Profile of Lead Users in Systems Architecture

What Can We Learn from Patty’s Pioneers that Will Help Us Identify Lead Users

November 8, 2012

If you are looking to gain insights from customers or potential customers about new products or services, you’ll want to work with “lead users.” These are the people who roll their own solutions and processes because yours don’t fit the bill. It’s often tricky to identify them. You don’t want people who are smart, but arrogant. You do want people who are smart, insightful, and pragmatic. They’ll show you what will work and why. Patty’s Pioneers is a group of lead users in IT. Understanding how they view the world helps us identify lead users in other disciplines.


In innovation literature, Eric von Hippel identified the role of Lead Users. These are your “push the envelope” customers—some may not even BE your customers. But they are the people who design their own products and services because nobody has done it correctly to meet their needs. For about 20 years, I’ve been learning from a small group of lead users in the information technology space. I call this group “Patty’s Pioneers.” We’ve been meeting twice a year and interacting via email. Each meeting is rich and rewarding for everyone who can make it.

In the past, I’ve reported on some of the threads and insights from our rich conversations (without revealing the particular projects people are working on). This time, I’d like to take a step back to try to describe how I “know” someone is a lead user—someone who will, in fact, design the next big thing. Perhaps what I’ve learned from listening to a group of (largely) software architects over two decades doesn’t translate into other fields. But I suspect that it does. And my antennae are now pretty well tuned to ferret out lead users in just about any industry or customer segment.


Patty’s Pioneers

When I meet someone who impresses me with his or her worldview—particularly someone who is well-versed in the design and implementation of distributed computing systems—I think of them as a potential member of this group. But what prompts me to actually invite them to join is hanging out with them long enough to see how they sense and respond to the way things work, how they design and build software and hardware, and how they function in the business world. In other words, are they just good talkers, or are they really doers?

When I met Eric von Hippel and read his books about innovation a few years ago, I realized that this group of technology innovators that I have assembled and kept going for over two decades is, among other things, a group of lead users in software and systems design. As Eric explains, lead users are the people who can’t do what they need to do using the products that are currently on the market. They need to push the envelope. While it’s true that the members of Patty’s Pioneers group have collectively spent tens (maybe hundreds) of million of dollars selecting and buying commercial software for their companies over the past two decades, what’s more important is that they have designed and developed the strategic systems for their companies.

Many of these pioneers have moved from company to company over the past 20 years, each time, starting over, but often taking their systems architecture—the way they approach the design of a system—to the next step in the new setting. Others have remained in the same firm for a long time, doing something that few can stomach: cannibalizing their original designs with transformed designs.

Recognizing & Understanding Lead Users

Each time I convene a meeting of the group I dubbed “Patty’s Pioneers” back in 1989, I begin our conversation with a description of who they are and what brings them together. One of the things that I find myself saying is that Pioneers are “wired” differently than many other people. Here are the characteristics I observe anew every meeting about the group of people I’ve recruited over the years in the field of systems and software design; (I believe that many of these traits of “lead users” cross over into other fields):

  1. They have a particular worldview (although they don’t agree politically) about the way things and people in the world interact and behave. They tend to see the whole system—people, policies, processes, forces in play.
  2. There is no set profile: they come from different socio-economic backgrounds, different countries/cultures, and different academic training, and they may come in all ages.
  3. When they are faced with a complex problem, they have a strategy they use to understand it and to begin to design a solution. The strategy evolves and gets simpler and faster each time they confront another complex problem, even if it’s in an entirely different discipline or domain.
  4. For them, elegance is simplicity. They believe in using a few well-understood principles and rules.
  5. The systems solutions they design are living, evolving ecosystems. They are comprised of simple, self-disclosing and well-behaved objects that relate to one another and to their environments in consistent ways.
  6. They are delighted to use consumer-hardened, commoditized, off-the-shelf components, as long as these can be controlled and extended. They are not wedded to any supplier’s approach, tools, or building blocks. These are fungible.
  7. They design security, integrity, accountability, and traceability into every component they build.
  8. They believe in sharing their work for others to appreciate and to extend, as long as they retain the proprietary value and benefits for themselves and their firms.
  9. They have a track record of delivering solutions that deliver differentiation and value.
  10. They are constantly on the lookout for the next really interesting problem to solve!

Spotting Next-Gen Pioneers. This fall, since the median age of our members is climbing, one of the Pioneers decided that we should bring “our younger selves” to the fall meeting: our kids or the younger members of our teams. I think it worked pretty well. We had a dozen people, ranging in age from 14 to 82 for 1½ days of storytelling and insight sharing. What I noticed about the younger set is that they, too, are thinkers AND doers. They learn by doing, they design complex systems, and they know how to recruit and motivate others to design and implement with them.

What characterizes this younger generation of talented designers and builders is that...

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