Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

October 7, 2008

A while back, those wonderful fellas at Box UK asked me to take part in their Cardiff Web Scene Meet-up #4. I pondered for a long while what I was going to do. The obvious one was an overview of BathCamp: how we put it together, what tools we used to collaborate, and so-on. In the end I decided I’d use the slightly different format (an informal gathering in a bar) as an excuse for a slightly different kind of presentation (an informal gathering of thoughts and slides..), and not just do the obvious thing..

The slides are an expansion on my previous post, Newton vs Einstein, and form an underlying question which continues to be an itch I need to scratch. The question is really summed up in my third slide: When do we need perfection?

[slideshare id=619607&doc=newtonvseinsteinfinalppt-1222420030171861-9&w=425]

The Newton / Einstein metaphor (for those who can’t be arsed to read my original post) stemmed from In Our Time on Radio 4: given that we manage to go about our daily lives (and even carry out a number of fairly stunning technical tasks, such as putting a man on the moon) without worrying about the complex rightness of Einstein, how much can we make do with simple approximations – how much do we actually need to worry about being “right” when we’re in an environment of wanting to get things done, where “rightness” actually hinders rather than helps?

This question isn’t as simple as it first appears. There is no binary position here, no right or wrong, and yet often in IT scenarios, we are asked to choose EITHER the easy, quick, risky, “lightweight” way OR the long, arduous,  “enterprise” one (this Dilbert cartoon, posted by @miaridge on Twitter about museum projects, may seem oddly familiar…). And yet this isn’t just about over-speccing or analysis paralysis. This goes deeper, asking questions about creativity and innovation and what these mean.

Here’s an example. For maybe 5 of my 7 years at the Science Museum, the entire website was published (not served – how stupid do you think I am 😉 ) from an Access database using a simple system I built in ASP during my first year at the museum. This system enabled maybe 20 authors to contribute to the site, whilst maintaining a simple templating system and look and feel. During this time, the site was run out of a single (and slightly battered) web server. Just before I left, we went through a long CMS project, and ended up installing the excellent Sitecore content management system across (if my memory serves me correctly) 7 servers, plus having a re-design which culminated in the current Science Museum website: it is beautiful, clean, well coded, and – frankly – the apple of my eye. 

It would be very, very easy to dismiss the old site and way of doing things in light of the “professional” approach that content management at “enterprise” level brings to the party, but the fact was for five years the old site performed nearly perfectly, both technically and in terms of responding to the content needs of the organisation. It was imperfect, hacked-together, “lightweight” – and did the job. Compare that to now (when I’m betting that 90% of the CMS functionality and 95% of the server capacity isn’t used..) and it’s not immediately obvious to me – and this is a quite open statement, without bias – which is the better solution. I think both bring benefits and disbenefits, and somewhere in the middle is a ground which more of us should be striving to inhabit, rather than hanging on to our notions of “lightweight vs enterprise”.

These questions begin with a bias even in the naming. “Lightweight” seems fickle, faddish, subject to change and risk. “Enterprise” is laden with visions of dull corporate lunches, sales people and multi-million pound pricetags.

The question I ask in the slides really outline the entire theme to this blog and the questions I have been asking over the past decade (eek!) working online. Brian Kelly suggests in this post that “it is time to get serious” – that strategic thinking somehow lives in a different place to the lightweight. He’s referencing the presentation we did together a couple of years ago (Web 2.0: Stop thinking, start doing) – but I can’t help thinking that now is the time to bring strategic and lightweight together rather than trying to drive them apart.

My time as Head of Web at the museum was almost all about strategy, about bringing together digital and real content and about getting things done. Ultimately, I’m way, way more on the strategic side of this stuff than anything else. But…getting creative things done requires making assumptions – inaccuracies and uncertainty are inherent and valuable. 

Ultimately, most of us work in enviroments that are at complete odds to creativity: we are forced to work to project plans, “plan” our time, “justify” our expense, “do” the actions. Web2.0 and “lightweightness” are never going to be comfortable – these approaches are deliberately disruptive. The question is – and always has been – how do we embrace this uncertainty and creativity and move forward but still maintain a clear view of the horizon..?

5 thoughts on “Assumptions, exactitudes, perfection and creativity

  1. I find Voltaire’s “the perfect is the enemy of the good” a very useful quote for keeping perspective (I have it on my monitor at home).

  2. As we’re doing aphorisms, I like “Everything good starts bad and improves”.

    Getting more down to earth, I would say that “strategic” and “lightweight” tend to be directly correlated to how your resources (ie money) are distributed. If resources are limited but ongoing people tend to create lightweight with the idea that it might not be right but that they can change it afterwards. If resources are project based so you get nothing followed by lots which needs to be used right away then people get more strategic. This is to make the best use of resources because they know they won’t get them again for a while.

    Ultimately this gets very political, so worthwhile goals for us “makers” are either to try and not let to our development model be dictated by resources or to make a convincing case to the money people why they should allocate resources in particular ways.

  3. @Joe – I’d agree, but I’d also say that life shouldn’t be like that, and we should be working harder to fix it. My biggest criticism of the way museums online are run is that projects tend to be exactly as you describe – big pots of cash that need to provide X by date Y. Often these projects are strategically at odds with what exists already, but (understandably) museums feel they have to say yes, because any money is good money..

    How this should work IMO is that these budgets come along (either from funders or internal shuffling) and the projects are then specified and built within a framework of strategic thinking. If the funders’ view is at odds to the museums’ online strategy then the funding should be turned down: it sounds hard (and is!) but is exactly what would happen if this happened in the “real” museum.

    When we’ve done this with funders, they’ve actually reacted pretty well to it: rather than walking away without providing money, they often appreciate a “push back”, and the project becomes all the better for it.

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