Why You Should Avoid Using Projects in Software


Organizing work around projects does not fit any form of work that is creative, open-ended, and patterns-based, relying on human ingenuity and judgement to create value. This is most notable in research, creative jobs, and development in all its forms; be it organizational change, personal growth or software development.

Projects in Open-ended Endeavours

What would the 15-year-old Jack Nicklaus, the legendary golfer, have responded if his coach had asked him for the probability that he’d meet milestone 3 for project Winning British Open as defined in the project plan as per 7th of March?

Golf ball 3

Yes it’s kind of silly to imagine this happening – yet in software this is just a part of normal life. Every day, thousands of developers and teams are asked to compare their progress against The Plan and estimate how much is left.

Now, I agree that writing software is not the same as developing your golf skills, but considering the level of craftsmanship and inherent variability in software it’s more appropriate and valuable to me to compare it to other kinds of patterns-based, open-ended activities than with production lines chugging out the same item over and over again.In these endeavours having a plan is actually less important that making steady progress and creating value.

A painting is finished when the artist says so, based on skill and experience gathered over a lifetime. But from the customer’s perspective it’s finished when it is finally destroyed. So who’s right? Both, I guess. A defined finish seems to not exist here. The same thinking can be applied to, for example, a research paper or a software program I think the common element here is that we are creating — and anything created has a life cycle, which resists being put into a project management framework.

Just to be clear, when I write project here I don’t mean a batch of work that belongs together. The latter are naturally occurring “lumps of work”. I use the term initiatives or epics for those. When I talk a about projects I mean a way of organizing work following some kind of formal or informal project model, typically lead by a project manager, with the expressed goal of delivering everything in scope on time and within budget. An initiative doesn’t need any of that.

But What About Agile Projects?

People still ask me: How should we work in agile projects? To start with, anything prefixed with  “agile” is cause for concern. Anything that requires modulation cannot possess that characteristic in itself, by nature, but must be adjusted to fit. That’s why we have “agile requirements”, “agile documentation”, “agile contracts”, “agile planning tools”, “agile processes”, “agile management”, and… “agile projects”.

So we know that projects need to be modified to fit an agile organization. And many people have written about that to explain how you should adjust your project model to work in an agile fashion. That’s fine, but that’s not my point. My point is this: Why bother?

Asking about how to do agile projects is the wrong question I feel, since it assumes that projects are the best (only?) way to work with software. A more interesting questions to me is this: How should we organize our work to create maximum value (learning) over time? And to the this question I strongly believe that the correct answer cannot be “in projects”.

Why Projects Aren’t Suitable In Software

Here’s a list of reasons I’ve compiled over the years, use it as you see fit…

  1. Projects encourages important thinking upfront, investigating problems and drawing up solutions, but… we know that we want to harness the learning built into development. Why make so many decisions right at the start, when we know the least?
  2. Projects by definition have a defined start and ending, after the project the results must be handed over to some other type of organization, but… software has a life cycle. Software is created, developed, actively maintained, passively maintained, and finally, decommissioned. Software and projects operate on different timescales.
  3. Project results are typically handed over to another group for “maintenance”, but… we know that handovers are costly and excellent quality requires ownership and continuity.
  4. To reach project goals, especially on dates and costs, quality is pushed to the background. Some projects even result in so-called “death marches”, where delivering something maintainable is not in scope, but… in software, quality is a primary success factor… because without excellent intrinsic quality, your product will be slow and expensive to maintain and have a high life cycle cost.
  5. Projects encourage us to create batches of work, being a big batch in itself, but… we know that a steady flow of value is way more effective (feedback + learning).
  6. Projects (and PMs) often entertain a narrow view of success, i.e. what’s best for the project, but… wouldn’t we rather optimize for the whole company? A project is a target to a PM and, as W. Edwards Deming famously said: “Give a manager a target and he will reach it, even if he has to destroy the company in the process“. Especially large projects tend to behave a bit like the old schoolyard bullies, taking what they feel like without asking.
  7. To acquire funding for their projects, PMs are often tempted or forced to overstate the expected positive outcomes of their projects, otherwise it won’t get funding, ending up in a never-ending spiral of silly overstatements, but… most people are decent and prefer to work in an environment where they don’t need to deceive others to do their job.
  8. Projects typically require setup, allocating people, finding resources like office space, writing presentations, holding lift-offs, agreeing on vision, mission, and how to work etc. In most settings you pull people to the project and not the opposite, but… we can do away with all that by simply letting teams already in full operation pull work to themselves instead.
  9. Projects use budgetary mechanisms to give attention to ideas and allocate funding to them, but… having funding is a very poor raison-d’être while creating happy customers is a good one.
  10. For psychological reasons (for example, ego and careerism) it is tempting to create massive projects for bold ideas, but… we know that large projects are associated with stunningly high risks and low success rates, close to zero after some point.

