The Paradox of Wasted Effort

Software is all around us. In banks. Operating rooms. It runs the power grid. Lands the airplane. Teaches our children. It's in the voting booth, and it's in our bedrooms.

You would think that, as much impact as software has on each of us, we would be focused single-mindedly on creating value whenever we set to work on it. And yet, so much time and effort is wasted on bad software. Why?

Whence the Waste?

Why is so much time and effort wasted in software development? Overseeing the Lab Zero engagements, I’ve seen a lot. Sometimes I hear something that lets me know that a project is heading for a certain kind of waste.

Poor Signal

“Build the thing first and then we’ll know whether we hit the target.”

If you have to build the whole thing before tuning into the signal coming from users, then you’re almost certainly going to make a costly wrong turn. Especially when building a product in uncharted territory (new functionality or a new target market), there is so much that you don’t know you don’t know.

Values Mismatch

“If I can get a million people to click this blue button, I’ll be rich.”

We’re not saying that companies with pure profit motive haven’t succeeded before. But if you conceive of your user base as a funnel of 100 million users, 1 million of which you need to click the ‘Next’ button--then you’re not going to succeed.

Optimistic Planning

“We can start the Xmas campaign right after the Thanksgiving campaign.”

We’ve all tried to plan our way out of a time or resource crunch. It doesn’t work. Being too optimistic--or systematically overestimating what you can get done by the deadline--is waste. The waste is the missed opportunity that you would take advantage of if you planned more realistically.

Systems Thinking

“I need a front-end that will provide valid input to the KORG”

We need systems thinking. After all, if not for the KORG, we wouldn’t have a business, would we? So the KORG needs to be fed. But your users don’t care if the KORG is fed--they do not share that particular vision. If you try to force your users to feed the KORG, they won’t go along with you--and in the end your effort is wasted. 

How Does Lab Zero Stomp Out Waste?

Lab Zero doesn’t have all the answers, but when I see waste on the horizon, I find that a little nudge can help steer the team around the traps that kill productivity. When we get smart about one or more of these things, we find that we waste a lot less time and effort.

Users are People

Recognize that users are people. They have a choice every day about what to do. Their choices are influenced by their needs, their past and their perceptions. People are all different. Their stories matter. And parts of their stories matter more than others; discovering the stories that matter most puts you on the fast track to adding value.

The goal of discovery and design is to understand the goals, pains, aspirations of your users, and then to apply constraints like ‘the KORG must be fed’ while meeting users’ goals, addressing their pain points, and helping them achieve their aspirations.

Designers and Engineers are also People

Of course they’re people--you meet with them every day. But there are two kinds of activity that we often insulate them from, even though we know that they benefit from being involved:

Planning. Setting reasonable goals is impossible without talking to designers and engineers (and everybody else on the team) in detail about what we want to accomplish. Everybody has to know what’s at stake, and what we have to gain (or lose) by achieving a goal. 

Understanding user needs.  Engineers and designers can spend days solving problems that don’t matter to users. If each person on the team is plugged into user needs, then each person can right-size their effort on a task by simply asking the question “Will this help our users?”

Prioritize Learning and Cycles

We know that, if you know have perfect information about what you want to build, then it’s most efficient to build it all in one go, and release it. However there is never perfect information. There isn’t perfect information about how the product meets customer needs, and there is also not perfect information about how it will work. There is only perfect information about how it will work once it is actually working (and even then, we aren’t always absolutely sure why it works). 

If you deliver incrementally, and in cycles, you address this lack of perfect information, and learn as you go. A rule of thumb is to break up and replace each monolithic cycle with three smaller ones.

Find the Win-Win

Theft is not sustainable on the Internet. A million users are not going to accidentally make you rich by clicking on that blue button on your website.

For sustainable, real growth, you need to commit to growing the benefit pool of your users through the software or service you’re building; then find a way to divide the benefits between you and your users so that everybody comes out ahead.

Practically speaking, you have to seek to do good, while constraining the team to design and build your service so that some of the good accrues to the business.

Our Pledge

When you work with Lab Zero, we commit to working with you so that you don’t waste time, effort, and money. We commit to deliver something of lasting value. And because we’ve seen many of the traps that lead to wasted effort, we also promise to nudge you to help you avoid them.


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Lab Zero is a San Francisco-based product team helping startups and Fortune 100 companies build flexible, modern, and secure solutions.