The Role of Details in Software Product Development

Steven ten Napel By Steven ten Napel on July 10, 2013

In our previous post, we discussed software offshoring in the context of Sun Tzu's book- The Art of War. 

Sun Tzu, the legendary Chinese general from over 1500 years ago, left us with an immense amount of wisdom that is remarkably relevant and inspiring even today.

 The one I would like to share with you today is:

  “There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested, commands of the sovereign which must not be obeyed.”

 -Sun Tzu, The Art of War

 I hope those of you who are in management or other leading positions are not offended by the last part about not obeying ‘commands of the sovereign’. Actually that is a topic in itself, so I will leave that for the next post.

 In this post, I would like to share three lessons I learned from the first part of Sun Tzu’s quote:

 1.)            Focus

  Sun Tzu wasn’t really trying to spell out a list of “don’t’s”. What he was trying to get across is that in order to create an environment conducive to success, we shouldn’t merely focus on the things we should do, but also pay close attention to and carefully avoid those things we shouldn’t do. The word that immediately comes to mind is Focus. If one wants to achieve something, it is highly imperative that he/she have proper focus.

 2.)            Not just focus, but pertinent focus

 Focusing on the right elements is definitely easier said than done. It involves making difficult choices because it is impossible to focus on everything (tip: you are not really focusing if you are focusing on everything!). It is crucial to know exactly what to focus on by gauging importance and relevance.

 3.)            Focus on those details that will make a difference

 At this juncture, I’d like to bring attention to yet another astounding personality: the best Dutch soccer player ever, often compared with Pele--Johan Cruijff. He is also quite famous for the pearls of wisdom he would routinely share, most of which are regarded as brilliant primarily because they are so difficult to understand.  There is one thing he said, however, that is quite similar to what Sun Tzu opined, and quite applicable for our consumption.

 Responding to an interview question on assuming leadership, Johan Cruijff said that he wasn’t interested in the big picture, but only in the details. This created a lot of turmoil. How could this ‘general’ on the pitch, this great leader of soccer ignore the big picture and instead drown himself in frivolous details?  It seemed like his statement was faulty. Personally though, I don’t think it was a mistake. He knew exactly where he was going with it—

 If you want to win, you have to focus on a narrow set of areas. 


 In order to quickly make a judgment about what is wrong or right, you have to scan the details of only those focus areas that will truly make a difference.

To really make an impact on the Big Picture, you have to concern yourself with the details- - not ALL the details, but only those few that make the difference. If you can get those details right, the Big Picture will subsequently follow in the right path. Sun Tzu and Johan Cruijff both figured this out. With practice and experience, they were able to gauge what works and what doesn’t.

 Offshore development isn’t too different from this concept. We can come up with hundreds of reasons for how it can go wrong but if we can first decide on which essential details to focus on to get it right, then we are well on our way to building a successful model!

 If you are considering setting up an offshore team, ensure that the offshore partner you are choosing  can explain the details to you, the few necessary ones. It is also important that he understands these details from experience. Doing this will help you avoid common failures and put you in a favorable position for a successful take off.

 I’m not manipulating Sun Tzu’s words this time, just adapting it:

 “There are roads which must not be followed, armies which must not be attacked, towns which must not be besieged, positions which must not be contested”

- coMakeIT, The Art of Partnership


 Steven ten Napel



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