Glorious Maintenance

We are obsessed with innovation. Whether it be in technology, business or even philanthropy. There is an overwhelming desire to be a trailblazer, to mark ourselves as creators. The tech industry is fraught with this issue, and is worsened by the ease with which new endeavours can be started and the attention that they receive.

While innovation is desirable and has its place in our society, we readily overlook the fact that much of our daily lives are spent on maintenance. If we consider eating, sleeping, exercising, cleaning, resting or our work activities, the majority of our day is devoted towards maintenance.

So why the bias towards innovation? Should we be reconsidering our approach to maintenance?

If I move into our context of website development and client/agency relationships; building a new site from scratch is exciting.

It's stimulating for many of the project stakeholders. For the client, it is as an opportunity to start over with a renewed hope of solutions to historic problems. From the agency perspective, for sales people it means professional success, for agency owners it means revenue and a testimonial. Then, for designers and developers it is a clean slate to create solutions without being shackled by the efforts of those that came before them.

Our throw-away culture extends to our digital products. We give too much weight to the ability to create a better solution next time time around. Commonly, the problems of the current system are explained away by attributing them to internal or external mistakes and broken down relationships. It is a mistake to consider improving on a previous product by starting again when often different teams, systems and requirements are involved. That is not to say that it's not possible to create better solutions, but that there are always unforeseen intricacies and progress isn't guaranteed.

Do not misunderstand me, starting over is an important part of the cycle. Particularly in a business that is growing quickly and there are process changes that systems need to reflect. Excitement over the potential of new is achieved by looking through rose-tinted glasses. With this, there is a danger of moving to shorter, underachieving cycles.

The significant expenditure needed for these projects can often found through failing to maintain the systems in use as described by Larry Summers, previously president of Harvard University and US Secretary of State. He noted that we underinvest in old things. These old things disappoint us, which leads to a desire for new things. To satisfy the desire for new things we underinvest further in old things.

If this is the case, why don't we learn and create better solutions on the next iteration to avoid this disappointment?

Whether starting afresh or conducting maintenance, going beyond the first solution is hard to prioritise. Like any piece of work, the first draft is functional but not optimal and needs rework to make it effective over time.

Unfortunately, we live in a fast-paced and demanding world where even our politicians look for short-term solutions in order to appease public pressure. In this kind of environment it can be very hard to prioritise long-term goals when under pressure and the long-term detractors are out of sight.

The developers and community that I work with see this time and time again. The priority is dedicated to new solutions that are rushed to meet looming deadlines and constricting budgets. This practice puts an unhealthy focus on meeting functional requirements rather than non-functional ones.

If we agree that better products are achieved through iteration, the focus should be on creating a solid foundation that is optimised for maintenance and modification. This then helps to lengthen the replacement cycle because business requirement changes can be accommodated and incremental value added without replacement being necessary.

Therefore, we should give more praise to those that optimise for and undertake maintenance. It is not the enemy of innovation but the facilitator.

This post has been on my mind for a while but was inspired by Freakonimics Radio episode "In Praise of Maintenance". In turn, this episode was inspired by an Aeon essay entitled "Hail the Maintainers" . Both are recommended for further commentary on rebalancing the scale towards maintenance and away from innovation for innovation sake.