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Bodankers and Botanical Gardens – Why innovative products can’t be parity products

shaun_moon
Instructure
Instructure
3 23 2,340

A few years ago, a colleague and I were brainstorming how we could help the product we owned be more innovative. At one point, she said that we were going to have to cut the lines to some of the bodankers in the product. The term “bodanker” was not one that I’d heard before. I was confident that it wasn’t a new software engineering term. I knew our product well enough to know that “bodanker” wasn’t a descriptor of anything in the code. I deduced that it must be some sort of colloquialism, and from the context, I interpreted it to mean something that gets in the way of progress. After she finished articulating her line of thinking, I said, “Before we carry on, I want to make sure I understand something particular you talked about. I’ve never heard the term bodanker. What does that mean?” She looked at me, a bit confused and responded that she had no idea what I was talking about. I recounted that she said we were going to have to cut the lines on many of the bodankers, which I interpreted to mean things that were holding us back from innovating. I felt more than a little sheepish when she laughed and laughed, saying, “I said ‘boat anchor’! Y’know, like an anchor...on a boat!”

I still think that bodanker is a much more evocative turn of phrase. And it’s funner to say — bodanker.

But for the purposes of thinking about creating innovative products, botanical gardens could be a much more instructive analogy than boat anchors.

Image credit Shaun MoonImage credit Shaun Moon

Gardens have many of the same characteristics of software products. I want to focus on just two of those here:

  • Gardens typically require gardeners to care for them.
  • Gardens typically have boundaries.

Gardeners

Botanical gardens need gardeners to take care of them. “Taking care” of a garden can include obvious things, like removing unwanted plants, sowing seeds and setting bulbs, thinning out garden beds when appropriate, pruning trees and shrubs. Taking care may require building of infrastructure—for watering, for retaining soil, for helping people move through the garden.

Boundaries

Gardeners are constrained by boundaries around a garden. They also constrain themselves through the layout of boundaries within a garden.

Because of boundaries, gardeners have to make trade-offs when evaluating how much to change a garden. If a gardener has a goal to help visitors learn about plants native to the area, they might explore the costs required to enlarge the garden's total footprint. They might look to wholly rearrange some parts of the garden by moving garden beds and moving plants from one section to another.

Gardeners AND Boundaries

When a garden changes, either by expanding the area that is cared for and cultivated, or by rearranging the boundaries of areas and planting beds within the existing garden space, or by changing plants are contained within which areas, gardeners will have to learn new techniques, or hire expertise (temporarily or permanently) in order to make desired changes AND to then care for the “new” garden in new ways.

Software Products

We are always looking for ways to make the Instructure garden better. However, “better” can’t always be bigger. We cannot always be adding more capability because for every feature, service and component, we need people to ensure its security, scalability and utility. The more features, services and components we have, the more capacity we must give, as a whole, to maintenance--to making sure our garden is well tended. In order to be able to appropriately maintain and innovate, sometimes we have to rearrange the “garden beds” of our products. And sometimes we will make decisions to remove features of the current garden in order to accommodate new elements that can provide more value to more students, more instructors, more leaders.

We are committed to making a better garden for the whole Instructure community, which is going to mean that the products in 2023 and 2025 and 2030 are not going to do the same things they do in 2021. In the coming months and years we will be doing a lot of planting and as well as some pruning throughout our products. Canvas in 2023 will not be Canvas from 2021 with more stuff. It will not be “parity plus more stuff”.

I recognize that “pruning” will not be welcomed by all. Invariably, Product leaders will make some decisions to remove capabilities and features that some of you use regularly. We will do our best to make things go as smoothly as we can, balancing many considerations. We are invested in the future of teaching and learning and we will always strive to deliver products that support and inform an evolution toward better learning outcomes for all.

If you have questions or comments about principles or pragmatic considerations that inform product decisions related to “parity or not parity,” please feel free to engage in the comments section below. I’ll ask that you hold feature-specific questions such as, “Will feature ‘A’ ever be ‘pruned’ from a product?” for discussion in posts related to that particular feature and product.

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