This evening, after I got off a phone call discussing a project with a colleague, I thought “Huh, I guess you could call that project management.”
I worked as a project manager earlier in my career, but what I’m doing now feels completely different and much more pleasant. Strip away the bureaucracy and politics, and project management just feels like getting work done.
I have several people working for me now, but project management doesn’t take much time. I still spend most of my time working on my own projects.
The tragedy of the commons is the name economists use to describe the abuse of common property. For example, overfishing in international waters. Someone who owns a lake will not over fish his own lake because he knows he will benefit in the future from restraining his fishing now. But in international waters, no individual has an incentive to restrain fishing. Mankind as a whole certainly benefits from restraint, but single fishermen do not.
Michael Heller discusses an opposite effect, the tragedy of the anti-commons, on the EconTalk podcast. The tragedy of the commons describes the over-use of a resource nobody owns. The tragedy of the anti-commons describes the under-use of resources with many owners. For example, suppose an acre of land belongs to 43,560 individuals who each own one square foot. The land will never be used for anything as long as thousands of people have to agree on what to do.
The example of land being divided into tiny plots is a artificial. A more realistic example is the ownership of patents. Building a DVD player requires using hundreds of patented inventions. No company could ever build a DVD player if it had to negotiate with all patent holders and obtain their unanimous consent. These patents would be worthless due to gridlock. Fortunately, the owners of the patents used in building DVD players have formed a single entity authorized to negotiate on their behalf. But if you’re creating something new that does not have an organized group of patent holders, there are real problems.
According to Michael Heller, it is simply impossible to create a high-tech product these days without infringing on patents. A new drug or a new electronic device may use thousands of patents. It may not be practical even to discover all the possible patents involved, and it is certainly not possible to negotiate with thousands of patent holders individually.
Small companies can get away with patent violations because the companies may not be worth suing. But companies with deep pockets such as Microsoft are worth suing. These companies develop their own arsenal of patents so they can threaten counter suits against potential attackers. This keeps the big companies from suing each other, but it doesn’t prevent lawsuits from tiny companies that may only have one product.
Listen to the EconTalk interview for some ideas of how to get around the tragedy of the anti-commons, particularly in regard to patents.
“If you make $30 per hour, you should outsource everything you do that you could hire someone else to do for less than $30.” Rubbish. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard this advice. It sounds good, for about two seconds. But it doesn’t work because it ignores transaction costs.
Suppose you’re an accountant making $60,000 per year, an hourly rate of $30. If someone is standing in front of you and says “Hey, I’ll do your yard work for the next hour for $20. Why don’t you go inside and do an hour of accounting?” In that case, it makes sense to take the yard worker up on his offer (unless you want to work outside for non-monetary reasons). But reality is seldom so simple. First of all, if you are a salaried employee, you probably don’t have the option of putting in an extra hour’s work for an extra hour’s pay. But even if you do freelance accounting, you may not be able to find an hour’s work when you want it.
Say you have some freelance accounting to do, and you’d like to get out of your yard work. You’ve got to find someone to do the work unless there happens to be landscaper standing outside your door. You might ask friends for recommendations, search the web, make a few phone calls, etc. Finding a landscaper is easier than finding accounting work, but it still takes effort.
The effort necessary to find work or to find workers is called a transaction cost. So is negotiating compensation, drawing up contracts, etc. If you have a steady stream of accounting work, you might think “I’m going to need to free up some time to do this extra work. I’ll outsource some of my chores, like my yard work.” And that makes sense. But unless you have enough work at hand, it’s worthwhile to do many things for yourself that in theory you could pay someone else to do.
Transaction costs are not all bad. They give life stability and variety. Salaried jobs exist because transaction costs make it expensive to put every task out for bid. And we develop a variety of skills because it is impractical to ask someone else to do everything for us outside of our narrow professional specialization.
The simple fact is that being busy is easier than not. Most managers cannot admit that a fragmented day is actually the laziest day, the day that requires the least mental discipline and the most nervous energy. Responding to each new request, chasing an answer to the latest question, and complaining about overwhelming demands are easier than setting priorities.
