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The Predictability Paradox and Obliquity: Achieve Predictable Outcomes Indirectly

“The paradox is that trying too hard to create predictability creates the opposite effect.”
– Mary Poppendieck, Aug 2003 – Lean Development and the Predictability Paradox

“If you want to go in one direction, the best route may involve going in the other. Paradoxical as it sounds, goals are more likely to be achieved when pursued indirectly.”
– John Kay, Jan 2004 – Obliquity, January (article)

“Rationality is not defined by good processes, irrationality lies in persisting with methods and actions that plainly do not work – including the methods and actions that commonly masquerade as rationality.”
– Johh Kay, Mar 2010 – Think oblique: How our goals are best reached indirectly

If you’ve worked in the software development field for any length of time, I’m sure you’ve been asked, “When will the project be finished?” I’m also sure you’ve found this question challenging to answer more often than not. Why is this? Estimating, forecasting, projecting, call it what you will, is not easy to do well, or even close to effective, especially as the project increases in size, complexity, or both. In a single post, I’m definitely not diving deeply into how one might estimate, forecast, or project how long a software development project might take to complete. However, keeping in mind the “estimating challenges” we’ve encountered in software development provides a real world context for discussing what I think are a couple of related and intriguing concepts.

The Predictability Paradox

In 2003, Mary Poppendieck published a paper titled “Lean Development and the Predictability Paradox.” The lean principles found in this paper appear in a refined and expanded form in Mary and Tom Poppendieck’s book “Lean Software Development: An Agile Toolkit” (2003). However, unless I missed it, the Predictability Paradox, neither as a term or concept, appears explicitly in this book. But, the concept definitely resurfaced in their following book, “Implementing Lean Software Development: From Concept to Cash” (2006), although relabeled as a chapter sub-heading “Myth: Predictions Create Predictability.”

So, what exactly is the Predictability Paradox? (more…)

Unknown Unknowns: Using Types of Uncertainty to Guide How You Manage Your Project

“Don’t manage the unknown and unpredictable the same way you manage the known and predictable.”
– Doug DeCarlo, Oct 2004 – eXtreme Project Management

“Managers must be flexible enough to adopt the right approaches at the right time…to find the balance between planning and learning.”
– Arnoud De Meyer, Christopher H. Loch, and Michael T. Pich – Managing Project Uncertainty: From Variation to Chaos

Reflecting on the last ten years of my own experience working on projects, early on, I saw mostly “traditional project management.” That is, project management that places greater emphasis on planning upfront, and as a whole, a greater proportion of the total project planning is done very early in the project, and seeks to provide predictability of activities over longer planning horizons. Other terms I’ve heard for this project management style are “predictive” or “sequential (gateway) delivery.” In more recent years, however, my experience has been to see “iterative and incremental” approaches. Again, that is, project management that places less emphasis on planning upfront, and as a whole, a greater proportion of the total project planning is done in small amounts iteratively across the project, and seeks to provide predictability of activities only over shorter planning horizons. Other terms I’ve heard for this project management style are “emergent” and “incremental delivery.”

While this is a minimal level of distinction, for our purposes it will be sufficient. This won’t be a post on “good vs. evil” styles of project management. In fact, I’m advising, that might be a “limiting” perspective. Rather, the “focus” is to view projects from a perspective of uncertainty (as a model) to gain insights into these two project management styles that may help us more effectively manage our projects.

 Are All Projects the Same?

In your experience, how often have you seen projects managed differently from one another? Is there “evidence” to suggest, based on how you manage or see projects managed, that all projects are the same? (more…)