Saturday, June 20, 2009

Project management lessons - commitment

Have you ever heard (or said) something like "you've got to work [long hours/weekends] because the customer has been promised [some system/feature] by [some date]"?

Commitments can be made but not assigned

People only feel committed to things they have committed to themselves. Telling someone that they have to work long hours/weekends because of a commitment someone else has made can lead to demotivation and resentment. Productivity is very likely to suffer (quality decreasing, more rework due to mistakes, more stupid things done due to rushing or tiredness). Seeing that the work isn't being completed quickly enough, bad managers think that it just requires even more hours to be put in (they try to impose "more commitment" and concentrate on the inputs rather than the outputs). This is the recipe for a "death march" project.

Estimates are not commitments

As a project manager, you have to understand the difference between an estimate and a quote. An estimate is not a commitment. As a project manager, if you make a commitment that something will be done by a certain date then do not rely on being able to just use estimates directly - you need to apply some project management techniques. One technique that I have found works well, as mentioned in my previous article is "extreme planning".

Commitment can work wonders

When someone really feels committed to something, then they will be motivated and focused. Software developers will often work harder and more effectively on their pet open source project than they do at work due to this motivation. This sort of commitment cannot be forced onto someone. There are lots of ways to ensure it doesn't happen (sadly common) and a few things you can do to provide an environment in which it might happen - and hence see massive improvements in productivity and quality as a result.

One factor is the level of technical autonomy. Many large companies have standards which are intended to reduce costs (for various reasons I won't go into). Unfortunately, I think in many cases these standards tend to reduce teams' technical autonomy, which reduces motivation, having a larger negative effect on productivity (hence cost) than the savings made by the standardization. I'm thinking of things like (for example) being told you have to use Wholly Pointless Server when some free open source app server would be a better choice.

Another factor which I think is very important is how directly developers work with their customers. A lot of developers (and certainly the ones I like working with) like to do things which are useful and appreciated by the users of their software. Sometimes the way teams are set up there is a separation between developers and customers - often a business analyst who understands the business and is more available than the real customer(s). This does have benefits when a developer wants a question answered straight away (but the customer isn't available), because otherwise the developer would be blocked or have to context switch onto another area of work. However, I think the best arrangement (not always possible) is when the real customer is available all the time and the developers talk directly to them. The worst situation is when only the project manager or business analyst talks to the customer and approaches the developers with an attitude of demanding features rather than working collaboratively for the best solution.

There are lots of other factors involved in motivation - I might write more in a future article - if I can be bothered. :-)

Bike ride commitment

As an example of commitment - I said I'd do the London to Aachen bike ride and people sponsored me to do it (many thanks), so I felt a commitment to do it. If I hadn't felt any commitment then I wouldn't have done it because, frankly, it wasn't much fun. Here's a quick summary of how it turned out:

Day 1 - Gatwick to Dover/Dunkerque (85 miles cycling) - it wasn't too bad - a bit of drizzle, nice scenery and the cycling was not too tough. (We then got a ferry to Dunkerque - the staff at Norfolk line ferries were great, putting on a fantastic meal, and a tour of the bridge, specially for us).

Day 2 - Dunkerque to Waterloo (139 miles) - we had an early start (breakfast at 6:30am local time, i.e. 5:30am UK time) - in order to do 70 miles before lunch - the roads were totally flat but it was into a headwind the whole way - it was brutal. Some participants skipped the afternoon cycling and got a minivan to the hotel straight after lunch. Immediately before lunch I felt like going in the van too, but after some food felt much better and thought I'd try to keep going. The afternoon turned out to be much better - it was a bit hilly but much less windy. At around 100 miles for the day, 3 other particpants dropped out and got in the support van. At around 120 miles for the day I was knackered - but just about managed to finish the day's ride - going really slowly for the last 20 miles.

Day 3 - Waterloo to Aachen (106 miles) - I was knackered from the day before - so I took it very easy, along with some of the others who had struggled to complete the previous day's ride. There were some cobbled roads, which on a race bike are very scary. Near the end of the day, going up a long climb (which features in the pro cycling "Amstel Gold" race), we cycled through a thunder storm - we had hail, torrential rain (consequently very bad visibility), thunderbolts and lightning (very very frightening).

Copyright © 2009 Ivan Moore