How an encounter with my grandfather and an oil change changed my innovation perspective forever.
What is the “application economy paradox”? It begins with the desired result: modern apps deliver compelling, engaging experiences that are simpler than ever for their consumers. But that is – as it should be – the view from the outside. The challenge for today’s technology professional is that the combination of systems and infrastructure required in order to provide these simple user experiences is often more complex than it has ever been. Unfortunately, this can result in delivery paralysis as some become overwhelmed by the complexity.
Difficulty finding simple solutions to large, complex problems is not a new challenge; but it can still be crippling. Though sometimes the answers are closer than you think.
While in university I was performing some routine maintenance on my girlfriend’s car. The car was a new, “simpler” design, which meant everything was difficult to access and routine tasks were more complex and challenging for do-it-yourselfers. That should sound familiar – simple to the user, more complex under the hood. As I lie beneath the engine with a part partially removed I ran out of space. I could not fully remove it. I could not put it back. As I wondered how I was going to recover, hot engine oil began gushing its way down my arm toward my face.
As I vocalized just how excited I was to have a wonderful new puzzle to solve (OK, I may have been just a tiny bit – all right a lot – less than positive in the moment) I heard a voice. That startled me for two reasons: I thought I was alone, and; it was my grandfather’s voice. “Uh, oh! What had I just said?! I hope it wasn’t too bad.” But then he gave me a piece of advice that followed me for the rest of my life, helped me to solve very complex problems, and drove some of my most successful innovations.
“Relax. It’s OK. Just come up here. Take a break. Now, look at things from a different angle,” he said.
The impact of a simple change in perspective was amazing. Within minutes, I had found a new way to break the problem down into components that were easy to execute, and I had the maintenance performed in short order.
Years later I had been sent to solve a complex multi-system app deployment problem for one of our largest customers. I had flown across the continent and worked for a few days with few breaks and not much sleep. Very late one evening I realized that they could not accomplish their goals with our software… or anyone else’s. The solution did not exist. I was devastated. I did not want to let them down. As I was about to wrap up and deliver the bad news I heard my grandfather’s voice: “Stop. Relax. Take a break. Then look at things from a different perspective.”
I decided to listen to that advice, and went to a restaurant for a very late dinner. Away from the office, I was no longer constrained by my environment or the work we had already done. And, while not really thinking about it at all (at least consciously) I developed a completely different approach. Following dinner we rushed back to the office, and by the end of the week we demonstrated the solution to the customer. It eventually became a key differentiator for our product.
I have been in similar situations many times since, and that simple technique has driven many of my greatest successes. So if you find yourself overwhelmed by the app economy: Pause, relax, and change your perspective. You’ll be amazed at what happens next.