Beyond Projects, Beyond #NoProjects

StopNoProjects-2013-10-23-08-01.pngMy recent “#NoProjects – why projects don’t make sense” post stirred up a fair bit of discussion, both on the blog and especially on Twitter – check the #NoProjects hashtag. But, while that post railed against “projects” it didn’t say much about what we should do instead. Indeed as was pointed out it might be better to advocate and rally behind a positive alternative rather than negative idea.

So let me try and put in place the outline of how I see a #NoProjects world working.

(Strictly speaking it might be better to use the hashtag #BeyondProjects but a) #NoProjects has already built up momentum, b) #NoProjects actually describes what we are talking about quite well and c) #NoProjects has 4 fewer letters than #BeyondProjects.)

Stable teams: first off the teams that do the work need to be stable and they need to be kept together over the long run. Of course teams will sometimes loose people and they will sometimes expand. But over the long run we want team members who will live with their creation and grow with their creation.

Teams rooted in business: These stable teams needs to be based with their business users and customers. There should no divide between “the business” and “IT”. IT shouldn’t be hired guns who get called up when there is a problem.

Increasingly, as more and more everyday business depends on technology “the business” is a technology business. IT departments as we know them may cease to exist in time.

(Naturally there are some differences between Beyond Projects in a corporate IT environment and in a software vendor environment. I won’t go into the details here. But, on the whole it is corporate IT departments who have a project obsession and practice corporate psychopathy. Continuity, if not stability, is usual the norm for software vendors.)

Business as usual (BAU) is the source and destination: Everyday business, business as usual, is the source of requests for technology changes and the destination for such changes. Many of these changes will be small – incremental – but others will be big. The people who do the work will be involved with uncovering the need for change and in working with the change when it occurs.

The need for change management will decrease considerably because IT will no longer be inflicting change on unsuspecting users. Instead technologists will be bringing requested improvements to willing customers.

If you need change management then it too will be based in the business lines of work. So too will be testers and business analysts. In fact the role of business analyst will become far more important because they will be charged with work with real stakeholders and helping them find ways to improve the business processes, products and delivery. BAs will look more like internal consultants than the order takers they are sometime used as.

Continuous stream of value: the result of this model will be a continuous stream of value. Technologists will be delivering improvements to the systems regularly, every few weeks if not every day. The batch size for work request and delivery will be one.

Again, as more and more businesses become IT businesses – business which can only exist and compete through the use of IT and IS systems – the value delivered will be bottom line value allowing the business to compete and stay ahead of competitors.

Portfolio management: this is not to say that all lines of business – and technology teams – will exist for ever. Some lines will need be to closed. Some teams will need to survive with less technology. Conversely, work streams which are seeing growth and performing stronger than the wider company will benefit from more resources.

The activity of reviewing work streams, increasing capacity, reducing capacity, starting new initiatives and terminating existing ones needs to be pursued more rigorously than before.

True portfolio management needs to be practices on a regular basis – at least every three months. And it needs to look at value delivered, potential future value and costs. Portfolio management which looks at progress against plan, or measures success as “on time, budget and scope” has no place is the Beyond Projects world.

Train1small-2013-10-23-08-01.jpgLike trains: trains run on schedules and so should software projects. When trains leave the station late and arrive late they are poor performers. Just the same goes for software work. We want work which begins on schedule and arrives on schedule.

When this happens co-ordination becomes simpler. The train schedules are known weeks and months in advance. Yes they change sometimes but not often. When you know the train you are going to get you arrange your journey around that.

When you have to take connecting trains you know how much time you need. You might allow a buffer or you might take a risk and run between platforms. How many of you readers have missed a train or a plane recently? Humans are very good at working to deadlines and very poor at estimate how long activities will take.

Co-ordinating multiple pieces of work between different teams becomes a process of putting the features/functionality you need from another team on their train. You inject work into the other team. And the receiving team will be able to tell you their schedule and whether the train you want to put a feature on is overloaded. They might even offer you a discount for going off-peak!

Project managers: obviously without projects there are no projects to manage. But does that mean the end for the people we call project managers?

I think not, there is still work to manage. I disagree with many in the Agile community – and particularly the Scrum community – because I don’t think all management work goes away. There might be less but I think those who argue “you don’t need managers” don’t really understand management work. (In truth most managers don’t either. Go and read Managing by Mintzberg then we can talk about what managers actually do.)

