Monthly Archives: July 2011

NASA and Terminating Contracts

I was surprised to learn that in 2010 NASA had 16,343 contracts in place for procurement of goods and services, of these only 28 were terminated. That’s less than 0.2% of their contracts.

Either NASA is very good at finding efficient vendors and accurately forecasting requirements and contingencies within the contract, or they aren’t being decisive enough in adapting to project changes or dealing with cases of extreme vendor underperformance.

Agile – Adapt And Little Bets

The current Zeitgeist in a lot of business writing seems essentially to favor agile thinking. Peter Sims recent book Little Bets and Tim Harford’s book Adapt both go in this direction.

Both authors follow largely similar logic:

  • The future is hard (sometimes impossible) to predict
  • The best way to test something is to try it
  • The more you test the more likely you’ll hit on something good
The result is a rejection of top-down planning and an endorsement of decentralized creative processes, with clear success metrics in place to pick winners and a framework to make sure you don’t lose so much in the iterative testing that the gains of a win are erased.
This is all good, the logic can’t be faulted and the process is appropriate in many situations. But crucially not all situations and that’s where I take issue with both books.
If things are as complex as they both argue they are, then isn’t a one-size-fits all answer a little too easy? The examples too, are very similar between the books. For example, the Iraqi War and defeating the insurgents shows that troops on the ground pioneered smart ideas that worked in building local trust and were then used broadly across the military. The Soviet Union showed top down planning was a non-starter, and Pixar demonstrates iteration from demo shorts of jumping lamps, to computer generated adverts to ultimately the pioneering success of Toy Story.
That’s all great, but what about the fact that the initial ‘shock and awe’ invasion of Iraq (if politically misguided) was an overnight triumph of top down planning? The Soviet Union failed, but China thus far could teach many other economies some tricks with a pretty high degree of command and control. Thirdly, whilst Pixar showed the success of incremental steps. Titanic and Avatar both show that James Cameron’s big bangs can be more successful than even Toy Story 3.
Finally, didn’t Karl Popper make these very persuasive arguments about iteration and testing back in 1962? Though, I admit his text is a little harder to read.
It’s great to see the tidal wave of support for agile processes, but let’s not forget that planning is needed in many circumstances. Indeed as Napoleon said “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensible.”
In summary, both Little Bets and Adapt are well written books, but let’s not swing the pendulum over to agile processes too far and be careful about balance in the examples we pick for support.

VIDEO – Hamel on Reverse Accountability

The management guru Gary Hamel gives a great 15 minute presentation on the past and future of management. The most interesting concept is reverse accountability (front line employees getting more information and power), and examples of how it can operate in practise. In addition the presentation itself is first class in terms of the animation he uses to reinforce his points.

Book Review – Exploring Requirements – Quality Before Design

Exploring Requirements by Donald C. Gause and Gerald M. Weinberg is a very good basic text on the requirements process. It’s been available for some time, but only came out in paperback earlier this year. Although the ideas in the book are simple they are also very powerful and are the sort of things that seem obvious once you read them, but are not practiced as widely as they should be. The book shares ideas in an engaging, friendly tone, making use of some pretty frivolous examples that make it a more interesting read than your average project management book.

Much of the book is focused on the insight that the requirements process can be greatly improved by clearer communication and the removal of all ambiguity, and the authors use some clever examples that illustrate their points, and offer clear steps for communicating better and removing the typical barriers to collecting requirements. As with many books related to project management the book leans more towards software projects than other types of project, but this doesn’t harm the broad applicability of most concepts. The book is strongest on requirements gathering, but also has some tips for other areas like meeting management or brainstorming. If you’re feel a bit rusty on your requirements gathering skills this text is a quick way to sharpen your technique and broaden your perspective.