Introducing: a Software Development Canvas

Software Development Canvas - Thumbnail

Those who know me know me or have taken one of my classes know of my keen interest in helping people go beyond method – towards a deeper understanding of why we are getting the results we are getting. Lately, I’ve been working on a thinking tool that might help in that regard.

First, a little background. While most of the world is still struggling with doing basic-effective-thermostat-Scrum, we more and more often find organizations that have come to a state where the choice of framework is not that interesting any longer. Much of the agile mindset is there, but as always many challenges remain. In that situation, trying to “do better Scrum or Kanban” isn’t really that fun. It feels like going backwards (even wouldn’t be for many). Anyways, I like options, and this is one attempt to create one more option for how to approach the discussion around how we work.

I still find that most people need some kind of support in their thinking about tricky situations.

A couple of years ago I came across something that was truly helpful for me: the business model canvas. Not coming from a business background, it’s been a great help for me. I’ve been a partner in our consulting firm for 15 years, but I’m not a born and raised business person like some of the people I’ve worked with over the years.

The business model canvas was an eye opener for me. Turns out that at a business level, most businesses struggle with the exact same kinds of problems that we have around the software development. For example: that someone has “written down the business plan”, but unfortunately nobody else has read that document. With the canvas, we can work faster, more visually, and most importantly: invite people to explore with us. Sounds pretty agile, right?

Not only does the business model canvas teach some basic building blocks of a profitable business, but it also does so in a way that strikes a deep chord with me: it tries to show the bigger picture. We get to visualize the business model in its entirety, albeit it a high level.

I’m a systems thinker by heart (and brain, I guess). Seeing the whole and trying to understand it has intrinsic value for me. I just need to understand. It also turns out to be pretty useful to have that kind of overview and understanding, because performance in a business comes from how well all the parts work together, not from how well the individual parts work individually.

So, I’ve been thinking. Why can’t we do the same for the software development part of the business? While the business model canvas is great for exploring the overall value creation process, it doesn’t really help us with the operational aspect of things, nor is it intended to. That’s fine. All we have to do is steal the idea and apply it to said operational concerns.

Results in software development is truly a holistic concern, so the canvas concept should work well here. I recently created a first version of such a canvas, and I’ve started to try it out both in client work and with fellow consultants at Citerus. Initial feedback has been good, so I’ll keep working on it. I’m putting it up here for you to explore, and I’ll be back with more when I have it.

In creating this first version, I’ve taken cues from agile and Scrum, of course, but also from a paper by Thomas J. Allen which I read many years ago and has followed me since. In it, he discusses how knowledge need and market needs – and, importantly, their rate of change – must affect how we organize.

Instruction for use, in short:

  1. Draw the canvas on a big whiteboard
  2. Put on your facilitator hat
  3. Choose an aspect of your software development work to explore
  4. Explore away, together. Obviously, use post-its.

Just to give some examples: you might want to explore what an idealized design might look like for your way of working. Or, you could put on your SWOT-cap and explore your internal strengths and weaknesses and the external opportunities and threats, guided by the canvas. Maybe you could do a values based inspection of how you’re faring, by asking questions like “how are we living up to our values of courage and transparency in each of these areas”?

My favorite idea though (which I have yet to try myself): you could use de Bonos six thinking hats – complemented by the seventh hat which my kids invented – the silly hat.

Think of the canvas as a pre-designed overall agenda. Use it to avoid missing important pieces of the puzzle. Give it a shot and let me know how it turned out.

Caution: this is a first version. I don’t expect it to be complete, and neither should you. I expect to keep exploring this, and revising the canvas as I go. Feel free to get in touch if you have ideas or questions.

Here’s the download link: Software Development Canvas, PDF.

The Birth, Death, and Rebirth of Ideas

Watching the waxing and waning of software development methodologies made me think about the lifecycle of ideas. Throughout the ages, humans have come up with ideas. Some ideas never become more than a thought. Others spread globally, affecting people for a long time. The life of ideas seems to be an eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

Watching the waxing and waning of software development methodologies made me think about the lifecycle of ideas. Throughout the ages, humans have come up with ideas. Some ideas never become more than a thought. Others spread globally, affecting people for a long time. The life of ideas seems to be an eternal cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth.

