The Bowie Scale

When a company gets as big as Atlassian is now, and has always had a good track record in innovation, it’s easy to get complacent. Nobody ever intends to, but there is a balance to be struck in terms of spending time on making what we already have better vs. breaking new ground.

An experimental mindset is crucial

We all have ideas. Ideas about what our customers will love, what will be the best next thing, what will be a game changer… Those are mostly all opinions and remain so until they are checked. You’d be surprised how off your gut can be, as well. It’s an unsettling feeling to learn that you can be that wrong and know it felt so right.

This is why experimenting and testing are critical. We all get very particular about what our customers would or wouldn’t accept and in the throes of the argument, we forget to check. Sometimes that means asking them, but a lot of the time it means experimenting and testing. “Ice cream pork pie” and “salmon poached in liquorice gel” could really fuel a good argument, but they are some of Heston Blumenthal’s signature dishes. His genius is that he’s creative enough to come up with the combinations, and smart enough to go to science for inspiration. The main thing though is that he experiments first, before making a call on a flavour combination.

“And I like asking questions, to keep learning; people with big egos might not want to look unsure”. — Heston Blumenthal

He keeps learning. That’s what software teams need to do too. Stay creative and keep pushing to break new ground to learn what works.

The problem is not what you think it is

You’d think the next issue would be the volume of crazy ideas that waste time and achieve nothing useful, but actually not a lot of those surface in companies. Doing anything truly original requires a lot of stamina and guts. Those ideas are uncomfortable, hard to articulate without sounding a bit weird, and they are fragile. The temptation is to shut them down and focus energies on something much more tangible and predictable, which is why so few ever make the cut. This is why processes and tools that allow those ideas to be conceived and then to protect those ideas are important.

We use a framework we call Disrupt to ensure those crazy ideas can emerge in the first place, but here’s the thing.

When you ask people to come up with crazy ideas, they can’t. They think they do, but in actual fact their ideas are very pedestrian. You might hear “What about we change all our UI to be hot pink?” or “You can only find out about our prices if you tweet” or some such idea. They might feel dangerous to a group because they’re stepping away from their status quo. Actually it is a very minute step in the grand scheme of things, but after a while we lack the perspective to see that. Ideas that appear audacious are tame. Tame ideas feel audacious. When you reach this plateau, you are in deep shit.

I could feel the team tracking towards that direction and wanted to make sure we didn’t end up there, so I knew we needed some sort of unbiased scale to measure our ideas against. This is how the Bowie scale came about. Its namesake was audacious, experimental, creative and a true original. We want to emulate those qualities in our work when we seek innovative directions.

You idea is on the Bowie Scale if it:

…scores high on ‘audaciousness’: it’s bold, and frankly, a bit imprudent.

Using a 1–5 likert scale, boldness can be operationalised as trying something new (N) with an absence of fear (F) specifically when fear might be justified. Imprudence can be operationalised for experiments we feel are risky (R & P) as well as having low certainty ( C ) of outcome, i.e. distance from safety.

  • How much has this idea been done before (by us or competitors)? (N)
  • How uncomfortable does it make you feel? (F)
  • How sure are you that this would work? ( C )
  • How extreme would the outcome be if it succeeded? (P)
  • How extreme would the outcome be if it failed? (R)

Bowie scale (score 1–5) = (F + ((N*-1)+6) + ((C*-1)+6) + ((R+P)/2)) /4

These scores provide a systematic rank of how audacious we feel an idea is, and can be validated against experiment outcomes over time — especially against real experiment results in the Risk/Payoff dimension.

We have been using it for a few months now, and I am still amazed at how many ideas feel nuts are really just a small step away from the norm. I am happy that we are learning to have more audacious ideas and the more they come, the more we establish a new baseline across the company for what is bat shit crazy and what really isn’t.

Consider getting a full sleeve tattooed on your right arm. It might make you sweat at the thought, maybe you shook your head and it felt crazy to you. A lot of people have them though, it’s not so “out there” these days, same as pink hair.

Think about it ;)

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