This is another rant that could get me into trouble if I’m not careful with my words!

Let me start with a real-life illustration.

I visit my family in Sri Lanka very so often. I remember, back in my youth when I used to live there, people crossed the main road wherever they pleased. One of these roads is Galle Road; a big trunk road that goes parallel to the sea in Colombo.

That’s how they crossed the road; just walked across.

I noticed that over the years they have built pedestrian bridges so that people can cross via the overpass without causing traffic mayhem.

But, they still cross the road by walking across. Why? Simple. It’s a lot easier than climbing two stories up to cross via the bridges.

So, the bridges are never used for their intended purpose. But what about the bridges? Are they still there, or have they been dismantled for lack of use?

No! They’re very much in use.

People, entire families, have moved in. People have made their homes on the pedestrian overpass!

What’s my point?

When we have a new tool, a new invention, a new methodology or technique for some task or problem we have always had (like the need to cross the road!) it’s a good idea to think about how it has always been done, and review how the audience is taking to it. Preferably at the design stage. Unless, of course, the ultimate purpose was (in the case above, for example) to build new houses for the poor! (Or to look as if something solid is being done about road safety)

Excel

I come across his a lot. A new feature comes out. Everyone is excited, of course. And me, having been with this stuff since the beginning in the 1980s with Multiplan, goes talking about ‘how we always tackled the data processing needs in real organisations over the decades’. I meet with some looks of incredulity, as if nobody did any work prior to (insert any new feature) this new feature of Excel.

Now, before I start a war, I love new ideas, new tools, new and better ways of doing things. That’s how we got here in the first place.

But, let’s try and understand what the ‘new thing’ does and how, particularly how it changes/improves the way we have always done it. Will it change how people always did this thing?

Or, to put it the other way – will those who never tackled this kind of problem (eg. by avoiding it) now tackle it efficiently, now we have this new tool or feature? Or will they continue to do it manually?

In the Galle Road example above, the pedestrian walkways didn’t improve how people crossed the road. However, it did (in a small way) solve the housing crisis for the poor. So, it serves a purpose. Though not the one about reducing mayhem of the road, and accidents.

A new feature in Excel has many uses. For example, it is necessary for Microsoft to complete with its competition. It also needs to keep up with the trends. That we understand. Also, the Excel ecosystem needs it, just as any sales team is crying out for new and sexy product, particularly those that are sexy to demonstrate.

But, how does the new feature improve how it’s always been done? How does it change behavior?

Funny

I like to compare and contrast different approaches to problems and solutions. Often there is no one ‘correct way’. There is a ‘correct way’ or the most sensible way for any given set of circumstances. In my research I’d try to find out why an exponent of the ‘new feature’ waxes lyrical about it. I often get this answer – ‘it’s a new feature. It couldn’t be done before’.

So, ok. Nobody crossed Galle Road before, or any road? Roads were never crossed until the overpasses were built? But, oh look! Nobody is crossing by the overpasses! And oh look, anybody that’s crossing the road now is just walking across.

Just like they did before.

Nothing has changed. Relax. And breathe.

Related

There’s an illustration coming up, from an article I read today. TBA. I’m creating a video explainer on ‘how we did it before’. Let’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Hiran de Silva

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