the existing project without issue
  • Competitive market - applications supporting sales quoting may add or change requirements frequently over the course of a project as different product packages or combinations are created
  • Automation of immature business processes – when building functionality to support a new department or process where the business needs are not fully formed and/or if the needs of the business are changing rapidly, there can be high effort and inspiration which causes re-work

Factors to control inspiration:

  • Project owner with authority and budget control – it is important that the person or persons responsible for determining the requirements is also informed and responsible for the budget
  • Tracking of budget consumption and work remaining – regular review of time and estimation of work complete versus work remaining helps to identify where there may be issues in a project before they become difficult to resolve
  • Document and communicate the impact of inspired changes - new work should be estimated so the project owner can decide if the value of the new functionality justifies the additional cost, or if it is something that should be postponed for a later time
  • Regular reviews – regular status meetings to discuss the percent complete of various aspects of the project including timeline and budget consumption to prevent misunderstandings or surprises in the future

So while inspiration is important in adoption and making sure a software solution is relevant and useful to the business, it needs to be channeled and the impact to timeline and budget needs to be understood and agreed to by the project owners.

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