Developer

Knowing when speed matters

Your project was 80 percent complete, but at least the key components were in place ahead of schedule. In this edition of Artner's Law, Bob Artner explains why that scenario means that you have succeeded.


We’re going to explore a radical concept in this week’s column. I’m going to defend the outrageous premise that not all executives are morons who “just don’t get” technology.

Specifically, I’m going to argue that the CIO or Controller who tells you “I don’t need it perfect, I need it soon” just might have a point. Let me explain why I think this is often true, and how you can convince your people to buy into the concept.
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The perfect is the enemy of the good
Obviously, I’m exaggerating to make a point. As IT managers, you have to deal with resource constraints everyday. However, I worry that the constant battles that many technical managers have to fight over budget and staffing make them too quick to push back when given target dates for new projects.

You might be saying to yourself, “my organization’s senior leadership is very impatient.” They probably are. The truth is, so is the rest of the business world these days. Odds are, senior management isn’t being capricious when they demand applications by a certain date, but are responding to the severe competitive pressure that most companies operate under today.

In a period of rapid technological change (like now), organizations have to adapt quickly, or die.

What does that mean for you as an IT manager? It means that while you still have to get the job done right, you need to get it done just “right” enough. Get your people to stop thinking about the ultimate application, and keep them focused on the feature set that they can deliver on time.

From the business driver’s point of view, it’s often better to get 85 percent of something up and running, rather than to wait another two months to get the next 10 percent. (You can just forget about trying to get the last 5 percent of anything—it’ll kill you.)



Let’s take it a step further
Many business drivers would advocate getting a project up and running, even if it meant that IT would have to gut much of the original work and redo it for the next version of the project.

Of course, this goes completely against the grain for most IT managers, and it’s not hard to see why. After all, most of you run a staff that has way too much work, and not nearly enough time in which to do it. When you finish a project, you want to cross it off the list and not have to think about it, other than for maintenance. The last thing most technical managers want is to release an application or finish an implementation that’s going to require extensive additional work down the line. It just seems inherently wasteful.

To a certain extent, that’s a good attitude to have. A good manager needs to shepherd his or her resources and not squander them unnecessarily. That’s why successful IT managers are relentless in stress testing and bug testing their applications before deployment.

However, carried to its logical conclusion, the very attitude that makes you a good project manager could hurt your organization’s short-term needs. That’s what people mean when they say the perfect is the enemy of the good. That’s what I mean when I said earlier that trying to get the last 5 percent of anything will kill you.

If you’re looking for an analogy, think of the kind of surgery performed in the TV series M*A*S*H. The job of those surgeons was to stabilize the wounded soldiers, then hand them off to hospitals away from the fighting. If the doctors at a MASH unit spent the time to completely fix each guy they operated on, a lot of other soldiers would have died waiting for treatment.

Vendor or partner?
I talk to a lot of IT managers, and one of their most common complaints is that all too often their senior management treats them like vendors instead of partners. These technical managers want to be partners with the business units, and not just an expense line on their business unit’s budget.

For that to happen, both sides will have to change their behavior in some ways. Senior management will have to start involving their IT people in new projects on the front end, soliciting their opinions, and acting on them.

However, IT managers will have to change their ways as well. They’ll have to be better about understanding the pressure their business directors are under. If technical managers really want to be partners with business directors, they’ll have to learn the difference between perfect and good.
Contrary to popular opinion, the baby boomer generation didn’t invent technology. People have been struggling with this conflict between “doing it perfectly” and “doing it now” for some time. For example, after the American Civil War, the country held a race between the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific to finish the first transcontinental railroad. Both companies wasted resources by building too quickly, knowing that they’d have to redo sections of the track later.
For the most part, the country agreed with this approach, feeling that the benefits of having the railroad finished earlier outweighed the extra expense of building it to last. As Stephen Ambrose writes in his new book, Nothing Like it in the World, this was the feeling held by most Americans:
A race, a competition. Build it fast….People wanted to get to California, or back east. They wanted to see the sights, to ship the goods. The road could be fixed later. Build it. Nail it down.
Editor’s Note: Bob Artner is away this week attending the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo. A guest columnist will appear in Bob’s usual space next week.
Have you seen the “get it done yesterday” attitude help or hurt your organization? To add to this discussion, post your comment to this article. Each week, the person who provides the best feedback to an Artner's Law column will win a free TechRepublic coffee mug. If you’d like to suggest a topic for a future Artner’s Law, send Bob a letter.

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