Sunday, October 27, 2013

What does the US government teach us about managing software projects?

Most of us have probably worked all night and all weekend sessions in order to finish a project "on time". And we all know that is the sign of "bad management", and can also be the sign of an impossible task. Therefore, looking back at the US government working hard a few days before the deadline to get the debt ceiling raised, can be seen as a sign that the US government is badly managed, but can also be seen as a sign that it had an something impossible to do.

You might say, a government and politicians is not the same as a software development organization. Governments are fragmented, many politicians only have a job because of these differences of opinions, politicians are continuously trying to shift blame, etc. While the goal of all members of a software development team is to finish a project on time and be successful.  Or is it?...Hmmm...  In fact, that is not always clear!

The tricky nature of people, is that if they do not feel enough belonging into a  common cause, they can very easily switch to supporting its "anti-cause". Politicians know this, and much "political noise" is the game of making sure that not everyone agrees with your oponents. A development team can suffer much damage when not everybody is just "happy" to work towards the common goal of finishing the project on time. This "bad behavior" is often subconscious, yet can also be a very conscious feeling, and even sometimes an open secret, referred to, for example, with flippant remarks. What happens is that dissension can feed upon itself and simply suck away much precious work time. The team may recover under the stress of the approaching deadline, but often that pressure simply comes in too late.

Luckily, difficulties in managing teams is not new, and good guidelines exist. The first recommendation is to use an agile process:
  • The "short" duration of the each iterative step ensures an optimal common focus driven by the "stress" of the deadline. And by the way, that is how you decide how long your agile iterations should be: short for a less mature team, longer for a more mature team. 
  • The independence of product management (e.g. product owner role in scrum), ensures that no dissension exists in the business goals presented to the team.
  • Roles like the scrum master, help focus on value to all, above the value of individuals.
Yet the agile process does not keep dissension happening on "long term" concepts. For example, on design and architecture, or product goals. Usually, technical dissensions are more problematic than business dissensions. The question is often: "How to make sure that people work together productively on long term technical goals"?

My answer is:
Get every one to agree that common long term technical goals exist only to constrain the team; New concepts can be brought in by the team's individuals, but only within the short term "iterative" process. 

For many, the idea of only be able to bring in new concepts within a short time frame is just not acceptable. They argue: we need more time! But too much time would mean too much uncertainty, and uncertainty is an area in which dissension can strive. Another argument is that vital new concepts will never be brought in if there is no long term goal, and as a result the team may fail. This is true. But the consequence is that people need slack time: unmanaged time outside the process in which they can mature new ideas (see delivery focus versus creative slack). It is only when ideas and new concepts have matured that an attempt can be made to bring them in to a project within a solution. And the criteria of maturity is "needs to be able to deliver within the short term iterative part of your agile process".

People may still argue that a bleak constraining, almost pesimistic, long term technical vision does not provide value, is "no fun", and possibly even not worth working for! These are not unreasonable worries.  Yet these remarks are all based on experiences where short term efforts fail to provide enough value, or fail to provide enough satisfaction.They are also come out of cultures that do not understand the critical need of a "side" process in which ideas and techniques are selected, grown, and matured, until either they are rejected or they are brought into production.

US politics, like most political systems, have this concept of the parallel process that prepares material before bringing it into the short term process of getting decisions made.This is a system of influence, of key players, committees and lobbyists. It would be wrong to deny that development organization are not subject to similar games of power, yet the big difference is that a development organization should only get one source of funding (from business). While a democratic system gets multiple sources of funding with often contradicting goals.

I cannot make this posting too long, therefore to summarize:
  • Run a tight development process: only bring in ideas that are mature enough to succeed withing your "short term" production cycles.
  • Encourage independent new long term ideas but outside your production process: Accept that there is some political process in how your team brings in new ideas into their production effort; Make sure that new concepts are mature enough that they can be brought into production with good certainty, within the normal "short term" development cycles.
  • Encourage "constraining" long term team goals within your production process: It is OK to debate as a team on longer terms plans that simplify things and restrict usage of new technology. I say this because technical entropy, the fact that things "grow more complicated with time" will kill you if you do stay united as a team to fight it.
  • Make sure that your team has enough slack time: And make sure also that they have the culture to use it wisely, for the benefit of the project (and not for each developer's ego).
  • Have only one external driver per development team: The same for "normal" short term development process as for the long term "creative process". This will keep the "political" debate healthy. And that is again a reason why agile processes have only one business representative per team.
  • Drive software with deliverable features, business with revenue streams: It is this separation and its "double layering" within the overall development process (e.g. agile development teams versus one product management team) that keeps the political "game" sane! Technology does not generate money, only features do! (Well, within a bigger model it can, but that is why you might consider having a CTO outside the development team process).
 This brings us back to US politics: they are like a very, very, bad development team. They apply none of the "good behaviors" above. Not a very good role model for their fellow citizens!

All original content copyright James Litsios, 2013.

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