Friday, December 15, 2006

It ain't as simple as it seems

What is perfection? Perfection is when it seems simple but it is complicated. At least, that's what I consider perfection when I play the piano. Famous pianists and other musical artists get a lot of compliments when they near perfection, when they play something complicated and seem to do it without much difficulty. Why? Because those people knowing about making music know that it is actually very difficult to do. They recognize the skills of the artist and know that it takes a lot of practicing and a lot of effort to get to that level of perfection.

Now if we extrapolate that to running software projects, it often worked the other way around.
A project manager that is able to run a very complicated project that almost everybody screws up completely, and stay within reasonable budget and time overshoots and within reasonable limits of functionality and quality, gets a lot of respect for it. The next project he will probably have less difficulty to convince management to grant the budget and timing constraints that he estimates.
But a project manager that is able to run the same project within budget, within time and still providing the functionality and quality that was committed, what happens to him? He will probably have more difficulty to defend his estimates on budget and timing, next time. In other words, he reached a higher level of perfection but he is punished for it.

So why this difference between software and music? One obvious reason may be that music is composed. A music composition is an accurate -- and often not so accurate -- recipe about how the music should be performed. Key, notes and rest, tempi, forte and piano, accelerando and ritenuto, punctuations, etc. are all written down by the composer. And still, in spite of all the prescriptions there is plenty of room for interpretation differences. Many performers are even recognized for their style, their signature of sound.
Now if we look at software projects within a particular organization, a particular business, a particular product domain, a particular market segment, we seem a lot of similar projects with similar kind of people. One similarity that surprises me every time is that "we are different", so the quality system or other organizational systems does not completely apply. In other words, even though the projects are composed in the same way (like a music composition), we do not follow the composition (quality system, portfolio and project management system, configuration mangement system, and other systems of processes, procedures, stuctures, guidelines, conventions, standards, methods and tools). We argue that "we are different" and the system does not apply. We not only apply our own interpretation within the prescribed recipe of the composition, we also change -- tailor -- the composition itself.

The most common argument is that business goes first. If we can save costs or increase benefits by violating the (management) systems, then project management is often easily convinced. After all, we are not spending to money to satisfy our own systems but to earn money, or add business value. If we would alter the 5th piano concerto by Rachmaninov to make it simpler on the musicians so that they would be able to play with perfection, few customers would consider it an added value.

Perfection is to overcome the challenges and to make it seem simple, not to reduce them until only the simple things remain -- that's called degradation or devaluation.

No comments: