Today, there was an email exchange that brought to life the core debate about how you build web applications. On the one hand, the lack of a solid, granular six or twelve month plan was hotly contested as a requirement, otherwise, it did not matter what development happened today. The other, counter point to this perspective was six months from now, the web will be different (or the same, depending on your POV) so all that counts is this week’s iteration. I’m not saying don’t have a long term plan. On the road towards that long term plan whether it’s the six month mark or the 3 years from now plan, you still have to get sh-t done today.

Six months from now, you’re out of business if that’s your only concern

Yep, harsh and a pure exaggeration. However there is a certain appeal to this line of thought, as rather than navel gaze, it forces teams who have limited resources (we all do – in startups, it’s a lack of money – in large companies, it’s death by committee, process and meetings) – to actually get stuff done. Sure, we all have some idea of what we’re building in our heads and we may have a powerpoint, a robust spec or a novel worth of ideas on how that business looks, feels, smells and tastes in 2013, but it’s useless unless we get work done today.

Would you keep somebody on staff who had a great vision for the future but could not bother getting anything done on a day to day basis? Nope, you’d be an idiot if you did, no matter your size.

Let’s take the visioneer approach for a moment, because while I love focusing on the day to day, I know that you can’t build without an idea of where you are headed. Two standard deviations ahead of the curve, not one, and not three, is the ideal number.

  • Two = disruptive innovation.
  • One = commercial innovation.
  • Three or more = lack of focus and death by a thousand cuts.

As a framework, this will get you exactly where you want to go, 99.999% of the time. The rest of the time, well, you’re planning on winning the lottery, on writing that miracle one line of code that suddenly changes the world. It may be possible, but highly unlikely. Plans should account for the possibility that things change, get blown up and morph and so on, however, at the end of the day, you’re only as good as your ability to iterate towards that vision. Because an attractive, disruptive vision can’t be attained without…measured progress.

Suppose you have that amazing vision of what things should do in six months. Suppose you know exactly where the market will be, what it will do, how it will embrace all of those ideas. Without laying a foundation, building towards that vision – you’re going to get nowhere, and six months will pass, leaving you with nothing to show for all that time wasted, because all you did was polish the vision. In a year, you’ll still be six months away from having your plans together, of launching that disruptive something. Does this sound like the Agile development philosophy to you? I have heard it’s color coded that way when working with larger teams, and I’m perfectly okay with the label. Regardless of the color coding, the goal remains the same – let’s get stuff done.

I love ideas. I love disruptive thinking and projects which represent a step function change in life, in opportunity and in technology. Grounding ourselves in that roadmap between here and there, though, is the key to success. Putting one foot in front of the other and then executing. If you simply cut the crap, iterate and improve, even without a vision for what the market should be in a year, what do you end up with after building steadily for that entire period? Well, you end up with a product and a reality based roadmap of inspiration. If you have guidelines, a vision for the product that’s a simple one liner, “it should work well and fast,” then that’s what you’ll end up with in six months or a year. What you will have is a working, solid application or product, a dent in the marketplace and fanatic customers who love you for what you built, for listening to their feedback and for addressing their growing appetite for improvement.

Large companies and venture capitalists require such a vision to fund, to develop and to get on the same page, because their processes are optimized around saying no, not yes. Anybody who’s running a business without those two constituents is kidding themselves if they believe a vision, well articulated and shared, is the key to a success. The real secret to success is to continuously get the right sh-t done.

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