Friday, January 13, 2012

I Want the Detailed Plan!

Those who’ve rolled around in the construction of software for a long time are comfortable viewing a project as a process to drive uncertainty from 100% to 0% over a period of time by building something. In contrast, those who have been victimized by custom software creation - stakeholders and patrons - tend to demand certainty too early as a risk mitigation strategy. 

These stakeholders who don’t like uncertainty want us to do something about it. In reality the only thing to do is to begin the real work of the project. But, all too often, the unfamiliar stakeholders insist on more planning, which exacerbates the problem.

Only too willing to please, many teams capitulate by creating a facade of certainty, e.g., detailed project plans, complex resource loading charts, myriad milestones, status meetings. It’s easy to understand why: most people want to please, and the rest want to stop being harangued. 

The problem is, at some point the facade is exposed. But, we have only ourselves to blame. This behavior seems to fit the modern explanation of an addiction: a behavior that in the short term mitigates pain, but in the long term only makes the situation worse.

It would behoove us to educate our stakeholders that the nature of a software project is to reduce uncertainty by delivering something often. Oh, and when the bad things happen - as they usually do - to live by the words of that apocryphal general “the only thing worse than bad news is bad news late.”

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Protocol Droid: How PMO Staff Enable Dysfunction

"My value is that I speak everyone's language," she explained. Her job is to attend meetings and relay messages between different groups involved in managing the large IT program. Sometimes she volunteers to "unstick" the latest obstacle to a group's progress, which usually involves several more pairwise meetings reminiscent of shuttle diplomacy. Upper level managers think she's needed, probably because she listens well, is obviously intelligent and articulate, and relays news of progress from afar.

The Star Wars movies featured an android named C3PO. Fluent "in over six million forms of communication," '3PO's job "is to assist etiquette, customs, and translation so that meetings of different cultures run smoothly." A protocol 'droid, C3PO is the archetype for people like the person described above.

In reality, protocol droids are key enablers of organizational dysfunction. While the role may emerge initially as a sort of internal consultant to address gaps in changing communication pathways, unless checked it quickly gives rise to negative consequences, such as, intermediation, politics over results, and poor decision making.

  • While it may seem like different teams in a business-IT ecosystem are different galactic races, the linguistic and cultural differences are not so great as to require translation. In fact, intermediation prevents different teams from learning to work together effectively - as they must in order to optimize. The intermediary gains validation by maintaining isolated cultures, and only succeeds in adding inefficient and error prone communication hops.
  • The structure of an organization should change over time as an initiative proceeds. These changes result from attempting to break down obstacles to efficiency or even success. However, protocol 'droids have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo - and the need for their role in it. Before too long, discussions center around who should be attending what meetings, not what outcomes need to be achieved by those meetings. And of course, status is evaluated by who gets to meet with whom, not who accomplishes what. 
  • After months of message-shuttling, emissaries begin to believe that they actually know the subject matter they are shuttling. Once this happens, they start to apply their own filters and even make decisions for others based on their own incomplete understanding. This behavior is the most insidious and destructive of all, because the decisions are often ill-formed and alienate those who should have been involved in the decision making.
Savvy organizations are on the lookout for the protocol droid anti-pattern. Just like campus space planners use students to first establish well-worn paths before deciding where to pave, protocol droid's pathways are a diagnostic for reorganization. Use this information wisely or risk becoming a politics-laden, low-performing organization.