The First Step to Great Solutions

How do you begin designing a new database or application? If you start with an Entity Relationship Diagram (ERD), you’re doing it wrong.

It’s natural for a technical person to begin categorizing things into entities – a company has contacts, which have addresses, etc. But this process immediately narrows your perspective to a small subset of the issues at hand, blinding you to many more important challenges and opportunities.

FileMaker is particularly suited to people who are overburdened with immediate business needs: “Get us out of this burdensome spreadsheet!” Bringing order to the chaos and easing labor demands is often a relatively quick task in FileMaker. But organization and automation are not the goals of a great consultant – merely the means. Your biggest value as a consultant is rooted in your ability to facilitate the creation of better solutions to their problems, particularly those of which your client is not even aware.


So don’t begin mapping your solution in that handy ERD of yours, because you’re not mapping the real problems or solutions. It’s a sure way to let their existing assumptions and solutions crystallize into what is supposed to be a newer, better system.

The most significant obstacles and victories are found behind the assumptions many people don’t think to question. The consultant’s job is to help uncover and assess these assumptions, especially assumptions about what they do and how it’s measured. This involves questions like “What does this really mean?” and “Why is this important?”. Once you begin to understand their domain, your goal is to expand the realm of possibilities in search of better solutions. This is sometimes called divergent thinking. “To have a good idea, you must first have lots of ideas,” as two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling put it.* It doesn’t need to be a long process of brainstorming, but you need to at least be sure that you’re not blindly following the first path that presents itself. Then you can begin honing in on a particular strategy and structure – convergent thinking.

A successfull database or application will therefore help the client better understand their business before the system is even built. This should teach you what is really important about their data before you begin solidifying the system architecure. The system itself can then help them quickly isolate and understand the key learnings provided by their data. In other words, the system will help users prioritize their data and tasks in a way most aligned with their company’s objectives. Conventional interfaces can’t do this because conventional consultants don’t understand how to value what they’re organizing. The interfaces are therefore often built with an eye for uniformity and from the perspective of the architecture.

Do your systems simply re-organize spreadsheets or do they bring to life the inner workings of the business? Don’t let a good ERD fool you into thinking you know what’s going on. If you want to build outstanding solutions, you need to begin by asking the right questions – lots of them. And that’s the first step to great solutions; you need to play the fool.

Ignorance is the most important component for helping others to solve any problem in any industry…. You probably don’t know much unless you’re willing to first play the fool. Ignorance is not such a bad thing if one knows how to use it, and all managers must learn how to do this. You must frequently approach problems with your ignorance; not what you think you know from past experience, because not infrequently, what you think you know is wrong.

– Peter Drucker (source)


  • Brown, Tim. Change By Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation. 2009. p. 67.

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