Many of the skills good project managers have will still be needed. They may take on another co-ordination role or they may become business-as-usual managers. Rather than having “Project Manager Call Centre Renewal Project” on their business card we might see “Call Centre Development Manager”.

Management roles will still exist but they will manage real work.

Goodbye matrix management: with projects gone and technologists based in the business much matrix management should disappear. Matrix management has never looked like a great idea, at best it is confusing at worst it is dysfunctional.

There will be more line management and there will be more need for business line managers to understand technology. Some of those surplus project managers will be well positioned to take up the new roles.

(Indeed I suspect that the proliferation of project managers in the last 20 years has much to do with the reduction of middle and junior managers that occurred in the 10 years before hand. First corporations cleared out their management ranks, then reinvented them under the cover of “projects.”)

There then are the basics of #NoProjects, Beyond Projects. I’m sure there is much more I could say and much more I will say in time.

If you have any opinions on this please add them below, I’d really like to hear what people think. And especially why you think I’m wrong, what have I missed? Go on, tell me!

11 Myths & 2 Truths of Agile – Infographic

Abi Crafter at Countersoft liked by “11 Myths and 2 Truths of Agile” blog entry so much he turned it into this Infographic. Thanks Abi!

(Some of you might have noticed that a reworked version of that blog appeared on Agile Connection as Top Twelve Myths of Agile Development.)

PopularmisconeptionsofAgile-2013-10-17-11-19.jpg

By the way, notice I’ve linked to Abi and his company Countersoft. Abi did something I like, Abi gave me something, I’m more than happy to give him a link for that. I don’t necessarily endorse his tool but I might well look at it.

I regularly decline – or plain ignore – requests to review particular products in this blog. Similarly I mark comments which don’t really say anything but include a link as spam. Unfortunately most such comments seem to come from Indian companies which reduces my opinion of the Indian software industry.

#NoProjects – why projects don’t make sense

In the last few months Steve Smith, myself and others have been Tweeting a lot with the hash tag #NoProjects. We have independently come to believe Projects are a smell, they are bad for our industry (the technology industry). Steve set out his thinking and now it is my turn.

Right now this is little more than a bullet point list, I’m presenting to PROMS-G in February (“The End of Projects”) where I will present a more coherent argument. Until then here goes.
Lets start of by defining “A project”.

The Project Management Institute says:

what is a project? It’s a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result. A project is temporary in that it has a defined beginning and end in time, and therefore defined scope and resources. … The development of software for an improved business process, the construction of a building … — all are projects.
And all must be expertly managed to deliver the on-time, on-budget results, learning and integration that organizations need.”

PRINCE2 defines a project as

A temporary organization that is needed to produce a unique and predefined outcome or result at a pre-specified time using predetermined resources.

Actually, PRINCE2 has two definitions of a project:

“project management is the way of managing change. Everything from the Olympics to organising a wedding can be considered a project. It describes the activities that meet specific objectives and can be used to introduce or improve new or existing products and services.”

Bearing this in mind I suggest the project model does not fit software development:

  • Projects have end dates – successful software doesn’t end, it not temporary. Finished software is dead software, software that isn’t used and doesn’t change
  • Successful software is continually developed and improved, the team is not temporary, it continues to exist (although it might change composition and the imposition of the project may at times destaff it)
  • Resources change: sometimes the people decide to leave of their own accord, sometimes the wider organizations decided to remove people or add others
  • The project model implies we can define what needs doing before we begin and that it won’t change. Software development uncovers need as it proceeds.
  • Project thinking implies that the problem can be defined independently before the solution: in software development the creating of a (partial) solution can lead to a redefinition of the problem being addressed.

