Friday, 22 August 2014

Infeasible Projects: Executive Ignorance or IT Impotence?

DohDoh2Infeasible software projects are launched all the time and teams are continually caught up in them, but what is the real source of the problem?

There are 2 year actual projects for which the executives set a 6 month deadline.

The project is guaranteed to fail but is this due to executive ignorance or IT impotence? InfeasibleTimeline

There is no schedule risk in an infeasible project because the deadline will be missed.  Schedule risk only exists in the presence of uncertainty (see Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!)

As you might expect, all executives and IT manager share responsibility for infeasible projects that turn into death marches.  Learn about the nasty side effects Death March Calculus. The primary causes for infeasible projects are:
  • Rejection of formal estimates
  • No estimation or improper estimation methods are used

Rejecting Formal Estimates

This situation occurs frequently; an example would be the Denver Baggage Handling System (see Case Study).

The project was automatically estimated (correctly) to take 2 years; however, executives declared that IT would only have 1 year to deliver.

Of course, they failed1.

The deadline was rejected by executives because it did not fit their desires.  They could not have enjoyed the subsequent software disaster and bad press.

When executives ignore formal estimates they get what they deserve.  Formal estimates are ignored because executives believe through sheer force of will that they can set deadlines.

If IT managed to get the organization to pay for formal tools for estimating then it is not their problem that the executives refuse to go along with it.

Improper Estimation Methods

The next situation that occurs frequently is using estimation processes that have low validity.  Estimation has been extensively studied and documented by Tom DeMarco, Capers Jones, Ed Yourdon, and others.

Improper estimation methods will underestimate a software project every time. Fast estimates will be based on what you can think of, unfortunately, software is not tangible and so what you are aware of is like the tip of an iceberg.

None of this prevents executives demanding fast estimates from development.  Even worse, development managers will cave in to ridiculous demands and actually give fast estimates.

Poor estimates are guaranteed to lead to infeasible projects (see Who needs Formal Measurement?) Poor estimates are delivered by IT managers that:
  • Can't convince executives to use formal tools
  • Give in to extreme pressure for fast estimates
Infeasible projects that result from poor estimates are a matter of IT impotence.


Both executive ignorance and IT impotence lead to infeasible projects on a regular basis because of poor estimates and rejecting estimates; so there is no surprise here.

However, infeasible projects are a failure of executives and IT equally because we are all on the same team. It is not possible for part of the organization to succeed if the other one fails.

Possibly a greater share of problem is with IT management.  After all, whose responsibility is a bad decision -- the guys that know what the issues are or the ones that don't.

If a child wants ice cream before they eat dinner then whose fault is it if you cave in and give them the ice cream?

Unfortunately, even after 60 years of developing software projects, IT managers are either as ignorant as the executives or simply have no intestinal fortitude.

Even when IT managers convince executives of the importance of estimating tools, the estimates are routinely discarded because they do not meet executive expectations.

Rejection of automated estimates: productivity -16%, quality -22%

Until we can get a generation of IT managers that are prepared to educate executives on the necessity of proper estimation and be stubborn about holding to those estimates, we are likely to continue to have an estimated $3 trillion in failures of software projects every year.

End Notes

1For inquiring minds, good automated estimation systems have been shown to be within 5% of time and cost on a regular basis. Contact me for additional information.


Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Schedule Risk is a Red Herring!!!

We often hear the term schedule risk, however, it is generally a Red Herring. Stating that the schedule might stretch is about as useful as saying that eating can cause you to gain weight.

You may be correct but it gives you no leverage to solve the problem

Schedules slip as a result of a problem, if you want to solve the problem then you must identify the root cause.  Any problem will result in a task taking longer than expected and potentially affecting the schedule.

Risk and uncertainty are two sides of the same coin. Without uncertainty there is no risk.

No Uncertainty = No Risk

A risk is a contingent liability; a risk is a future event that is uncertain that has consequences. The key words are future and uncertain.

If 6 months remain and the deadline is in 2 months then there is no schedule risk because there is no uncertainty.

6 months late means that the earliest that the critical path items can finish is in 6 months. Just because the project has not hit the deadline and senior staff doesn't understand the project is late does not qualify the team to talk as if the outcome is uncertain.

It is disingenuous and cowardly to suggest to senior staff that a deadline is possible when you know that it is not.

When the team knows that they are late, they often talk about tasks as being risky simply because they hope that miracles can happen1.

Hope is not a strategy

In fact, Kahneman points out all of us are wired to bet (pray?) on unlikely outcomes when faced with certain losses, i.e. we double down when faced with a loss.  Team members know about the negative consequences of failure and make projects seem possible simply because they want to delay the pain. Even worse, as the situation gets more desperate people will take bigger and bigger risks.

Using the term schedule risk when a project is not feasible essentially robs the managers of making a course correction until the point where very little can be done.

At a minimum, money can be saved by winding the project down. Few people have the intestinal fortitude to speak out when they know that a project is late. Unfortunately, cowardice is very common.

If you take a paycheck then you have an obligation to your organization to tell them when a project is late.

So it makes no sense to talk about schedule risk when:
  • The project is late and you know it
  • The project is not late but you see schedule items slipping
In the latter case you are much better to talk about why things are slipping rather than using the term schedule risk.  By talking about the root cause of the slippage, especially early in a project, can lead to you either solving the problem or adjusting the project deadline.  Either way, you will have a greater chance of ending up with a feasible project.

Related Articles