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Keep Innovating

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We use the word “innovation” a lot these days. FileMaker, Inc. recently repositioned its products and services as a Workplace Innovation Platform. This better illustrates the true nature of the custom apps FileMaker users and developers create.

Calling attention to innovation explains what FileMaker is and helps set the stage for the software creation process.

We recently designed and developed a manufacturing workflow system for an electronics manufacturer. Their database tracks the steps, approvals, and time for building their products via iPads and barcode scanning. Prior to deploying our FileMaker solution, they recorded such things on printed job sheets and then updated spreadsheets at the end of each shift. Their production manager is pretty excited and claims – and we’ll see in a few months if he’s right – that the system will produce a 25% gain in productivity.

Sounds like a great success! …And it is!

Here’s the thing: we went well over our initial estimate. In hindsight, I find myself thinking that that’s exactly as it should be. It’s really important to call attention to the kind of work we were all doing together.

The Requirements

The solution we created is meant to measure things in seconds. At any given stage of the manufacturing process, an assembler may spend just a few moments completing an action. We built our interface to facilitate timekeeping and to maintain workflow momentum.

We experimented with using the front or back camera of the iPads, tried out the iPads in cradles versus being hand-held, made sure our buttons were easy to tap, and tested orientation to discover that landscape worked better than portrait. All of these things were necessary to shave precious seconds off the team’s work.

In other words, we were innovating.

That’s just a few of dozens of examples where we experimented. We designed, on paper, a work queue screen, built a slightly different v1, realized it wasn’t quite there, and crafted a much improved v2. We only built a bare-bones reporting mechanism because we knew the team would need to live with the solution for a while before discovering what reports they really needed. One feature we imagined in the beginning ended up being tossed out altogether when we shared early versions with users.

The Estimates

Managing budgets in software projects is really difficult stuff, but there’s a really important key to hone-in on: building software isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Not by a long shot. If I have a complete technical spec, highly detailed and approved by a stakeholder, then I have an estimating challenge. If, as it was with this project, we don’t have the thing spelled out in exact detail, then you’re not estimating a known set of features: you’re inventing them as you go.

And, again, it’s not wrong to approach things that way. It would have been impossible to predict many of the small features we built. This is the very strength of a Workplace Innovation Platform. FileMaker allows us, and by its very nature encourages us, to experiment, evolve, tweak, and improve.

A developer once told me that you can’t give “hard estimates for soft ware.” He thought he was being terribly clever at the time. I wasn’t impressed, but I will grant there’s truth in the concern he was voicing.

I absolutely believe estimating is a vital practice and allows stakeholders to gauge whether a given feature or project is worth doing. It’s lazy for programmers to simply punt and refuse to be held accountable for their work. Or for a consultant, like myself, to not manage a project to a budget.

That said, if the work is following an iterative, organic process of inventing the right software for a given purpose – one, say, where seconds matter – then it is unreasonable for any of us to demand precision or foresight that simply cannot exist. A developer may be an expert without being clairvoyant.

The Innovation Process

Therein lies the challenge: how do you manage a project? It’s totally nuts to expect business owners to approve a wide-open, blank check approach. On the other hand, we also cannot predict what innovating will require. Experimenting, testing, observing results, and refining are all invaluable processes.

Those answers lie in a much longer blog post about software development lifecycles, project management practices, and so on. However, I think FileMaker’s marketing team has done us all a great service. If I explain to a client that the work we are doing together is an innovation process,  expectations can be better set all around.


Problem-solvers and FileMaker developers innovate together. And the way we manage an “innovation process” is different from executing against a well-defined specification.

If we communicate that key concept well, we will all deliver more successes on the world’s number one Workplace Innovation Platform.

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