29 September 2009

The One Thing

If there was one thing I could accomplish professionally, one contribution to the corpus of program management practice and theory, it would be to dispell the Myth of Inevitability.

What is this myth, you ask? It's the idea that high tech system development projects (weapons, spacecraft, commercial products, etc) inevitably take a long time, cost a lot and are complex. The myth is expressed in phrases like "better, faster, cheaper - pick two." A corollary to this myth is the idea that adding time and money to the project improves the outcome, as if the problem with our failed system development efforts was that our schedule was too short and our budget too small.

No kidding -that's what they said when the 18 year, $7B (billion-with-a-b) Comanche helicopter was cancelled. They needed more money. They needed more time. Yeah, that would have helped. Right. A similar chorus rises from any number of failed high tech projects. My assessment is that they had too much time & money, not too little. And at the core, they believed that the costs and delays were inevitable, simply an inherent part of this kind of work. It's a tragic belief and a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's also not grounded in reality.

The truth is, there is nothing inherent in military technology (for example) that requires it to cost so much, take so long or be so complex. Yes, systems like the F-22 took a long time and cost a lot. But there's a difference between "it took a long time" and "it takes a long time." We could have done it better (both programmatically and operationally). If we set up our values correctly, if we cherish our constraints and pursue intelligent simplicity, we don't have to spend billions and decades. We can do it for millions and in years (or thousands in months). The F-117, the SR-71, NASA's Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) mission and the Pathfinder Mars mission are all examples of high-tech projects built on a FIST (Fast, Inexpensive, Simple, Tiny) foundation.

Despite the evidence of a significant portfolio of FISTy projects (documented in my master's degree thesis), the Myth of Inevitability insists that things like this have to be complicated and expensive. Believers in the myth see no alternative to bureaucracies, technologies and processes that are complex, expensive and slow.

Their failure to see through the myth reflects ignorance of the past and a lack of imagination. There are alternatives. Download a free copy of The FIST Handbook for more details on the principles, activities and examples of how to use constraints to foster creativity and deliver systems that are simultaneously faster, better and cheaper.


Art said...

Hi, tried to give a look at your book, but no more downloads available limit reached. Is there another way to get it? Thanks,


The Dan Ward said...

Hey, sorry about that, Arturo! The FIST Handbook is now available at this link, with no download limits: http://dl.getdropbox.com/u/104022/FIST_Handbook_071409.pdf

Thanks - and enjoy!