The art of product development
When you think about the work Product teams and software developers do, “art” is probably not the first thing that springs to mind.
Instead of paintbrushes, you think about rushing to meet deadlines, features needing to be live by yesterday (as if we were Marty McFly’s copilot in Back to the Future), algorithms and languages that are unreadable for the average human. Instead of canvases, we deal in deployments, solving complex problems that require coordination across teams, managing, assessing, and containing risks…
And you wouldn't be wrong! This is a very technical job.
But the truth is — despite being quite technical — creating software is an art and a science. After reading a book called Artful Making: What Managers Need to Know About How Artists Work, which I highly recommend to managers and non-managers alike, I’ve started to see software creation in a whole new light.
See, creating software actually has a lot in common with other expressive art forms, like painting and dancing and acting. I might even go so far as to say software creation is more art than science.
Not convinced? Let’s look at four qualities of artful making and how seeing software creation as art can help Agile Product teams navigate specific challenges.
What is art?
I’m not here to get into a philosophical debate about what constitutes art. But I do think it’s important to start with a definition. Here’s one: Artistic expression, at its core, is about using your imagination to produce something that others can appreciate as beautiful. I hope you’ll agree that this can apply to software development.
Artistic expression, at its core, is about using your imagination to produce something that others can appreciate as beautiful. I hope you’ll agree that this can apply to software development.
At the software design stage, for example, you might think of yourself as an architect. Just as no two architects will design the same specs for a building project, no two engineers will come up with the same software design. The same is true when it comes to designing the user interface. If you care about your craft, then you intend to create an elegant solution to your client’s challenge.
Also, every programmer, regardless of training and experience, has a unique approach to software development. This means that in the end, the software reflects the developer just as a painting reflects the artist.
Elegance, beauty, and using your imagination to uniquely solve complex problems — sounds like art to me.
4 qualities of artful making
Artful Making brings artistic expression into stark relief. The book mentions four qualities of artful making, and I invite you to think about how these concepts can be applied to your own work and the work of your team.
When we use our imaginations to produce anything, including software, we must go through a process of release. But what does this really mean? To release is “to allow (something or someone) to move, act, or flow freely.” Releasing your software into the world requires that you give up control over how others use it. But even before you reach this stage, producing software implies another form of release.
We also need to release control over what is happening within our own teams to bring our software visions to life. For this, we need to build trust. Members of trusting, supportive teams know they can make mistakes (and learn from them), innovate, and freely propose solutions. Are you ready to unleash your team’s creativity?
Of course, releasing isn’t magic. This doesn’t mean that everyone will be doing what they want without worrying about others. As leaders, we need to release, while at the same time inspiring our teams to work together towards the same vision and shared goals that keep us connected.
This one might seem out of place. After all, we generally think of art as a lonely pursuit. However, when we reflect more deeply, we discover some of the most awe-inspiring creations were produced in collaboration with others. (If you’ve ever seen a Cirque du Soleil show, for example, you understand this point firsthand).
To achieve successful collaboration, it is extremely important that people feel free to share their ideas, communication flows, and everyone checks their personal egos at the door. Collaborations with the best synergy happen when everyone feels that they are building something great together. As the saying goes: “If you want to go quickly, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”
💡 Collaboration is an art, too! Learn more about the keys to effective teamwork — plus get tools and templates to improve the way your team collaborates — in our guide to Collaboration That Works.
When creating software, many times we fall into the trap of labeling ourselves and others based solely on our job titles. We're designers, QAs, engineers, product owners, product managers, Scrum leaders, Agile coaches, architects ... the list goes on. This quality of artful making invites us to consider how different and wonderful it would be if we thought of ourselves instead as an ensemble.
“An ensemble is a group of items viewed as a whole rather than individually.” It is possible to view ourselves as a whole by emphasizing our commonalities, rather than our individual differences. When we take this perspective, we will see new ways to support one another and understand the true meaning behind the old cliche: “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” Agile teams that lean into the principle of self-organization know this firsthand.
Give it a try. Break down these barriers and you’ll see the magic happen!
Finally, Artful Making looks at the quality of play as it relates to creativity. "A play is a work of drama, usually consisting mostly of dialogue between characters and intended for theatrical performance rather than just reading.” Hopefully creating software is relatively drama-free! But this concept does bring to mind the importance of not following a strict script when creating software.
Just as the best plays leave space for actors to improvise, innovate, and use their imaginations to embody their characters, software engineers need space to bring new solutions and contribute their ideas. Blending all of our unique contributions — and allowing ourselves to have fun and play with our imagination — is what makes up the wonderful story we share with our users.
When actors create a play, they do so with their audience in mind. They look for the best way to reach them and dig deep to give their best performance every time they step out onto the stage. We can strive to do the same.
Let’s use our imaginations to create software that touches our users’ hearts and reflects the unique way we work together!
Decode disengagement and boost performance
When team engagement and performance are suffering, there are four factors to consider:
- People: Build connection and trust across teams
- Purpose: Galvanize employees to realize a shared product vision
- Process: Keep everyone aligned around day-to-day processes and the big picture
- Play: Encourage imagination, creativity, and innovation
Download The 4 Ps of Highly Effective Product, Design, and Engineering Teams to access strategies and templates for decrypting common misunderstandings, miscommunications, and challenges across these four categories.
About the author
About the authors