ManagementSpeak: The system has to be flexible.
Translation: We don’t know what the hell we want.
The contributor of this week’s ManagementSpeak has requested anonymity. We can all understand why.

Ambrose Bierce, the 19th century cynic, told of the inventor who built a flying machine. When the inventor started the machine, it immediately and quickly bored a hole straight to the center of the earth. Leaping free, the inventor was heard to remark: “My invention was perfect in every detail. The problems were merely basic and fundamental.”

Big projects are like that – they dig us all into deep holes, rarely fly, and even when they’re perfect every detail, they often turn out to be flawed in basic and fundamental ways – the usual consequence of having implementation scheduled years after conception.

For some reason, everyone expresses surprise when IS projects come in late, over budget and with fewer features than promised, even though that’s by far the most common outcome. Since most new IS projects are based on client/server technology, we of course blame the technology, even though, as we saw last week, client/server projects fail neither more nor less often than traditional mainframe systems.

The complexity of project management increases exponentially with the size of the project. This means big projects need exceptional project managers. Unfortunately, exceptional project managers are hard to come by, and they deservedly command salaries that can make IS executives uncomfortable.

Next week, we’ll look at the basic principles of managing big projects. This week we’ll talk about how to avoid them in the first place, because most can be prevented. Here’s what to strive for:

  • Small Teams: Don’t put more than five people on a project team. Small teams mean low overhead.
  • Quick Delivery: Define projects no more than six months long. When a product is due in 180 days, the team feels a sense of urgency in the first team meeting. The project deliverable, by the way, should provide tangible value, not just something tangible.
  • Restricted User Involvement: End-users should define business processes and system functionality, not system design details. Get agreement on this point up front, and then have frequent, informal contacts rather than formal interviews. Be highly interactive, and learn their business from them.
  • Staged Releases: Make your first release as small as you can. Set up two teams working on staggered schedules. Team One freezes its design three months after starting. Team Two starts designing the next release while Team One codes. Team Two freezes its design three months later, while Team One installs its release. The benefit? You can successfully freeze the design, because it’s easy to add new features to the next release. This gets you out of the trap of “scope creep” that kills so many projects.
  • High-Productivity Tools: Delphi, Powerbuilder, Visual Basic and their competitors all increase programmer productivity by a huge multiplier compared to Cobol or C++. Only use procedural languages when you have no other choice.
  • Simple User Interfaces: GUIs tempt programmers into showing off by building in lots of overlapping pop-up windows with cool interface widgets and heavy mouse action. Make your programmers experts in clean interface design.
  • Usually, when you’re faced with a big, intimidating project you can break it up into a series of overlapping, independent, small, manageable projects that match the above characteristics. When you do, you’ll experience several key benefits. Your projects will come in on time. You’ll be able to track changing business requirements

    You’ll also find yourself able to respond to changing company priorities, because you won’t have committed all of your development resources to a single project for a long period of time.

    Think small.