The Spark

Who can tell where ideas come from? Suddenly they appear. Sometimes we can trace their origin, backtracking through threads of thoughts and experiences. Sometimes, they seem to materialize out of thin air. At times, we can clearly see how an idea grew on top of another. At other times, the idea seems to be radically, even inexplicably, groundbreaking. We can be sure of two things: as long as humans exist, ideas will keep coming, and as long as humans exist, we will often look with suspicion at new ideas – or be strangely attracted to them.

Disciples Arrive

While others are still suspicious, some are intuitively and emotionally attracted to a certain new idea. They may not be able to say why, but something draws them in. Maybe the idea seems to be a solution to the challenges they currently have. Maybe the idea just sounds right. Whatever it is, it is drawing some people in more strongly than others. Some of these first comers become disciples – students of the originator of the idea.


In the beginning, there is no written curriculum, no rulebook to follow. The originator and the disciples gather and talk. The idea is still fresh and pliable. As the conversations go on, the idea evolves. Provoked by new insights from both originator and disciples, it mutates from its original form into something new. Because this happens in conversation in the group, the idea is the shared property of those who participate, and there seems to be unity around what the idea is – even though it cannot always be described exactly.

Spreading the Word

The lack of clear rules doesn’t deter the disciples. Eager to let more people see the brilliance of the new idea, they get to work on spreading it. More conversations ensue – in slowly widening circles. Some of the new people who learn about the idea decide to take part in spreading it further.


The new idea has taken root. It now seems to be spreading almost by itself. The originator and the disciples are no longer in control of the spreading. They are happy that the idea is catching on, but a few of them also worry. Some new people seem to misunderstand the idea. Even worse: there are now people who claim that they understand the idea, yet misrepresent it entirely when teaching it. Some of the disciples say that things are spiraling out of control.

A System is Born

Realizing that they are loosing grip of the idea, the originator and the disciples gather to discuss a solution. They that the idea needs to be more clearly described, so that new students can be steered in the right direction. Gradually, some things are clarified. But some things also seem to be lost in the process. Some of the disciples consider this a price worth paying – after all, they all want the idea to spread. Others quietly wonder if the frenzy to specify what the idea is about is making the idea itself disappear.

Rules and Robes

A system of clarifying rules is now in place, but maintaining it is no easy task. To make sure the rules are followed, new roles, ceremonies and symbols are introduced. Those assigned a role in the system play a part that is very different from the disciples. Instead of focusing on the original idea, the perspective of these role-players is that of learning and spreading the rules of the system.

As time passes, the players become further and further removed from the idea itself, and more and more attached to the growing set of rules. As the rule set grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to learn for those who cannot spend all their time studying it. This gives the maintainers of the rule set a clear advantage: they can now claim supreme insight – and their deep knowledge of the rules seems to prove it. They are given a title to carry, maybe with some symbolic item (possibly clothing), that make it clear that they and no one else are the keepers of the truth.

These interpreters of the message now make up a formidable layer between the original idea and newcomers. Ask us, they say, because we have the answers. Thinking for yourself will only lead you astray – it is too hard for you. Even dangerous.

Rewards and Punishment

Now far removed from its original form, the original idea is no longer a spark of inspiration. It has mutated into a stagnant rulebook, maintained by those who have made it their task to uphold the rules, whatever the costs may be. As both the number of rules and number of followers keep increasing, the likelihood of rule violations is also bound to grow. To maintain respect for the system, the maintainers devise systems of rewards and punishment and assign themselves the right to dole them out. Many of the new followers appreciate this – after all, they didn’t come for the idea, they came because they were attracted by the structure and order of the rule system.

Splits and Branches

As the burden of what is now a strict system of compliance increases, some followers can no longer accept the situation. They decide to form their own branch of the system, giving them room to adapt the rules to their liking – and to put more deserving people into positions of power. Soon, multiple schools exists, and relations are not friendly between them. There seem to be no limit to the amount of energy and time that can be spent on debating which rules are the best. Some find this entirely satisfactory; debating their adversaries has become their new mission. After all (they say) the One Truth must be defended, or it may become tainted.

Heresy: a New Spark

With multiple schools of thought and multiple rulebooks in play, the system has become all-encompassing. Its controls seem to reach all, but that is only an illusion. As its grip has widened, it has also loosened. Below the surface of polite compliance, free thoughts of resistance are bubbling, provoked into existence by the very system that sought to keep them out. One day, a new idea stands out so powerfully that some people find it irresistible, even given the risk of dire consequences for those who choose to speak about it. A small and still secret group of heretics gathers to talk about the idea. The life of the idea is over, and immediately starts all over again.

