Why Do We Consider Only One Option When Building Technology?

Outside the technology industry, engineers sometimes build multiple prototypes before selecting one particular design. Rather than finding the defects of one proposed design, discarding it, and moving on to the next idea, engineering teams that apply this approach, set-based concurrent design, save themselves a lot of time and headaches by running through as many options as possible simultaneously. As you might have guessed, this technique isn't cheap. You need to staff multiple design teams, and prototyping in many industries, such as automotive manufacturing, is always expensive. Nonetheless, by delaying the design decision for as long as possible, until the team has found the best among multiple ideas, development can take less time, with a greater probability of building a good product, than with sequential design.

So why don't we build software this way? For Microsoft, SAP, and other technology companies, prototyping is orders of magnitude cheaper than it is for Toyota and General Motors. Executives at tech companies would love to reduce the unpredictability of development schedules, often thrown off-track by unexpected design issues. So why hasn't set-based design caught fire in the technology industry?

That question has been plaguing me since hearing an excellent presentation by Jean Tabaka and Bill Wake on this topic at Agile 2009. I'm not sure of the answer ("More research required," says the analyst), but I'd be amazed if it didn't include two factors: (1) the nature of the product being developed; and (2) the unspoken assumptions of the tech industry.

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