The answer to a feasibility study is almost always “yes”.
I hadn’t thought about that before, but it certainly rings true. I can’t think of an exception.
Some say about half of all large software projects fail, and presumably many of these failures passed a feasibility study. Why can’t we predict whether a project stands a good chance of succeeding? Are committees sincerely overly optimistic, or do they recognize doomed projects but tell the sponsor what the sponsor wants to hear?
Innovation is not the same as invention. According to Peter Denning,
An innovation is a transformation of practice in a community. It is not the same as the invention of a new idea or object. The real work of innovation is in the transformation of practice. … Many innovations were preceded or enabled by inventions; but many innovations occurred without a significant invention.
I want to see the biographies and the sociologies of the great customers and clients of innovation. Forget for a while about the Samuel Morses, Thomas Edisons, the Robert Fultons and James Watts of industrial revolution fame. Don’t look to them to figure out what innovation is, because innovation is not what innovators do but what customers adopt.
Innovation in the sense of Denning and Schrage is harder than invention. Most inventions don’t lead to innovations.
The simplest view of the history of invention is that Morse invented the telegraph, Fulton the steamboat, etc. A sophomoric view is that men like Morse and Fulton don’t deserve so much credit because they only improved on and popularized the inventions of others. A more mature view is that Morse and Fulton do indeed deserve the credit they receive. All inventors build on the work of predecessors, and popularizing an invention (i.e. encouraging innovation) requires persistent hard work and creativity.
Popular business writers often say flat organizations are better than hierarchical organizations, and small businesses are better than big businesses. By “better” they usually mean more creative, nimble, fun, and ultimately profitable. But they don’t often try to explain why small and flat is better than big and hierarchical. They support their argument with examples of big sluggish companies and small agile companies, but that’s as far as they go.
Paul Graham posted a new essay called You Weren’t Meant to Have a Boss in which he also argues for small and flat over big and hierarchical. However, his line of reasoning is fresh. I haven’t decided what I think of his points, but as usual his writing is creative and thought-provoking.
There’s a saying that clients can have good, fast, or cheap. Pick two, but then the third will be whatever it has to be based on the other two choices. You can have good and fast if you’re willing to spend a lot of money. You can have fast and cheap, but the quality will be poor. You might even be able to get good and cheap, if you’re willing to wait a long time.
A variation on this theme is the iron triangle. You draw a triangle with vertices labeled “features”, “time” and “resources.” If you make two of the sides longer, the third has to become longer too. Here goodness is defined as a feature set rather than quality, but the same principle applies.
There’s a problem with this line of reasoning: no matter what clients say, they want quality. They may say they want fast and cheap, and if you tell them you’ll sacrifice quality to deliver fast and cheap, you’ll be a hero — until you deliver. Then they want quality. As Howard Newton put it
People forget how fast you did a job, but they remember how well you did it.
Sometimes you can cut features as long as you do a good job on the features that remain, but only to a point. Clients are not going to be happy unless you meet their expectations, even if those expectations are explicitly contradicted in a contract. You can tell a client you’ll cut out frills to give them something fast and cheap, and they’ll gladly agree. But they still want their frills, or they will want them. The client may be silently disappointed. Or they may be vocally disappointed, demanding excluded features for free and complaining about your work. Eventually you learn what features to insist on including, even if a client says they can live without them.
Interaction design guru Alan Cooper gave a presentation recently entitled An Insurgency of Quality. As part of his talk, he explains why programmers cannot be managed. Traditional management has an industrial age mindset, while software development is a post-industrial craft. That mismatch explains a great deal. For example, industrial workers respect authority, but programmers respect competence.
According to Cooper, the leader of a group of programmers should be a facilitator, not a manager. Johanna Rothman in her interview on the Pragmatic Programmer podcast elaborates on this same view. The manager’s job is to remove obstacles to productivity — acquire resources, provide protection from interruptions and distractions, etc. — rather than to manage in the industrial sense.