These observations have nothing to do with agile methods or any other school of software development. In fact, it has nothing to do with software development at all. It’s at the heart of all creative, open-ended work, including arts, craft, writing, architecture or organizational change. This also explains why having an agile “rollout” plan is silly. Change is not a project and it’s not as easy to simply “implement” it (I wish it was).

Now I don’t want to imply that if a client comes up with a project plan you should laugh in their face. Of course not. There are situations where projects can be suitable, e.g. when working with a new contractor team outside your organization. You can use the project to get to know each other and the defined end date to call things off if it didn’t work out. Just be aware of the risks that projects bring and work to mitigate them.

The Alternative

The alternative to not working in projects can be outlined like this:

  • Create and grow long-term, cross-functional development teams that create their own, smooth development process.
  • Give each team clear ownership of a product, part of a product or a few products, depending on size. Cultivate a long-term, product outlook on development.
  • Task each team with delivering value to customers (or learnings if something is unsuccessful) continuously, as often as the market can handle it, while expending less and less energy to do it.
  • Help the teams create more value to their customers using sound prioritization schemes and pull systems for work.
  • If suitable, batch larger work into initiatives, lasting a couple of months (enough to create milestone challenges to the teams), but keep scope high-level and stay open to changes and complete turnarounds as the learnings start pouring in.

You can of course persist and keep trying to make agile projects work, but seriously, why bother if you don’t have to?

Peer Performance Conversations: Feedback Without the Baggage

I’ve had mostly poor experiences with performance reviews. They often left me feeling slightly dirty; like I wanted to take a shower and forget the whole thing ever happened. I am not alone, it seems. Some people call them a joke. Some say they’re tayloristic, elitist or even evil. Very few enjoy them. It’s just one of those things that you “have to do” in business. Or is it?

What I have experienced as an employee is the Swedish form of performance review, most often referred to as a “development dialogue”. They are similar to their Anglo-Saxon counterpart, the “performance appraisal”; typically a little bit more coaching and a little bit less assessing, but only by a margin. At heart, they’re the same. The supervisor assesses the employee and indirectly or openly link that to their yearly compensation adjustment.

At Adaptiv, we wanted to get away from the negative stuff. But how could we? Just skipping performance reviews (I’ll use that term to mean all forms) would be one way, but why throw the baby out with the bath water? To me, there is clearly some value in getting honest feedback on your performance from your colleagues at least once in a while.

Would it be possible to set things up so that you could get that without the dirt?

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Applying the Innovator’s Dilemma to Leisure Travelling

In the book The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton M. Christensen examines why companies wither away and die. His research shows that in the face of disruptive change, very few companies are adaptive enough. It is not mainly a technological problem, as one might infer. Instead, it could mostly be considered a business problem. It is so called “good management” that fails. Listening closely to customers and looking out for the needs of your company will only take you closer to the impending disaster. I found these ideas fascinating so I thought I would have a go at applying them to a market I know fairly well, the leisure travel industry in Sweden.

First, some modern business history. There was a time, not long ago, when the leisure travel market in Sweden was more or less divided between three tour operators (Ving, Fritidsresor and Apollo). Together they accounted for the lion’s share of the market (75-85 %). In the public eye, and looking at official numbers, they still do, but in fact this is not true anymore. If you include all leisure travelling, counting privately booked trips through travel agencies on the internet, known as OTAs, the numbers look radically different. Over the last 10 years the big tour operators have been overtaken and now hold about 40 % of the market together. In other words, their market share has halved in a decade.

How is that possible? How did it happen? In just 10 years? What adds insult to injury is that this has occured on a market that has been growing. (We travel more than ever before.) Was it because of bad management? Probably not. These companies are still showing profit. The answer is, of course, because of a disruptive technology: The web.

How could the web be considered as a disruptive technology for leisure travels? Travelling is about people and services, not software, right? And travel agencies make money by bringing new cool resorts in exotic countries to the market while at the same time milking the well known resorts, not by IT, correct? Well yes, some of that, but that’s not the point. The point is that the web has levelled the information playing field.

Before the web, tour operators had all the information. They had connections and deals with airlines to charter planes at volume rates. Same thing with hotels, which they could reserve years in advance. They knew the culture and ways in many foreign countries and cities and had researched and tracked the most price-worthy places for decades. They were the experts on the conditions in the foreign country and travellers were glad to pay for their guidance.

This information imbalance has been almost eradicated during the last decade. Now most computer-literate people research places and find great family hotels all by themselves, thank you very much. Then why not go ahead and book the plane and hotel yourself as well, using simple online agencies? Heck, its even cheaper too! So most people do just that.