Fast Company on Why We Fail to Innovate

FastCompany puts the finger on an important reason why many companies have a hard time coming up with more innovative behaviors:

“here’s the truth: most companies can’t innovate because everyone is paid to maintain the status quo. This is the single biggest reason companies fail to do anything new or exciting”

via Stop Blabbing About Innovation And Start Actually Doing It | Fast Company.

Late Again, Thinking About the Cost of Delays

It’s Wednesday morning, and I’m on the train heading to Stockholm. The train is late, and it’s not the first time.

One reason delays annoy me so much is that they break my expectations. I’ve made my plans to fit with the train company’s timetable, and now they are not upholding their part of the commitment.

Then again, when it comes to riding the train from my hometown Uppsala to Sweden’s capital – Stockholm – delays are such an integral part of the experience that I’m no longer surprised when they happen. Curiously, they still annoy me. Maybe it’s because the company running the trains couldn’t seem to care less about the problems the delays are causing me. Somehow, they still manage to act like every single delay is a big surprise to them. I take comfort in the fact that I get some extra time to read and write, as long as I’ve found a place to sit on the train – but that’s another story.

Anyway, while a train delay may not seem a huge thing to fret about, consider its less obvious effects. When I don’t make it on time to my networking meeting, I miss out on information and networking that would be valuable to me.

Intuitively, we know that being late costs us, but we easily focus on only one narrow part of that cost: the increased cost of working on something for a longer time. We forget that we also push the rewards into the future, and that might be costing us even more.

In general, I find that a concrete cost today is easier to grasp than a probable loss in the future. Maybe it’s because we find it hard to think about loosing something we never really had in the first place. I guess this is one of the reasons we make short-sighted decisions.

If you want to learn more about understanding your cost of delay, Donald Reinertsen’s books are a good investment: Developing Products in Half the Time, Managing the Design Factory and The Principles of Product Development Flow.

Systems Thinking Applied to Management with Russell Ackoff

If you’re a student of Russell Ackoff’s teachings, you should rapidly click yourself over to the Ackoff Center blog, where you will find a link to a rich set of video lectures with Ackoff himself:

“When the course was announced the registration requests were so high that a lottery with random drawing had to be established to admit the 25 graduate students who could attend.  The course ran for 3 hours per week for 12 weeks.  Russ was 84 years old.”

Sketchnoting a Russell Ackoff talk

Listening to Russell Ackoff speaking, I “sketchnoted” this in Brushes on my iPad. I’m a very visual thinker, so this is a way for me to make things stick a little better in my brain, plus it’s very fun and relaxing to do.

I don’t worry to much about my handwriting and general drawing skills. I just draw. It will be interesting for me to see how my drawings change over time, because my guess is I’ll be doing a lot of this, just for the fun of it.

If you’re interested in the topic of systems thinking, go ahead a watch Ackoff’s talk. I’m afraid my sketchnotes may not be very intelligible for anyone else but me, but I highly recommend the method as a way of taking notes and processing new information.

Big thanks to Esther Derby for telling me about sketchnoting!

The Power of Completion: Great vs Excellent Teachers

When I practiced aikido, I was struck by the difference between good and excellent teachers. The good teacher would be more than willing to correct me when I did something wrong. Too willing, in fact. So eager were they to instruct me that they would interrupt me mid-motion to show me how to improve. The excellent teachers never did this. They would always let me complete a full technique, only stopping me when it was all done to explain, very briefly, one small thing I could do differently.

The difference was profound. I became annoyed at the instructors who interrupted me. I felt I couldn’t really learn anything when being interrupted all the time. With the good instructors, I would often find out myself what I was doing wrong, and correct myself before they could. I don’t know about you, but I find that things I discover myself stick a whole lot better than things I’m told by others.

What was going on here? I believe that being allowed to complete a full technique, even if that meant doing it less well, made it possible for me to judge the results by myself. The good instructors could spot I wasn’t going to get a great result just from watching my early movement, and stopped me. The great instructors saw this too, but understood that only by discovering this myself would I truly learn.

Systems thinkers will recognize this problem: it is a problem of working on the parts versus working on the whole. The good instructors thought that improving the parts separately could work. The excellent instructors knew that focus needed to be first on the whole, second on the parts.

What kind of teacher are you? What do you do to ensure that you give your students a chance to learn by themselves?