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Mark Leighton Fisher (4252)

Mark Leighton Fisher
  (email not shown publicly)

I am a Systems Engineer at Regenstrief Institute []. I also own Fisher's Creek Consulting [].
Friday April 24, 2009
01:23 PM

Pretend Project Management

[ #38864 ]

Pretend Project Management is when management of the project ignores reality -- from the making of the schedule, to the tracking of actual vs. planned time/money spent, all the way down to the project post-mortem (and mortem it usually is, as the project is often D.O.A.) Cargo Cult Methodology: How Agile Can Go Terribly, Terribly Wrong is a real-life example of Pretend Project Management, one worth examining in more detail.

The first red flag is not hiring a system administrator, while simultaneously not allocating the time for system administration in the schedule. The Iron Triangle of scheduling cannot be violated without doing violence to the schedule -- you cannot have system administration work to do without scheduling time for someone to do that work. So, without a system administrator, the schedule has to change so that other people will get that work done. Generally (IMHO), you cannot take an FTE's amount of work in a schedule and say, "Oh, we'll just do that work during slack times." This always comes back to bite you, usually towards the end of the project when you can least afford it. The Project Manager should have modified the schedule to allow time for system administration by whatever means cut back features (scope), add a system administrator (cost), or stretched out the schedule (time). If management does not let you modify the schedule, then Pretend Project Management is what is actually being practiced.

Another red flag was "Agile Development" but no time in the schedule for quick incremental deliveries (intervals measured in weeks). Perhaps the essence of Agile Development is quick iterations with immediate responses by the customer. If the iterations are not quick, or the responses are not immediate, then the development process is not Agile, despite protestations to the contrary. (And calling quick iterations "silly" as management did shows serious misunderstanding of the Agile Nature.) Quick iterations maximize the value delivered to the customer, as the feedback from quick iterations keeps development on the correct path. If the feedback loop is too long because of lengthy iterations, management introduces the risk that development will produce a product not needed or wanted by the customer. Agile Development without quick iterations is Pretend Agile Development, and Project Management of Pretend Agile Development is Pretend Project Management, as time has not been allocated in the schedule for real Agile Development. (Hint: 4 weeks rather than 4 months is closer to a useful iteration length.)

The lack of continuous integration is yet another red flag. Agile development should proceed at a fairly steady pace. Continuous integration helps steady the pace, by preventing small, relatively simple build problems from growing into huge, intractable build problems. In tbe pre-Ethernet days, I once had to integrate months of changes -- trust me, you really don't want to have to do that.

Those of you with exposure to Project Management training will notice another, massive red flag -- no flexibility in scope, time, or resources. When I have managed projects in the past, resources were fixed, time was fairly-well fixed, while scope was the most variable part of the project. I suspect (without proof) that this is a common pattern, as you sacrifice features to get the project "done" (by some measure).

From what I have read, Agile Development seems to plan for a fixed number of people (resources) while varying the time and scope of the project. Usually, changing the project scope is the topic for those writing about how Agile differs from other development styles. (This may be because Agile developers have the attitude, "It will be done when it is done, and not a moment before.")

What conclusions can we draw from this example?

  1. Half of the problems had nothing to do with Agile development. No flexibility along any axis in the schedule (scope, time, resources) and lack of (system administration) time in the schedule are just varieties of problems that project managers ran into 50+ years ago.
  2. Unfortunately, some in management do not grasp that all schedules are approximations -- the Pyramid blocks are not delivered on time, the 1942 warship review for the good ship "X" is cancelled because there is no longer a good ship "X" (or "Y", or "Z"...), Microsoft delays a service pack to fix a security bug, and so on and so on. If you get far enough into using Microsoft Project (as an example tool), you will see multiple start and end times for each task (phrases like early start, late start, scheduled start, actual start). Only when you drive the project risk down to zero can you be certain that each task will start and end on time. Not accounting for project risks leads to deciding there will be no flexibility in the schedule, and inflexible schedules lead to project problems (even if your requirements are up-front perfect).
  3. The other killer classic scheduling mistake (one that was undoubtably seen back in Roman times and before) is "well, we can't hire someone to do this -- we'll just do it during our slack times". As that work usually tends to pile up, the effects are usually felt at the end of the project when you can least afford it (as mentioned before).
  4. If you cannot do weekly-to-monthly incremental deliveries, IMHO you are developing in another way -- not in the Agile Way.
  5. In Extreme Programming (an Agile style), they talk about "Sustainable Pace". This means a pace that team members can comfortably keep up for months or years at a time. Continuous Integration is an essential lubricant for sustainable pace -- without CI, you will waste a lot of time catching up on huge blocks of changes that also change the build process (adding a module/assembly/DLL, etc.) Whether you or not you are doing Extreme Programming, "Sustainable Pace" is a goal worth shooting for.
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