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RE: Bad Business (was Re: advocating XML)

Bullard, Claude L (Len) writes:

 > Close.  A competent manager listens to the customer, reads the RFPs
 > and counts requests for functionality.  They understand the mix of
 > products they are providing and the means by which they meet
 > requirements.

Then they make a wild guess, and are nearly always wrong.  Project
planning in the first decade of the 21st century is about as accurate
as medical diagnosis in the first decade of the 11th century.
Sometimes we get it right -- generally by accident -- but usually our
treatments do more harm than the original disease.

The truth is that people are not smart enough to plan that far ahead
(look at the US stock markets for another, similar example).  Here's a
thought experiment: let's say that you have the world's cleverest
project manager, someone who (after reading RFP's, requirements, etc.)
can predict with 90% accuracy the situation one month away.  If that
project manager is working on a two-month project, she'll still have
an 81% chance of being right, which isn't bad.  I can only think of
one project I've ever worked on where things were more-or-less where
we expected after the first month, but at least such things do exist.

Now, for a six-month project, she has a 53% (0.9 ^ 6) chance of being
right.  That's not so good -- if she thinks we'll need XML in six
months, should we risk investing, say, $750,000, when there's almost a
50% chance she's wrong?  For a twelve month project, she has only
about a 28% chance of being right; for a twenty-four month project,
that shrinks to just under 8%.

In the real world, where most project managers aren't this good
(they're lucky to hit 90% for the next day), things get much worse.
The best solution is to admit our limitations rather than strutting
with false confidence while we bleed our patients, slap on leeches,
put them on all-mustard diets, and carve the shape of the cross in
their foreheads (or the modern equivalents, write 200-page functional
specifications and draw incomprehensible Gant charts in Microsoft

People -- even smart, well-meaning people -- really, really suck at
project planning, especially in an area like high tech where things
change so fast.  Even in the dirt-and-concrete world (where things
change slowly and it is possible to plan further ahead), I'd guess
that about 50% of roads projects around my hometown of Ottawa miss the
mark completely.

This is something Kent Beck and the other XP people got right -- build
for today, not for tomorrow.

All the best,


David Megginson                 david@megginson.com