Despite epitomizing the dynamic thinking of the Italian Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was reportedly an arch procrastinator who only finished a handful of works and had a reputation among his patrons and peers for being unreliable.

Little surprise then that the quote, “art is never finished, only abandoned….” has been widely attributed to him (and occasionally to Pablo Picasso.) But da Vinci is far from alone.

Many artists and other creative professionals have expressed similar views while railing against the artificial precepts of scope (size, scale or content) and time limit (deadline), imposed on them in an effort to bring a project to a successful, usually commercial, conclusion.

In 19th-century England, for example, ‘Varnishing Day’ was traditionally the time when artists arrived at an exhibition to put the finishing touches on their works and seal them with a coat of varnish. But even with this supposedly immutable deadline, some artists still managed to bend the rules.

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JMW Turner in particular was known for making significant changes to works on varnishing day while his fellow Royal Academy of Art exhibitors were simply varnishing. In the winter of 1835, Turner famously arrived at one varnishing day and proceeded to squeeze lumps of color onto a half-finished canvas. Oblivious to his audience,  he continued to work for several hours work without a break, using his fingers and a palette knife to create what would be one of two versions depicting the burning of the Houses of Parliament which he had witnessed  a few months earlier.

As Ann Landi noted in an article titled ‘When is an Artwork Finished’ published in ArtNews last year, “for Turner, the question of when a work of art was finished was evidently an easy one, as it is for a handful of artists today. But others—working in an array of mediums—find the issue of completion more complicated. Choosing when to stop altering a piece can be a highly individual decision, as idiosyncratic and personal as style, and there are instances in which a work is never fully done, at least in its creator’s mind.”

I don’t know for sure where artist Jorge Selarón fell on this spectrum, and sadly it is too late to ask him. Over a period of more than 20 years the self taught Chilean artist used over 2,000 ceramic tiles to transform a desolate street stairway connecting two run-down areas in Brazil’s Rio de Janerio into a stunning piece of urban art.

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Selarón, who lived in a rented room in a dilapidated house half-way up the 215-step Escadaria Selarón which I visited recently, was found dead on the staircase in January 2013. He was 65 and had apparently committed suicide.  He did not leave a note, but a on plaque near the foot of the steps which he described as a “tribute to the Brazilian people,” he explained that he felt compelled to keep updating his artwork and added that the staircase would only be complete when he was dead.

Selarón began decorating the steps in 1990 with a mixture of local tiles and tiles he created himself – some depicting an enigmatic image a pregnant woman with (or without) Selarón’s face and his Dali-esque handlebar moustache. (When asked about the image Selarón said simply that it was a personal matter.)

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The steps began as a side-project to his main passion, painting, but it soon became an obsession. No sooner had he used up all the available space on the step risers  than he began updating his work, often with new tiles donated by tourists from all over the world who came to talk to him and watch him work.

In one sense Selarón had become a performance artist. Standing at the foot of the staircase two years after his death, it occurred to me that while Selarón may not have recognized it himself, he had effectively dematerialized the staircase as a work of street art, and transformed it into what I will call ‘Art as a Service’ – an iterative process that is never complete until it is.

Why is this interesting? First, because as many others have noted, there are strong parallels between the world of art and IT development. As Gerald M. Weinberg, a renowned US computer scientist says, “a (computer) system is never finished being developed until it ceases to be used.”

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Second, the IT world, beginning with consumer technology companies like Apple, Google and Samsung, and now enterprise technology companies, are also navigating the transition from product companies to service companies focused on delivering value.

In the early days of personal computing, software and hardware companies were focused on an annual cycle of product launches. At Apple Computer for example, there was a saying on campus, sometimes attributed to founder Steve Jobs, that “Real Artists Ship.”

But over time, as competition heated up and the pressure to deliver early, fast and often intensified, most consumer electronics groups abandoned fixed product cycles and ‘big bang’ product launches in favor of iterative development – incremental improvements that deliver added value, for example in terms of added features, greater capacity or improved security,  to consumers.

The launch of smartphone ‘App stores’ in the second half of the 2,000s, and the shift towards frequent and now mostly free upgrades to computer/smartphone operating systems epitomized this trend, and the cloud and broadband networks provided the mechanism to deliver these upgrades in a seamless way “in the background.”

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Business users are simply consumers with jobs,  and the twin processes of consumerization and virtualization are driving the same changes in the enterprise IT market – changes that have profound implications for software and hardware vendors, and for the way that innovation and development is managed within companies.

As we move towards cloud-based real time – or what I prefer to call ‘in the moment computing’ – our approach towards software development, releases and updates also needs to change.  Instead of selling a software package or IT system, we are moving towards a services delivery model and one in which the modular services on offer to customers are based on a common platform and are constantly being upgraded.

The software as a service (and any other XaaService model) places a premium on fast and timely iterative improvements that add value for the customer rather than blockbuster product launches which are out of date before they are even announced.

That means a project’s success needs to be measured in terms of the value delivered to the customer rather than by ticking boxes on a spreadsheet or filling in a project chart depicting the scope or deadlines associated with a particular project.

In an increasingly virtualized world, where products become services, ‘completion’ becomes relatively meaningless and procrastination, if it leads to a better, albeit still timely, outcome for the customer, may be no bad thing.

This is Part 1 of a two part series on the changing nature of IT. In Part II, I plan to argue that its services, rather than software that ‘are eating the world’ and that all companies – including car makers, tractor manufacturers and other industrial companies – will need to become service providers.

What do you think?

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