Growing rather than planning solutions
The business that designed itself
The secret of utilising the power of bottom up design is to think of the product or business as being attracted towards some goal - and you get to set that goal. As an example, I'll explain a bottom up process that happened to me almost by accident. It saw me owning a string of head shops in all the trendy tourist areas of London's West End (What are head shops? It was a term used in the 1970's to describe places that sold bizarre and unusual gifts. This was at the time of the flower people, love, peace and psychedelia).
My speciality at that time was old clothes: clothes from the 1920's and 1930's that were very fashionable with the trendy hippies. I had a successful old clothes boutique in London's Carnaby Street and a chance came up for me to rent a large area in a shopping mall that had opened next to my shop. I split the area up into small trading units and let them out.
When this mini market opened, I had two empty units. One was extremely small, about 20 square feet, and the other was around 200 square feet but was stuck in the corner with a very small entrance. Not wanting to open with two empty units I decided to run them myself. The small unit was suitable only for small tourist gifts so I went round to a local wholesaler, gave him a few hundred pounds and said to him, "I haven't the faintest idea what to buy. I've got to set up a small sales kiosk in Carnaby Street, give me what you think will sell". I added, "If they sell well I'll be back for more".
The other unit I decided to make into a really nice antique shop. Most of the buying of the stock for the old clothes shop was in and around antique markets and I'd developed quite an interest and some expertise. I spent a few thousand pounds stocking the unit; making careful selections to build an exquisite range of interesting antiques.
The market opened under the name of "The Flea Market". As this was in Carnaby Street, a top tourist attraction, it was immediately successful. Every unit was taking lots of money, except for my beautiful antique shop. Everybody marvelled at it, took photos and said how brilliant it looked. But nobody was buying any antiques.
The weeks went by and although I bought more and more antiques, the shop still wasn't taking any money. On the other hand, my little gift shop was doing really well. I was down to the wholesaler every day to replace the sold stock.
One day, a scruffy looking Asian trader came into the antiques unit. He showed me some cheap looking replica swords that had been made in India. They had brass handles and bright red velvet scabbards. He offered to sell them to me and I explained as patiently as I could that this was an antique shop and these cheap imitations just wouldn't fit in. He was persistent and insisted that he left them in the shop for me just to see the reaction. To humor him I let him leave them and as soon as he'd gone I put them into a dark corner where they wouldn't stand out.
At the end of the day when I went to the antique shop and to my delight found we'd actually taken some money. "What did you sell?", I asked the sales girl. "Those funny swords", she told me.
When the Asian returned, I bought some more swords from him and he showed me some hideous looking carved wooden boxes. Seeing the look on my face he told me to try them. "You'll be surprised" he said. Sure enough I was surprised, they sold well. When he came back he had some funny shaped knives and some African drums. I put those in with the antiques and they sold. He brought in brass horns, leather whips, ornamental daggers. Then he brought in incense. In no time at all it was looking like a weird Indian bazaar.
Then the incense attracted a wholesaler of pipes and chillums for smoking funny tobacco. He said they were selling like crazy in the tourist shops. He was right, they did. Other wholesalers came along and supplied me with other items that were selling well in trendy shops catering for the flower people. Soon this unit was taking more money than any other unit in the market. And I hadn't taken any intelligent part in the success at all. The unit had sort of grown on its own.
One day, a guy showed up at the unit and said this was the most original shop he'd seen in London and asked me if I'd like a prime site in a market he was opening in Piccadilly Circus. I jumped at the chance. That was one of the busiest tourist site in the world. It couldn't help but be successful.
Soon, I was going every day to wholesalers getting stock. I still couldn't judge for myself what would sell or not sell. So, apart from stock that had to be replaced, I left the stock selection to them. It was working well, why change the system?
