After the Perfect Storm, Part I

3 July 2003

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

There is a saying, “When one door closes, another opens, but all too often, there is a long hallway in between.” When I heard this from Rick Jarow, professor at Vassar College and author of Creating the Work You Love, I realized that many IT professionals have been roaming these proverbial hallways for a long time. What coping strategies can IT people employ during this long walk?

In many ways, the last three years have been what I consider the “perfect storm.” The door of good economic times started closing in early 2000 with the collapse of technology spending. We’re now 36 months into the most prolonged downturn of the last half-century, 21 months since the attacks of 9/11, and a couple of months from the recent war in Iraq. In the 1990s, we became addicted to the notion of projects having to be completed at Internet speed. With the recession, the other shoe dropped. We’re still demanding speed in the name of survival, but with budget and staff cuts, we can’t pay for it anymore. People are overworked, burned out, and stressed out.

IT projects continue to reveal the effects of these pressures. A Cutter Consortium study conducted last fall on project estimation showed that for many organizations, 50% of their projects continue to miss their dates (no surprise here), and 74% of the time it’s because of requirements change and scope growth. Thus is the nature of knowledge work. Productivity statistics from my organization (QSM Associates) also show that the sizes of projects have generally trended toward smaller releases. But by not leveraging economies of scale, smaller projects are also exhibiting lower productivity. On top of that, complexity has increased, and as a result, projects take longer on average. IT is a lot harder today; what was once traditional back-office data processing has now morphed into wireless, multiprocessor, multiplatform, and communications-intensive software — more akin to engineering applications. Productivity more closely reflects those kinds of difficult projects (yes, it’s lower). So in short, deadlines are tighter, there’s less money and staff, stuff is harder, and even though projects start out smaller, requirements grow, while the deadline stays fixed, and we’re late at least half the time. Like I said, the perfect storm.

And yet, in this long hallway, some useful ideas come to mind. Here are a few to consider:

Reconsider Multitasking

In his book Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency, Tom DeMarco argues that excessive multitasking results in significant “switching losses” that can waste as much as one to two hours in a given workday. In my seminars, some attendees have reported working on as many as 10 projects at a time. When we examine the recent downturn in productivity from industry statistics, I believe that this dynamic is a significant negative factor on many projects I have seen. So, limit your multitasking. Human behavioral studies suggest that most people can’t effectively work on more than four things at once. Multitasking is for computer CPUs, not humans doing knowledge work. It looks efficient, but it really isn’t. All you get is adult ADD and a lot of scheduled meetings that people can’t attend because they’re stuck in other meetings.

Practice Setting Better Expectations

In this high-pressured environment, we’re not making our commitments very often. Much of this is the result of bad project estimation practices: setting deadlines first, not knowing the scope limits of what a project should promise, rolling overly optimistic effort estimates into whatever time frame is dictated, and being afraid to report a project in trouble for fear of losing face or one’s job. Poor planning results in more rework. Changing this requires recognizing the problem in the first place. The symptoms are late projects, or projects delivered by a given date but with high bug rates or with less-than-originally-promised functionality. This is even harder to absorb during tough economic times. Complex projects can’t be estimated on the backs of envelopes, with a wet finger in the wind, or on simple spreadsheets. You need a better way to evaluate your options and tradeoffs. There are helpful books and articles on project estimation. If you e-mail me, I can recommend up to four.

Stop and Turn Down the Noise

During the tough times that hit Silicon Graphics in the 1990s, founder Jim Clark would leave work and ride his motorcycle out of sheer frustration. A bad accident from one of these angry rides left him laid up in a hospital for six months. Ironically, while he traveled down this “long hallway,” stuck in traction in a hospital bed, he sketched out the business blueprint that ultimately created Netscape. Now, I’m not advocating motorcycle accidents to foster time for introspection, but I believe that crisis has a way of birthing opportunity if we take the time to stop the noise and tap into a quiet space where creation happens. Regular time for reflection sometimes surprises us with magical thoughts, perhaps on the projects that have got us stymied. Some people have said that their best ideas come in the shower, while on a morning jog, canoeing on a lake, or even in night dreams (Einstein was said to have obtained parts of his Relativity Theory from a dream). Personally, some of my best ideas have come while mowing the lawn, wearing hearing protectors that reflected the echoing sound of my own breath.

Confront Your Fear

During hard times, fear prevails on an organizational as well as a personal level. For most of us, that produces a fight or flight response. Adrenaline is secreted in the body and extremities get cold. Our physiology changes. In my experience, the combination of the pressures described along with a fight/flight response from unrecognized fear produces conflict in our organizations. Symptoms include “cover-up anger” and organizational disharmony. It’s important to recognize these dynamics and, if they arise, to get the issues underlying the fear out into the open. Conflict itself isn’t bad, but if handled poorly, it can be. Resolving conflicts effectively is hard. It takes good communication, conflict resolution, and negotiation skills, areas where many IT professionals have not had formal training. Resist the urge to simply escalate conflicts during difficult conversations when emotions can run high. Lastly, it’s also helpful to understand that e-motion is “energy in motion.” Fear needs a place to go. If you find it becoming chronic, a helpful antidote is engaging in something that creates a feeling of wellness and abundance, which are especially important during lean times. Some people practice regular meditation, others like to run or play tennis. (I like all of these, as well as setting up play dates for my two young children with their friends.)

Finally, keep the faith and stay the course. In many ways, the worst may already be behind us. Economic indicators seem to say that we may be closer to the other end of the hallway, and in recent months, even the stock market seems to think so. My belief is that if we take this time to practice the things I described, we’ll be in a better place when the other door opens, wherever and whenever that may be. I hope to greet you there.

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

© 2003 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved.