Keeping things dangerous

We project managers tend to think in absolutes. There are two ways to do something: the right way, and all the other wrong ways. So, for example, software has to be released according to a carefully crafted schedule. The schedule has to include time for rigorous QA testing. And so forth. That’s the right way, and all the other ways are wrong.

Or are they? In The Year without Pants, Scott Berkun poses the question: “Is it better to invest time in making a big masterful plan or instead to start immediately and figure it out as you go?” At WordPress.com, where Berkun led a team of software developers, they opted for the latter choice. And it worked for them.

We’re not talking about agile, which still has plans (in the form of user stories) and still has schedules (even if they’re only a few weeks long). At WordPress, software was released, by and large, whenever an individual or a team thought it was ready. Instead of running a battery of QA tests, they just waited to see what would happen. Then they Winding roadreleased fixes if any were needed.

Berkun claims that the fear of making mistakes is what motivates our fixation on processes and schedules. Yet, paradoxically, he says that the safeguards built into those processes and schedules actually make us more careless and more mistake prone. Driving on a twisty mountain road with no guard rails you’ll be a lot more careful than on a road with firm barriers between you and the open air below.

“Keeping things a little dangerous,” Berkun concludes, “[makes] things safer.”

I don’t know if I’m ready to throw processes and schedules out the window completely. I kind of like having guard rails. Still, when the right project comes along, I think I’ll be up for trying a more unregulated approach.

Image: Tristan Savatier / Getty Images

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2 thoughts on “Keeping things dangerous

  1. PM Hut (@pmhut)

    Hi Larry,

    The way Scott Berkun works is the same way developers used to work a few decades ago, but now with the increasing control of project management (which is not a good thing), and with the instance on planning/estimating everything from the get-go, many projects are failing and the majority end up being over-budget, behind schedule.

    The problem is that most projects nowadays exhibit the warning signs described here: http://www.pmhut.com/the-9-warning-signs-of-bad-project-management

    Reply
    1. Larry Kunz Post author

      Thanks for your comment, Preben. I encourage everyone to read your “9 Warning Signs” article.

      It’s true that most projects are over-managed. But are they over-strategized too? In The Year without Pants, Berkun says that an overall strategy, or at least a unifying vision statement, is needed to keep things from degenerating into randomness. I agree with him, although I also recognize there’s a danger in exalting the strategy to the point where agility and spontaneity are no longer possible.

      Reply

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