Thursday, July 17, 2014

Everybody wants a pony


In a recent conversation, a colleague mentioned that a project his team worked on was considered a failure. That surprised me. I heard that this team delivered a high-quality product; the software quickly went into production, and has been delighting users for some time now. 
Turns out, when the team first got started on a project, it came with a specification document and a deadline. As the work proceeded, the team was learning more about the project. A number of features were added based on conversations with stakeholders and organizational knowledge, other features described in the specification document were cut. Technical complexity was uncovered, and eventually conquered.  The team iteratively delivered the system for stakeholder review, each time presenting more functionality, and at some point it was decided that the software is ready to go into production. 

Well, as it happened, for this particular project the production release date was after the original deadline set on the project, back when the project consisted only of a specification document and that deadline. Therefore, the deadline was declared missed, and the project was declared a failure. 

I find this mind-boggling.  Before anything was known about a project except that there is software to be built, there was this random date.  Now, that the world moved forward, the project came into existence as a working, helpful system that delights users and produces real, tangible value for the organization. Yet, somehow, that original date is still the deciding factor whether the project succeeded.  Conforming to this picked-before-we-knew-anything-important date is more important than whether the project was delivered at all, whether it useful, or valuable, or makes users happy and productive.

It's understandable that people and businesses want a pony – projects that are predictable enough to be able to forecast completion date, scope, and user satisfaction ahead of time.  In practice, most of software development work happens on complex projects, with a lot of unknowns, where information is uncovered gradually as more work is done.  There is a very little chance that any given project is a pony. More likely it is a zebra, with a variety of stripes, and lots of unpredictability.  


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