So even though the total market has grown and even though the big tour operators still shuffle millions of Swedes to foreign countries every year, another market has grown behind their backs: The informed, internet-based holiday. “We don’t need no annoying guides, we’ve got iPhones!”, people seem to say.

Of course, the market leaders are no fools. For example, Fritidsresor opened their first online booking back in 2001. Not that they really wanted to, mind you, but everybody else had it. And sure, it would be another sales channel. I think it is fair to say that the web sales channel was seen as an add-on, programmed by the weird guys in the basement. Management did not understand just how game-changing the web was. That’s understandable. Nowadays they do understand better, but they aren’t doing much about it, which brings us back to Christensen. That is the typical symptom of a disruptive technology, which is why I believe that the web is a disruptive technology in leisure travelling.

Let’s be clear. The problem is bigger than fixing a better online booking dialogue. Much bigger. The tour operators are web-based travel agencies now, not catalogue-based, but not everybody at the top has realised it. Sure, the tour operators are reachable online, but they seem unable or unwilling to exploit its full potential. Their reservation systems are dinosaurs, which basically turn travel searching and exploring into palaeontology. Travel offerings are still collected into seasons. They don’t have an app that could help their guests onsite. They allow crappy wifi at the hotels. The most advanced way of getting in touch with guides is through texting. Let’s be honest, being online is simply not in their DNA.

Furthermore, their marketing and sales departments are perfectly geared towards selling package travels using ads and campaigns, often with an air of quiet desperation. The price structure is complex, even deemed too complex for customers to understand. So it’s hidden from them. The delivery organisation is a lean, well-oiled machine serving an identical experience, week after week, to people looking for something that is adapted to them. These firms view the development of their web software more as an IT support function to sales than like a business process in its own right. In fact, you could regard it as the business process, since 60-70 % of sales today originate from it.

The market for package deals is shrinking. Nowadays, a bit simplified, one could say that they generally reach customers with poor internet skills or people who want as little adventure as possible on their journey. To generalise further, this means beginning travellers, families with kids and older travellers. This is not a big enough market for these companies. To make matters worse, it will continue to shrink as the older customers stop travelling with age.

So what should they do?

Imagine you are the CEO of one of the major tour operators. What would you do? You would probably come up with three obvious strategies:

  1. Stay on course. Keep the company as it is and hope the wind turns with the next generations of travellers.
  2. Rewire the company. Transform it into a modern company where online services are core.
  3. Create a separate department or project to start a truly online travel agency from scratch.

The 1st option is more or less religious in nature. You are basically praying for higher powers to make it right for you. It’s not a real option for a decisive CEO. The 2nd option is certainly possible, but it would mean very hard work over many years. You need to change everything, from leadership team, business model, and culture. It’s probably not even doable for a publicly traded company, where a year or two is as far ahead as anybody looks. The 3rd option certainly sounds the most promising. However, knowing your “Innovator’s Dilemma” you remember that these attempts almost always fail. Christensen lists numerous examples in his book.

There is a 4th strategy, however. It is not intuitive, but it is the one which has met with most success according to Christensen. When disruptive technology strikes, a market leader’s best choice is to take some of its best people and create a separate organisation, financially isolated from the mother company. It should have a separate product line, business model, culture, and leadership. If and when the disruptive technology upsets the market and if you’ve been successful, you may gradually move people over from the old (and marginalised) company to the new (and growing) company.

This would be my choice. I would set up a new company with some great business people, domain experts, a visionary CEO, and a couple of development/operation teams. We could probably leech off the large network of travel and lodging suppliers as well as local guides of the mother company. This company would have an online, mobile, social focus from the beginning. We would start with the assumption that everybody is or wants to be online before, during, and after their holiday trip. We would use web technology as a base instead of something glued on afterwards.

How our business model would look, I don’t know, but I bet we could utilise our main differentiator; having both great local presence as well as great online presence. To my knowledge, there is no such company today. Perhaps we could offer both innovative travel searching and personal pickup from home. Perhaps we would crowd source a lot of the web content, interact a lot with customers online and be transparent and guarantee your transport home when war or disaster hits paradise. Perhaps we would have downloadable apps that you could bring to the trip with all you need to know about your trip and destination. Perhaps even an augmented reality app, for that walk in that serpentine, arabic town and a human guide you could call on demand, lying pool side, when you are planning an outing next day. The adventure would be there, gently guided, for those who want it, on demand, but without much of the hassle and anxiety of leaving for a foreign, unknown location.

I don’t think any of these ideas are new. It’s just that a traditional tour operator never seems to have time to try them and an online agency is not interested in tour operating. Will the giant tour operators transform and survive? Or will the OTAs take over completely? According to this analysis, there could be room for a 3rd option, a fresh middle ground. Will someone go there? Only time will tell.