Beating Big Projects

Big Teams are Big Trouble

Your boss comes and gives you a (big fat) sizable undertaking. We all run into situations where you have to meet a deadline that does not allow you to accomplish the project with small project teams. So the first instinct is to add manpower to the project and increase the size of the project team to reduce the time it will take to complete the project. This is a very dangerous assumption and is a faulty one. I am not going to go into all of the details, but I will make a reference to the ‘Mythical Man Month’ which was presented by Frederick P. Brooks Jr. a long time ago. Basically the concept of the man month argument is that men (project members) and months (time) are interchangeable. Frederick P. Brooks Jr. explains that this is not indeed true. In fact adding men (project members) will almost always increase the months (time) it takes to complete a project.

The greater the size of the team the more intercommunication required, the more partitioning of work and delegation of tasks, and the harder it is to determine performance and status of the project.

So what do you do if it’s a large project? The worst way to approach it is to accept that it is a large project and as such will require a large team and so you just make the large enough that the time should be decreased. This is called the brute force approach where you shovel resources into the project in order to try and decrease the total time it will take to accomplish it. This always results in greater cost, more issues, and all sorts of concerns when it comes to upgrading and building upon the solution.

The simple answer or solution is that there should never be such a thing as a large project. That if the analysts, architects, and those who create the concepts of how the solution, or system will function do their jobs correctly the result will be either many small projects, or it will be broken down enough that separating aspects of the solution into individual projects should be possible. The truth is that difficult if not impossible deadlines always happen and that real world scenarios are rarely so simple.

For these special circumstances you create a manageable project team. That is a project team that is well within your abilities and that of your project management staff to manage effectively. This team will be your powerhouse that will do most of the work. To decrease the total time it takes to complete the project you add more resources. However, when you add these extra resources you make them supporting resources. They are extra satellite groups that provide support and assistance to the core project team.

This is not a new concept, Harlan Mills proposed it a long time ago, and I just think it’s always good to point it out from time to time. Harlan said that the most effective team for accomplishing large projects is one that is designed similarly to a surgeon’s team. Just scale his model out, and I believe it will result in the least costly and best end solution being completed. (This is my interpretation of his model, not his model word for word.)

  • The Surgeon
    The surgeon is the one who does most of the work; they have the education, training, and skills to do the best job, with the least amount of waste.
  • Co-Surgeon
    The co-surgeon thinks and evaluates the surgeons work. While often as skilled as the surgeon they often have less experience.
  • Administrator
    The administrator takes care of people, relationships, money and of course the necessary components. It’s the administrator’s job to ensure that the resources such as office space, staff, or objects that are required are provided and that everyone’s administrative needs are met.
  • Editor
    The editor takes care of documentation. While often the actual procedures, and work is completed by the surgeon, and much of the documentations important technical references are done by the surgeon the work of organizing that material and preparing it for others to read and understand.
  • Program Clerk
    The program clerk maintains records of the work completed, keeps up to date knowledge of the current status of the work being done and the technical properties of that work so that it can be interpreted and reused by both machinery and humans.
  • Secretary
    The secretary handles all project correspondence and primarily supports the administrator, editor and helps to co-ordinate communication for the support personnel.
  • Toolsmith
    The Toolsmith creates, maintains and upgrades the tools the surgeons will use. The toolsmith does not need to be directly included in the process of the ‘surgery’ but will be aware of the needs of the surgeon. Once the Toolsmith has defined a surgeon’s need they either find an existing tool for the surgeon that will satisfy the surgeons need, or create one for the surgeon. In a programming sense think of the Toolsmith as the person who creates the utilities that are made available to the Surgeon, but note that these utilities are more or less defined by the surgeon and his/her needs.
  • Tester
    The tester prepares test cases for the system as a whole (based off the functional specifications) as well as the day to day tests required for component testing and debugging.
  • Language Lawyer
    The language lawyer is your research staff. The individual who will optimize the work being done by find a neat and efficient way to do difficult, obscure, or tricky things. If there is a need he will also act as the individual who will find the relevant material and information to help improve a decision or aspect of the surgeons work.

While this concept was created to handle the management of information technology projects I believe it is universally applicable to all kinds of projects. The advantage of this system is that the surgeon (and often co-surgeon) need to understand the ‘surgery’ they will be doing, and why, or the project tasks and overall direction. But the support personnel should not need to know all the details resulting in a much greater conceptual integrity. (Limit the number of people who need to be responsible.)

So the secret to managing big projects that require (due to time constraints) a larger team is to use the surgeon approach as much as possible. That way you can keep your projects as healthy and happy as possible.

Hope this helps,
Richard Harbridge

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