Feature Creep and the Horror of Opportunity

“Digitalization brings fantastic opportunities” – ever hear that line? I’ve heard it a lot, in particular from people in public office (=politicians) and civil servants (=bureaucrats). One time, I found myself in a seminar with six(!) directors of different public agencies. Each of them opened their talk with some variation of the phrase. It was like catechism. Before we can say anything else, we must first pledge allegiance to the digital revolution. (Fifteen years before the line used to be “The internet brings fantastic opportunities”, perhaps progress can be defined as replacing one word with another?)

Opportunities. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But… is really opportunities you want? So many opportunities, so little time. Maybe if you’re looking to change jobs or move house, opportunities can be great – but even then, too many opportunities can be overwhelming. For most parts, perhaps other things are more important? Quality, delivery, reliability, cost, availability, simplicity… (I’m sure you can think of more words!). Of course, opportunities – used properly – can bring all those great things. An opportunity is an unfulfilled promise. It demands of you to pursue it. But what you really want is results. Your time is limited. Your money is limited. You don’t want more opportunities, what you really want is better results.

Have you bought or received any device lately? Any new software or digital service? Does your phone have four different calendars, each of which sends you reminders for an appointment that was cancelled two days ago? In software development, there is a phenomenon called “feature creep”. It means adding new features, not because we need them but because we can. It can be very difficult to resist new features. What if your toothbrush had an app that helped you keep track of your brushing habits? Oh, wait – that already exists! It is easy to make a case for more features and difficult to say no to them. If you’re already making a photo indexing software, you might as well add a timeline and once that is there you can always add appointments and reminders and an AI tool that trawls your phone and cloud services for other appointments and just like that… you have a fifth calendar sending you reminders about birthdays of people you haven’t met in a decade. Digital opportunity and feature creep are siblings. They make each other stronger and makes it harder to break the pattern.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know that we are fast approaching the point where our digital assistants create more work than they take away. Perhaps we are already past that point. Opportunity brought us here. I have one idea for a different way, though. Bear with me.

We have all heard the stories of how Japanese trains are always on time. If the Shinkansen is 30 seconds late, the director of the train company makes a public apology. It is tempting to think that this punctuality is thanks to superior technology, perhaps a super-computer looking after all trains or some kind of electronic miracle device in each locomotive. Japan is the birthplace of GameBoy and micro-computer powered rice cookers, after all. But no. The opposite is the reason. By carefully eliminating every potential source of delay, the risks are mitigated. If a railroad switch can be removed, that is one less potential malfunction. If a road-crossing can be re-designed from gates to a bridge or tunnel, that takes away one potential source of disruption. Not by looking for opportunity, but by removing it, the Japanese railway system works better than perhaps any other in the world.

Back to the civil servants and elected decision-makers. If they focus their resources on opportunities, there will be more. Lots of great potential. But when is the time to focus on results? How to best spend the public funds? How to get the most delivery for the investment. The case can always be made for opportunity. But now may be the time for simplicity rather than opportunity. Less, not more. Can we be inspired by the Japanese train philosophy? Or would you rather have seven… no eight… no eighteen reminders for that meeting that you cancelled?