Those points might be enough to persuade you the project model is not a good fit for software development. I go further, I think the project metaphor actively damages software development and destroys business value:

  • Project success criteria are “On time, On budget, On scope” and not business value. These criteria become a distraction and a barrier to hide behind – a “social defence” to use the jargon. Work should be value seeking and judged by the value/capability/benefit/[whatever you want] rather than arbitrary criteria which seemed good one day in the past.
  • Corporate Psychopathy: why disband a performing team just because a project has ended? Why start a project by pulling together a new team who have never played before?
  • Destroying team destroys knowledge – knowledge has value, knowledge exists in heads not documents
  • Project thinking induces short-termism – around quality, around productivity and around teams especially. Project thinking builds pre-fab houses when it should be building to last
  • Large batch size: projects lump lots of work together and attempt to manage it all as one large unit. This is inefficient (software has dis-economies of scale), breaks flow and delays delivery which delays value realisation
  • Project thinking makes BAU a dirty word; BAU is not a dirty work, BAU is where the action is: if it is worth doing it is worth doing more of, if it is not worth doing then close it down. Use portfolio management rather than pre-defined cut-offs. (BAU = Business As Usual, a common corporate term)
  • Projects inflict change on people (employees): why not seek their involvement? They own the work, they are BAU, the work stream should be seeking to improve itself as part of its daily work
  • Continuous improvement is continuous. Projects stop continuity, projects break flow and reduce effectiveness. Continuous improvement should be part of the fabric of everyday work, supported if need be by technologists.
  • Project thinking create scheduling projects: “Project B after Project A has finished, but if A is late….” – define work streams and feed them work
  • Projects confine change to projects and freeze change elsewhere
  • Start-up costs: bureaucracy, administration, etc. of starting a project mean the project model is expensive and slow at taking action. Project setup costs detract from value and the time it takes to “launch” a project detract from responsiveness. On a small work effort the costs of creating a project may be disproportionally high which may detract from attractiveness of doing the work. Similarly the time it takes to get a project scoped, a team assembled, everything kicked-off, performing and delivering creates a barrier to seizing value.

I recognise that a lot of what is called “a project” isn’t, it doesn’t fit the definitions at above. That simply makes things worse. Calling something a project when it isn’t is at best sloppy thinking, at worst it imports the problems listed into work that would otherwise be free of them.

Then there is scaling: so much of the “scaling agile” debate revolves around projects. If instead you accept standing teams dedicated to improving business as usual many of the scaling issues simply go away.

Projects are accounting codes to bill work back to. Projects are for accountants. Leave them at that.

Ask not “When will it be done?” ask instead “When will it start delivering value?”

Pessimistic about Agile in retail banks

Almost exactly two years ago I wrote a strident blog entitled “Agile will never work in Investment banks”. Its a blog post that keeps getting rediscovered by those who agree or disagree with my position and just such event has occurred on Twitter with Kevin Burns @martinburnsuk and several others @kev_austin @sandromancuso @gordonmcmahon

During the intervening two years I have had many conversations which support my point of view. Most of these conversations have been with people who have more, and more recent, experience in banks than I do. In particular I found Peter Pilgrim’s blog closely aligned with my own views.

Conversations with the likes of Andy and Chris (you know who you are!) and others have led me to believe that while retail banking might be more hopeful it isn’t a massively better there. In part that is due to the colonisation of retail banking by investment banking that has occurred over the last twenty years.

Lets be clear: although investment banking and retail banking share the word “banking” in their title they have nothing else in common. I’ll leave it to John Kay to say something about the why they are in conflict. (Broken link).

The move by many investment banks to occupy retail space has been purely opportunistic, they have sought cheap funds and to embed themselves in the economic fabric so they become “too big to fail” and “systematically important institutions”, thereby guaranteeing Government bail out, thereby reducing their funding costs and increasing banking bonuses. (See The Bankers New Clothes for a discussion of the many problems with current banks and solutions.)

If you wanted to summarise my argument in one line I’d say: Too big to fail means too big to manage.

Now there are two caveats on my original post which I want to make clear before expanding on the discussion:

  1. Agile is interpreted by many in banking to mean Iterative Development – see my recent “3 Styles of Agile” post. This can work to some degree. Simply adding the technical practices, improving software craftsmanship, can improve IT. However if an Agile ever becomes more than – incremental or evolutionary – there then conflicts will be created within the management regime which may lead to its own destruction.
  2. Incremental and Evolutionary Agile can exist in banking, and have existed in many banks I know of but only in the short to medium term. This kind of Agile requires a guardian angel. Again this will create conflicts, while the guardian angel is strong enough the team can be protected. However given time either the angel is successful and will presented with a better opportunity (probably at another bank in which case he might have the team follow him) or he is not successful and will be pushed to one side and his creation will be dismantled.

