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This Focused Performance Weblog started life as a "business management blog" containing links and commentary related primarily to organizational effectiveness with a "Theory of Constraints" perspective, but is in the process of evolving towards primary content on interactive and mobile marketing. Think of it as about Focusing marketing messages for enhanced Performance. If you are on an archive page, current postings are found here.

Sunday, March 16, 2003

What is a project? -- A weblog I've stumbled across, Incipient.oO{}, has a couple good posts this weekend. One is on the idea of a Software Factory which includes an story that demonstrates the predictable slide of effective managers into cost-world thinking -- predictable unless they have been enlightened to its futility.

But the one that I really want to get into here is on the idea of a project. The author (I can't quite find his/her name in the weblog) takes on a set of common descriptors of projects, such as start and end dates, defined scope, specific end result (deliverables), etc., and responds saying...
"This fits the way we use "project" in software work, but only in the way an incompetently tailored suit might fit.

"Defined start date? Well, except for the "fuzzy front end", that zone before a project where people are negotiating for the go-ahead, funding, contractual arrangements, etc. Defined end date? Which date is that - the ship date, which is often missed by miles? Or is it the date when the stream of "bug reports" finally slows down to a trickle? The date when the system is finally put into production?"
The idea of an end date -- a targeted completion date -- is related to an event. While any of the events mentioned could be used, the one that makes the most sense -- the only one worth the effort to manage -- is the "ringing of the cash register," from either the delivery of products to paying customers or from the accrual of real bottom line benefit to the owning organization. While managing the software aspect of such efforts may be a critical portion, and worth considerable focus, it is almost always only part of the project.
"There is also an interesting tension between what seems to be an Agile principle, that "projects" must be sustainable, or the XP notion that maintenance and development are indistinguishable; and the above start-stop definition of "project"."
I have similar disconnects with the discussion of projects in "agile" software environments. While the Incipient writer and others of the agile persuasion bemoan the lack of ability of traditional project management methods (often combined with traditional cost-world thinking) to deliver on promises, what they tend to talk about is a lot more related to the management of tasks and detail work than the necessary aspect of delivering against promises. I've still got to incubate on this some more, but I get the feeling that as a reaction to tradtional PM's erroneous attempts to try to micromange details and tasks and dates rather than the deal with the uncertainties, the dynamics of the interdependencies, the agilistas seem to be saying "don't bother with promises or predictions; just let us get to work on delivering value bit by bit."

While I'd be the last one to question the rapid delivery of value as a laudable objective, I do reject the notion that planning and predictions are a waste of time, effort, and energy. Businesses (and business value) rely not only on speed, but on reliability of the delivery of valuable functions and products. Software, the core and focus of most agile theory, is often said to be a special case, and while, to some degree, there are special issues associated with its management, it does not live in a vacuum. Software tasks, appropriately managed via agile processes and organizations, almost never deliver the actual end result of the effort. They deliver supportive components of business processes or products that require coordination with non-software components. The use of functionality or scope as variables may, in some case, be necessary, but the idea of a project as something with real business value at its end, requires the pre-identification of the pieces that must be striven for in the effort.

Like I said, I still need some incubation on this subject, as this rambling rant attests, but there are ways of planning, predicting, and promising...The Incipient entry closes with something with which I can agree.
"To me, "project" in the sense I want to use it, e.g. for software projects, is all about an invented future. A prediction we make come true."
But to predict implies targets for scope and schedule for it to mesh with the reason it exists. And to manage that prediction effectively, allowing for modification along the way if necessary, uncertainty of effort, and the fact that Murphy's Law has not yet been repealed, allows for neither traditional rigid command-and-control practices nor ignoring the need to coordinate efforts and plans, but can be addressed with planning and control processes that are robust and flexible enough to manage with confidence (or at least within confidence levels) in an uncertain environment.

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