I was sitting at the kitchen counter this evening when I received a call from a colleague who works for a prominent consulting firm. He is a lead on a project that is customizing one of his firm's tools for use by another company. We discussed the status of his project tonight – actually the status of “his side” of the project (his client has people working on "their side" of the project, too.) He is concerned because a wicked technical problem may throw a wrench into their ability to meet delivery promises that have been made by his company.
I turned to my 9 y/o daughter who was eating dinner next me. “Lindsey, if I asked you to complete a very difficult jigsaw puzzle in a week, what would you tell me?” “Well,” she paused, “I would want to know how big the puzzle was and how complicated it was – what was it a picture of?” “What if I told you that it was 1000 pieces and it was a picture of a castle and that was all I knew?”
“Hmmmm…” she pondered, “I would tell you that I don’t know if I can get it done in a week, but I would try my best.” I lowered the boom: “What if I had made promises to very important people that you would get it done?”
“You shouldn’t be making promises for me.” she said.
“Exactly," I said, "What if I told you to work on it day and night for a week until you finished it?” “You mean without going to school, or playing, or anything?” She asked. “Yes. You would work it on it unless you were sleeping." She thought a moment, “That would be a very mean thing to do, Daddy. I would have to say no."
It surely would be...and good for you, Lindsey, for having the smarts and courage to believe you would say no. And maybe those who were demanding completion of the puzzle might believe you and accept your answer...maybe.
In these situations that confront my colleague, where promises are made by those not actually doing the work on behalf of those who are doing the work, discussions, negotiations, and agreements are hatched between two organizations without really understanding the true and complete nature and complexity of the effort. True understanding of the work and its complexity emerges in technical product development through exploration and discovery along its development path – almost every person with just a limited amount of experience in the technical product development field soon learns and accepts this (or suffers a terminal dose of denial.)
However, date and cost commitments are often made on behalf of the yet-to-be-assembled development team by the people who are not actually going to do the work but nonetheless have a considerable stake (often financial) in the on-time and on-budget delivery of the product. They make such promises with sincerity and good intentions, but with little or no reliably predictive data to back up their estimates now turned promises of delivery within a predicted time and budget.
So, the innocent team then assembles, begins to investigate the work and build the product, and its discoveries soon reveal at least one and often times many wicked problems that require great thought, effort and even application of the scientific method to solve. The complex system reveals innumerable possibilities of solutions, each of which may cause more problems through the interaction of multiple agents. To top it off, Mr. Murphy lurks about and inevitably shows up. And so, the best laid plans begin to go awry and unpredictability and uncertainty sets in. People become nervous and anxious and demands begin to come forth – “just work harder” and “get to the root causes” are some of the refrains heard. Telling the truth soon becomes unfashionable, or perhaps there is an inclination to tell the truth in some "correct way.”
As the time gets shorter, tempers start to flare and blaming soon follows, especially when it is apparent that the team will likely deliver “crap” in order to make the date. Perhaps someone will actually courageously surrender their political virginity and career aspirations by proclaiming that the product will have to be delivered late to actually be qualitatively acceptable. Either way, unpleasant fallout occurs and people suffer – the team, the customers, those who made promises, those who believed the promises, and those who were expected to deliver on the promises. This whole process can fit into a Dilbert comic strip and it is repeated again and again with the notion that the results will be different. Total insanity!!
Lindsey finished her dinner. “Daddy, do people really ask people to do those kinds of things – work really long hours to do things other people promised?” “Yes, they do, at least sometimes.” She shook her head, “I don’t think I want to work in a place like that.” Good for you, my daughter. Neither do I. Neither...do...I.