Turning specifically to retail banks, and thereby extending my argument. On the one hand I don’t believe retail banks suffer with quite the same rent-seeking culture found in investment banks so I’m more hopeful of them. But on the other hand retail banks have an additional set of problems:

Legacy retails banks are dependent on Cobol mainframe systems. This brings several problems. Firstly while you can do some Agile like things in a Cobol environment there are many things you can’t do.

Specifically TDD: as far as I can tell several attempts have been made to create a CobolUnit (this CobolUnit may be the same to different) and they are all pretty much dead. No action since 2009 or 2010 on those links.

We can’t expect the OpenSource community to come to the rescue here. Few people write Cobol at home and the generation of people who write Cobol are different to the OpenSourcers who created JUnit, nUnit, etc.

Unit IBM or MicroFocus get interested in a CobolUnit then I don’t expect much to happen – it seems IBM might be moving in this direction. But generally I don’t see the incentive for either unless they can see money.

Second these Cobol systems are ageing. They have patch upon patch applied to them and by some accounts are reaching the end of their lives. Much of the technology they are built with just isn’t as flexible or modifiable as the current generation. There is only so much you can do with a hierarchical IMS database or a mainframe batch processing system. (If you could do these things, and you could do them as easily as modern technology then we wouldn’t have needed to invent modern technology.)

Since retail bankers were early adopters of computers some of these systems are among the oldest systems in use. Many of them have been patched together through mergers and acquisitions making things even more difficult.

True I’d a great proponent of never rewrite and I think it would be a mistake for banks to rewrite these systems. Indeed, given the chronically poor management skills in these banks authorising a rewrite would be a waste of money. Which means you are damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

Third, compounding the first two: the people who wrote these systems are nearing retirement age. Not only do they understand the technology but they understand the business too. When they are gone these systems are lost.

Banks could have alleviated this problem by training replacements but they don’t generally do this. Actually they have made things worse in the last 20 years by outsourcing and offshoring work thereby discarding their own experience and acerbating the generation change. Some of the knowledge might now reside in the outsourced and offshore but getting this into the bank will prove difficult and expensive.

The solution for the banks is to buy off-the-shelf systems. But this is incredibly difficult so…

Fourth, buying an off the shelf product means not only process changes but potentially product changes. That lands the retail bank with change problems. They will need to customise off the shelf software and that isn’t cheap either.

Fifth, new “challenger” banks like Metro bank are already buying off the shelf. As the costs of maintaining legacy systems or migrating to new systems escalate these banks will have a greater and greater advantage over the legacy banks.

And its not just challenger banks: Paypal, Zopa, Funding Circle and a host of other online payment and loans providers are applying technology to reinvent banking. In doing so they are eating the retail banks market. (And the banks can’t respond because of the reasons listed here.) In other words: the banks are suffering from disruptive innovation

Sixth – something I just hinted at – the quality of IT management in banks is absolutely appalling. Again investment banks have made retail banks worse because the big money was in investment, anyone who was any good and wanted more money had an incentive to move from the retail to the investment side. Retail IT has been robbed of its best staff.

Management quality is not entirely down to investment banks. Banks are about money management after all. Promotion to the senior positions comes from the banking side, not the IT side. Almost by definition the senior managers in banks don’t understand IT. It also means that IT managers sooner or later face a ceiling on progression.

Many of these problems have been made worse because investment bankers controlled retail banks. Investment banking is essentially a rent extracting activity, and they have managed retail IT just like that. The existing IT has been milked and without adequate investment. Hence problems like well the documented RBS outages and Lloyds payment problems.

To make matters worse banks are where the money is so they have been preyed on by major systems companies and tool vendors. These companies sell technology fixes which may – or may no – address a problem but do little if anything to build capacity. Put it this way: banks are major buyers of automated testing tools which aren’t used.

You see my argument?

I’m sure Agile could help with some of these problems – not all but some – but the way I see it the problems facing the banks mean Agile will have a very hard time.

Finally, as others have pointed out many of my arguments can be applied to other types of large corporations. I agree, I confine my arguments to banks because I think the case is clearer there, banks are all very similar, because banks exhibit more systematic failures than most and banks are something we should be worried about – as customers, as tax payers, as citizens in economies that depend on banks.