Then, other people approached me to open units in their markets. I soon had units in all the main tourist centers: Leicester Square; Oxford Street; Kings Road; Kensington High Street. In no time at all I had a mega business taking thousands of pounds a week. Yet, it seemed to me I hadn't really done anything to create it. It had just grown: from the bottom up.
Although at this time I'd never heard of object oriented design strategies I was forced into treating all these units like objects. It was impossible to organise the stock properly. There was so much and of such a variety that any kind of stock control or inventory checks were impossible. To make it worse, all the units were run by unsavoury characters. They were mostly foreigners who had come England on the pretence of studying.
If this choice of staff seems strange, you have to take into consideration that these were central tourist locations and were open till late at night. Sensible and respectable people would not work in such an environment and I had to hire anyone I could get and these were the people who were not suitable to take regular jobs. They were the flotsam and Jetsam that hung out in busy tourist areas.
As it was obvious that these characters were not particularly loyal and certainly not scrupulously honest, I had to accept a large amount of pilfering. I couldn't check the stock, there was a lot of shoplifting, so, any kind of control was out of the question.
Taking a pragmatic view, I decided to leave well alone. I told them I trusted them and didn't even pretend to check up on the stock. I left them to cheat me as much as they like. This probably sounds ridiculous, but, although my staff were pretty unsavoury they were all intelligent and street wise. They knew I couldn't check up on them but they also knew that they wouldn't last very long in their lucrative jobs if their units were making a loss. So, they had to exercise some discretion as to how much they stole and had to work really hard at selling to cover up their pilfering. Any who overstepped the mark were removed immediately.
The system worked really well. The way I looked at it was that I had units that were producing a profit. I didn't have to get involved in how they worked because I had keen conscientious staff who were working to cover up the extra money they were taking from the business. I employed somebody to get the stock from the wholesalers and deliver it to the units and my sole job was to go round each day to collect the money. All I had to do was to make sure that the money I was paying out was less than I was getting in.
Now it may seem that this has nothing at all to do with e-business and e-commerce, but, in fact it is a better model to work from than any you'll find in any business college text book. It illustrates what can be seen happening on the Web all the time. Starting with a fine looking solution that is inappropriate for the environment; the initial reluctance to have any changes made to "a darling" even though it was patently obvious it wasn't working. It shows how just by being in an environment can allow an efficient solution to be grown without any need for creative input from the designer. It shows how humility pays off.
If the system designer, or the solution provider, can subdue their own opinions and biases they can let other, more expert people provide the initiatives. In this way a project is not lead from the front with a super mind making all the decision; the project leader can take a back seat and let the project find its own way.
This example also shows, like the newsagent example, how a group of seemingly inappropriate people can be brought together to run a successful business. Sure, the business seemed to be running inefficiently, but, it was working. Maybe I was being ripped off, but, the bottom line was that the people who were ripping me off were working hard and efficiently and with a lot of motivation. But there again, were they really ripping me off? Weren't they deserving of a fair share of the profits? Were they not in fact doing all the work and giving me a share for setting up the business for them? Its all a question of getting an appropriate mind set that you can feel comfortable with.
Without knowing it, I'd employed a bottom up evolutionary design strategy to create a business and used an object oriented structure to maintain it. The business grew of its own accord, ran itself. My part in it was simply collecting the money.
The follow up to this business is even more telling. I sold it to a company who decided to run it along more conventional business lines. They introduced inventory controls and checks. They got rid of all the street wise sales people who were weeding money out of the till. They employed a buying manager, advertised for respectable sales people; selecting them from CVs and interviews. Within six months the business had collapsed.
Taking a pragmatic look at the environment of e-business and e-commerce. There are many parallels. Most of the really good programmers and media creators I know look just as dishevelled and unsavoury as the people I employed to run those units in London. They have CVs that would put off most conventional employers. Yet, given the freedom to work how they like, when and wherever they wanted to, they can really come up with the goods: probably a whole lot better than any graduate with a string of qualifications who is shackled and supervised within a cubical of a large organisation.