I Wouldn’t Be So Late If I Wasn’t In Such a Hurry…

9 December 2004

by Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

Are you deadline-driven in your organization? Suppose you’re a manager overseeing critical IT projects in your company, and your boss said to you, “We have to make our deadlines, or kill our kids.” This is a real quote, and while it sounds like sick humor to most of us, the message is loud and clear: your family life had better not interfere with work when it comes to making the company’s deadlines.

What would you do? How would you feel? Can you imagine telling this fellow that a project your team was working overtime on was going to miss its date? I guess like Abraham, you should bring your son Isaac up the mountain of Moriah, build an altar, and demonstrate your loyalty. Since the majority of IT projects miss their dates, it would seem like there’d be a lot of children at risk if all managers joked like this.

Or maybe you’ll think of that Dilbert cartoon, in which Dilbert fesses up to the pointy-haired boss:

Frame One:
Dilbert: “The project might not be as easy as we hoped….”
Boss: “What??!”

Frame Two:
Boss: “You idiot!! I’ll fire you and anybody who looks like you!!” — (Hurls poor Dilbert by his tie through the office wall on the 40th floor.)

Frame Three:
Boss (thinking): “Why don’t they come to me sooner?” (Hole in the wall where Dilbert’s body flew through it, having fallen 40 stories.)
So … the message is: if your project is going to be late, either the children or a parent will pay a heavy price. Pick one. (Option three: never fess up about a project that’s slipping until the very end, if ever.)

Well, you say, that’s just a story for your Cutter article — quotes about killing kids aren’t real.

But the quote is real. It was even part of a cover story for Fortune magazine about one of the largest software and IT service firms in the world. That family-friendly manager whose picture was captioned by the aforementioned quote has since been promoted to the exalted position of CEO.

Shooting Yourself in the Proverbial Foot

Here’s what I see happening in our culture where the deadline rules. In pursuing speed, we actually lose it, in addition to losing any semblance of family life. Some years ago, a research study compared projects under intense deadline pressure to those with only moderate pressure. You would think that the teams that were whipped like a racehorse finished sooner, right? Wrong. It turned out that they actually took longer and had lower productivity — exactly the opposite of what was intended. Why?

An answer lies in a real story of a client I’m currently working with. The deadline on the company’s project was man-dated (dated by a man). It was felt that to kick productivity up, the idea would be to set an impossible deadline for the team to strive for. (In a private conversation with me after the fact, he said, “You have to get people to shoot for the moon, and maybe they’ll reach the stars.”)

It was an ambitious undertaking — a project like this had never been tried before. They set the date and started the design. Being deadline driven, they started coding almost before the ink was dry on the first phase of the design. No problem — after all, that’s what an “incremental build” strategy is for. Start pouring the foundation and raising the walls — we’ll deal with the blueprints on the next iteration.

Now, the date was hard-set, but what about the features of the system? Well, of course, as the project progressed, they would grow. And change. And grow some more. And grow and change. So management did what management often does in this situation: they ramped up staff when milestones started slipping. The overall deadline stayed fixed. To change the date early on would be to admit that things weren’t going well from the start, so everyone went into a state of collective denial.

To make a long story short, the project missed by nine months and was US $10 million over budget. Productivity was half the industry average. (It’s not the company — on other projects they performed at twice the average.) It was poor planning and flawed execution. As the scope changed and grew within the fixed deadline while more people were added, the pressure had nowhere to go but up. So … up went the defects, into the thousands. Testing seemed to take forever. Complicating matters was the fact that the teams were spread across the East Coast and the West Coast of the US as well as India. In spite of the massive overtime, children were slain across three continents and 12 time zones on this one.

Make the Deadline, Keep the Kids

Insanity has been described as doing the same thing over and over, and expecting a different result. In 20 years of IT project history, this story has been oft repeated, in spite of rising productivity, better tools, smarter teams, and advanced communications. Even the higher productivity, better tools, and the smart people aren’t the answer. What’s going on here?

Too many things for a 750-word article. But in one phrase: self-defeating behavior. We are the problem. Trying to build too much stuff in not enough time will hurt you badly, in spite of all the good intentions. As a good friend once said, running at breakneck speed will only result in you breaking your neck. It’s time to stop throwing tantrums and become more adult about the problem of promising too much in too short a time frame. If you don’t effectively manage and negotiate scope and deadlines, the price will be paid in massive cost overruns and skyrocketing defects.

One answer is not to seek salvation “out there,” in the next magic-pill methodology or silver-bullet development tool, but to look “in here” at our insatiable hunger for more and more for less and less. I’m reminded of this lesson by the universe all the time, when I feverishly try to jam yet another thing in my day before running out the door, racing like a madman, then realizing five miles down the road that I left my keys for the office or my cellphone on the table, only to have to race back and get them, and wind up being even later because of it. I used to slam on my brakes and pound the dashboard, cursing myself in a fit of self-flagellation. But after countless episodes of screeching tires and untimely u-turns, I’d actually pull over and stop for a moment. I’d take a deep breath, close my eyes, look at the universe, and quietly say, “I know, I know … thanks for the reminder about being in too much of a hurry. I’ll write about it in the next Cutter article — I promise.”

After a while, you start to get it. By speeding up too fast, it can really slow you down. By slowing down just a tiny bit, you can really speed up. It’s one of life’s paradoxes, but to discover it, you have to sit on a mountain after years of beating yourself up and listen for the message. And the message is that if you think carefully and get really creative about solving this puzzle, you can make better promises and negotiate more realistic commitments.

That way, you can more easily make your deadlines, but more importantly, keep — and cherish — the kids. Because long after a date for some project has come and gone, your children and your relationships with them may be as important as life itself.

— Michael Mah, Senior Consultant, Cutter Consortium

© 2004 Cutter Consortium. All rights reserved. Comments/suggestions to webmaster@cutter.com.