29 October 2009

What Is Good?

Apparently my theme this week has something to do with measuring progress (I didn't plan to have a theme - it just sorta happened). While previous posts have mostly focused on the measurement part, let's take a look at the "progress" part today.

Specifically, I'd like to talk about priorities and values. What attributes do we consider desirable for our projects? What are our measures of merit? What indicators give us reassurance that we've got a good program?

Regular readers of this blog know I think it's "important and good" for a program to be Fast, Inexpensive, Simple and Tiny. I apply these values to every part of the program, from the requirements documents and system architectures to the organizational structure and operational processes. My research indicates that the FIST values not only support programmatic success (i.e. delivering on time), but also operational success (i.e. performing well in the field).

The funny thing about values is they are often assumed, not discussed. I seldom see explicit statements about a project's values, but there are plenty of indicators that show what the project leaders really think are important.

Look at any number of recently cancelled projects, and I think you'll find that nobody thought it was particularly important for the thing to be developed quickly or inexpensively, or for it to be simple. Rather, complexity is often treated as a sign of sophistication. Big budgets are a sign that the system is important. Take a long time to build it? Great! That means you're clearly doing a good job and exercising due diligence.

Here's the thing: when we aren't deliberate with our values, when we don't examine and discuss them, we run the risk of being guided by values that are counterproductive and ineffective. I'm not saying that FIST is the only value set that works - I'm just saying we should be purposeful with our values, and should be aware of the way they shape our decisions and behavior.


Mike Burleson said...

Concerning defense, i understand the military has a strange way of measuring progress for a specific program. As with the new DDG-1000 destroyer which the OMB and others have estimated pricing as much as $7 billion and at least $5 billion for the lead ship, we hear glowing reports of it coming in on time and under budget. Here for instance:

I can only react in shock that it is still a $7 billion ship, likely which will face third world pirates in speed boats, and we can only afford three. Any thoughts on a gold plate program coming in "on time, under budget"?

The Dan Ward said...

Hiya Mike - thanks for the comments!

Indeed, $7B sure sounds like a lot of money to me. And I concur - there's little to admire about sticking to a huge budget. Sure, it's better than overrunning a huge budget, but far better to have a smaller budget in the first place....

dcwork said...

One advantage of FISTy projects is that you're more likely to have alignment in values amongst the participants because there are fewer people. The more people involved, the more likely you are to have conflicting values.

Dan, you hint at this in your posting, but another important consideration is the difference between espoused values and enacted values. It's one thing to talk about what values you think the project should have. It's another thing to be held accountable to that standard. The test of values is how or whether they guide the decision making and discourse on the day-to-day matters.

Don C.

The Dan Ward said...

@Done - Great point! Fewer people = fewer potential conflict points. Interesting...

And indeed there can be a huge chasm between stated values and actual values. I covered that topic in my thesis, but haven't really discussed it much here yet. It's a pretty important topic -thanks for bringing it up!