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IEEE Computer Society

“You can’t control what you can’t measure” – Tom DeMarco recants on his famous principle.

By | Agile | 2 Comments

Tom DeMarco

Governance and funding of business investment using agile development methods are two hotly debated and misunderstood topics among the agile community.

With governance principles originally borrowed from the exacting fields of construction engineering and accounting, where things can often be calculated to 2 decimal places, it seems weird that we more often than not disappoint our customers by delivering a different result to that which was blueprinted or planned in software ‘engineering’.

Fred Brook’s 1975 treatise The Mythical Man Month was probably the first to hint at the

core differences between engineering a bridge versus the knowledge work of solving a problem by creating code. In the 20th anniversary edition he added an extra commentary entitled ‘No Silver Bullet’ in which he further reflected on the shortcomings of applying a mechanical engineering metaphor to software development. It is a must-read book for everyone involved in agile or lean development – and if you’ve read Clay Shirky‘s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody you’ll recognise some early sources of Clay’s work on complexity of organisations.

By the way Clay Shirky also has my favourite definition of governance – ‘rules for losing‘.

Fred aside, one of my greatest heroes of the software world is Tom DeMarco, who wrote the seminal text on project and engineering control called Controlling Software Projects: Management, Measurement, and Estimation (Prentice Hall/Yourdon Press, 1982). But this one is a book you probably do not want to own. Why? Well, approaching 70, Tom gives us the benefit of his time to reflect in the newsletter of the IEEE Computer Society in 2009, downloadable here:

http://www2.computer.org/cms/Computer.org/ComputingNow/homepage/2009/0709/rW_SO_Viewpoints.pdf

My favourite quote, which describes in a nutshell why measurement and management aren’t as closely linked as he surmised 27 years earlier:

“Imagine you’re trying to control a teenager’s upbringing. The very idea of controlling your child ought to make you at least a little bit queasy.

Yet the stakes for control couldn’t be higher… now apply “You can’t control what you can’t measure” to the teenager. Most things that really matter–honor, dignity, discipline, personality, grace under pressure, values, ethics, resourcefulness, loyalty, humor, kindness–aren’t measurable.”

And a lot of product deliveries and projects I’ve been involved with acted way more like moody, irrational, changeable teenagers than respectable septuagenarians.

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