Avoiding a Design “Potluck”


As the holiday season nears, I’m trying to make time for all the social commitments that come with the season, while still getting everything done at the office.

This is also a season of reflection, and as a recovering banking architect I often reflect on how banks get from concepts to solutions. There is too much misalignment in the way that financial organizations are operating and to make lasting and improving changes we need to rethink banking architecture in its entirety.  The sheer use of the term architecture has become contentious in some environments where it is associated with bureaucracy and cost without noticeable benefit.

As I’m working through these thoughts, I get an email reminder that I have yet to commit an item to the holiday potluck that I’m attending.  In a way, the current state of banking solution design is a lot like a potluck, everyone is off on their own and doing what they want without giving much thought about how it is all going to come together in the end. There will probably be a handful of salads, at least three nacho dips, someone will have forgotten to fully cook the Swedish meatballs, Tony from accounting will have drunk just enough eggnog to make things awkward, and if it is anything like my office potluck last year: nobody will have given any thought to bringing plates and cutlery to the event. Sure, the idea of a potluck sounds great in theory: everyone is involved, you share the workload, and get to try new things, but in reality, as the cliché goes, you end up with too many cooks in the kitchen.

Design greatness is eroded by too many “cooks” or design by committee. Everyone brings their own ideas to the table, processes become long and drawn out, and just when you think you have come to a conclusion, somebody suggests a new add-on or requests a change that sends everyone back to the drawing board.  Sure, some feedback and discussion enhances or improves a design, but too much and you wind up off schedule, over budget, and completely off track from where you originally started.

The problem with design by committee is that people tend to forget what their role is or decide that because it is a team task, they need to add one more thing to the feature mix (hence how the potluck ends up with three nacho dips).

Instead of design by committee, what is really needed is a chief designer, someone who can take the reins, delegate what needs to be done and by who, and then maintain that control throughout the project.  The chief designer has a clear vision of the end goal right from the start of the project, and they should consistently communicate and reiterate that goal throughout the project.  If a project starts to go sideways because of competing ideas and opinions, the chief designer will be able to rein everyone back in and discard any ideas that don’t align with the end goal.

Once you have that chief designer taking architectural charge and eliminating design by committee, there will be a better end-to-end design, more cohesive solutions, and an architecture team that contributes their skills to the planned design, rather than a chaotic mix of the design at each iteration.  Great design comes from vision and personal commitment to making that vision happen.

As for me and my potluck, I decide to take my own advice, and reply to the host’s email, not stating what I want to bring, but instead asking what I can contribute that will complement the other items being brought; after all, I can always save the nacho dip ingredients for another night.







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