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Ivan Novak
Ivan Novak

Posted on • Originally published at

Innovation vs. Maintenance: Striking the Right Balance

It's a constant trade-off.

Push forward with innovation? The new? Greenfield?

Hunker down and refine? Improve existing? Refactor?

At first glance, it may seem like an either-or decision, but the interplay between innovation and maintenance is more like a dance, where both must be in sync for the performance to shine.

Let's discuss the balance, the importance of both elements, and the consequences of neglecting one for the sake of the other.

The Two Sides of the Coin

1. Innovation

Our industry thrives on change. New technologies emerging daily, offering novel solutions and redefining user expectations. It's about envisioning what could be, challenging the status quo, and breathing life into groundbreaking ideas.


  • Growth: New features and improved functionality can lead to user growth and increased market share.
  • Relevance: In a competitive market, staying stagnant can be lethal. Innovation keeps products and services aligned with emerging trends and user demands.
  • Meeting Evolving Customer Needs: As user behavior and expectations change, products must adapt to stay valuable and useful.

Risks of Over-Innovation:

  • Losing Core Value: Constantly chasing new features can divert focus from a product's core value, potentially alienating loyal users.
  • User Confusion: Overloading a product with features can make it cumbersome and confusing for users, leading to decreased satisfaction.
  • New Bugs and Issues: Each added feature is a new potential point of failure, increasing the risk of bugs or other technical issues.

2. Maintenance

While innovation is the new shiny toy often gets the attention, maintenance is the unsung hero that ensures the lights stay on and folks get paid. Maintenance in software development is the rigorous (often tedious) process of updating, refining, and ensuring that existing systems function smoothly.


  • Product Integrity: Regular maintenance ensures that a product works as intended, offering a consistent and reliable user experience.
  • Security: Regular updates are vital to protect user data and system integrity.
  • Adapting to New Tech Standards: Deep dependency trees and framework progression means means maintenance must have dedicated cycles.

Risks of Over-Maintenance:

  • Stagnation: Focusing solely on maintenance can lead to a product becoming stale, missing out on new opportunities or market shifts.
  • Resource Drain: Excessive maintenance can consume resources that might have been allocated to more growth-focused initiatives.
  • Missed Market Opportunities: While a team is caught up refining what they have, competitors might be racing ahead with new innovations.

Factors Influencing the Balance

While there's no one-size-fits-all answer, several key factors can influence how we might strike the balance between innovation and maintenance:

1. Business Objectives

Understanding the overarching goals of the business is paramount. If a company is in a rapid growth phase or entering a new market, there might be a stronger emphasis on innovation to capture market share. On the other hand, if the focus is on building a reputation for stability and reliability, then maintenance could take precedence.

2. Competitive Landscape

The state of the market plays a significant role. In a saturated market with many similar products, innovative features could be the differentiator. However, if competitors are frequently introducing new features with bugs and security issues, there might be an opportunity to stand out by emphasizing stability and reliability.

3. User Feedback

Regularly sourcing and prioritizing user feedback can offer insights into areas needing improvement or innovation. If users frequently request a feature or report issues with current functionalities, this can guide the balance between developing new features and refining existing ones.

4. Resource Availability

The availability of resources, both in terms of manpower and finances, can sway the balance. Limited resources might be better spent on maintenance and ensuring a stable product, while abundant resources could be channeled into R&D and innovation.

5. Technical Debt

High technical debt can hinder innovation. If a product's codebase is cluttered with legacy code, hacks, and workarounds, the focus might need to shift towards maintenance, refactoring, and reducing this debt before significant innovation can occur.

6. Industry Standards and Regulations

In certain industries, especially those heavily regulated like finance or healthcare, maintaining compliance can be crucial. In such environments, the balance might lean more towards maintenance to ensure adherence to evolving regulations.

7. Team Expertise and Passion

Sometimes, the balance can be influenced by the team itself. A team that's passionate about exploring new technologies and methodologies might naturally gravitate towards innovation. Conversely, a team with deep domain expertise in a mature product might emphasize maintenance and perfection.

Strategies for Striking the Right Balance

1. Iterative Development and Feedback Loops

By breaking development into smaller iterations and frequently gathering feedback, teams can nimbly adjust their focus. This approach allows for quicker course corrections, reducing the time and resources spent on unwanted features while addressing maintenance needs in a timely manner.

2. Dedicated Maintenance Sprints

Allocate specific sprints or time blocks solely for addressing technical debt, bugs, and maintenance tasks. This ensures that maintenance doesn't get perpetually pushed to the back burner in the race for innovation.

3. Feature Flags and Dark Launches

Implementing feature flags allows teams to roll out new features gradually. This method not only tests the water with innovations but also ensures that the team can revert or modify features based on real-world feedback without major disruptions.

4. Prioritization Frameworks

Use frameworks like the MoSCoW method (Must have, Should have, Could have, and Won't have) to determine the importance of various tasks. This can help in allocating resources effectively between innovative projects and necessary maintenance.

5. Continuous Education and Training

Equip the team with the latest tools, techniques, and best practices. A team that's well-versed in modern development practices will be better prepared to juggle innovation and maintenance without sacrificing quality.

6. User-Centric Decision Making

By focusing on user needs and feedback, teams can ensure they're not innovating just for the sake of it. This user-centric approach ensures that innovations align with genuine user desires, while maintenance tasks enhance user satisfaction.

7. Establish Clear KPIs

Setting clear Key Performance Indicators related to both new feature adoption and system stability can provide a tangible measure of where efforts should be directed. If stability KPIs are dropping, it's a clear signal to shift focus towards maintenance.

8. Cross-functional Collaboration

Encourage collaboration between development, operations, sales, and customer support teams. This integrated approach can provide a holistic view of where the product stands, helping to identify areas in need of innovation or maintenance.

The Delicate Dance of Progress

Its tempting to always push for the development of the new, but building new must be balanced with the maintenance of existing. Every time something new is released, it's maintenance must be taken into account.

Finding this balance is an art. It requires an understanding of where we've been and a vision of where the team or organization is headed. 

Recognize there is value in both creating and caring.

Top comments (3)

opaul profile image
Oluwafemi Paul Adeyemi

Very True! No man throws his son away because he wants another son. As he expects another, he takes care of the first. New technologies are good, but replacement must be done with great care. Sometimes there may just be a need to change only a few things in the old and not bring something completely new to the table.
This is a great piece sir.

inovak profile image
Ivan Novak

Thank you @opaul! Wonderful example.

zyy profile image