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Repealing Brooks’ law: how to manage IT projects without constraints

brooks-law Repealing Brooks’ law: how to manage IT projects without constraints

Brooks' law is an observation about IT project management which states "adding human resources to a late software project makes it later"

It was written by Fred Brooks in 1975, in his book 'The Mythical Man-Month'.

It is a 'law' that I've always believed to be fundamentally flawed and ripe for breaking. The fact that it is still quoted in 2019 is a cause for major concern to me AND yet, there I was recently on a conference call with a Project Manager friend as he begged for extra resources to bring his late project home and one of the C-suite suits quoted this 1975 'law' as a legitimate reason for refusal.

"The Mythical Man-Month" is actually a really good read but like most things written in 1975, parts of it have stood the test of time and some of it is less relevant now than it was then.

"Fawlty Towers" was first aired in 1975 and I laugh out loud at most of it and cringe a little at others - the stereotype Irish cowboy builder O'Reilly, for example. Things move on, attitudes and tastes change. "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "You're My Best Friend" from Queen's 1975 album 'A Night At The Opera' still sound as fresh as the first day I heard them. "Lazing On A Sunday Afternoon" from the same album, on the other hand, sounds really cheesy now!

The point is that, in 1975, Project Managers considered time as one of the three key external constraints imposed on a project and most gave it equal billing with other constraints, namely scope and cost. You'll have seen the triangle, sometimes known as the triple constraint, with time on one of the three sides and scope and cost on the others. The project management triangle or iron triangle was probably a huge part of your project management schooling. The belief being, that you cannot alter one constraint without changing at least one of the other two. Over time other constraints namely quality, risk, and resources were added but somehow, for many, this limiting belief remained that chasing one constraint would impact the others and have an overall detrimental effect on the project.

Brooks' law was written in the days before Project Management as a Service was a thing. The PMaaS universe is forever expanding and I have yet to find an IT Project challenge for which there is no PMaaS solution. Brooks' law, actually the whole concept of constraints, doesn't reflect the state of the profession now. Imagine playing football by the rules, laws and technological capabilities of 1975, the goalkeeper would be allowed to pick up a back pass, a challenge from behind (that would see you sent off now) would be perfectly acceptable and imagine relying on 1975 action replay standards to make a VAR decision - "we can't see if he's offside because of the large flashing pixelated R"!  

These days, most IT Projects have a very real, strategic business value attached to them. IT Projects deliver business change in highly competitive industries; an IT Project must deliver the maximum return on investment (ROI) and deliver it as soon as possible.

For me, it's time that Brooks law was repealed! In fact, it is time that we reframed all those traditional project management constraints and looked at them with fresh eyes. In a world where PMaaS does exist there is no need to accept constraints in their traditional limiting sense. The pick two principles, which suggests that out of any given trio of desired qualities or expectations, only two can co-exist can be confined to the past with this simple reassessment. Traditional thinking that your project might be delivered quickly and inexpensively, but the quality will suffer, can be dismissed when you manage without constraint.

The Reframe

As we have mostly discussed it, let's start by reframing the 'time' constraint.

Do we agree that 'Time is money' and if the monetisable deliverables from your IT Project are delayed, the ROI is also delayed, and the real cost of your project soon starts to build?

It's like a taxicab meter when you're stuck in traffic, Brooks' law would tell you that adding an extra human resource, an extra driver, would not speed up that taxi journey and would not get you to your destination any quicker. That does make a bit of sense, but what if the extra human resource you added was a navigator, someone with increased knowledge of the city's back streets? What if the extra resource were a chap on a motorcycle who pulled up alongside your cab and offered you his spare helmet? What if a helicopter landed in the adjacent park and the pilot offered you a ride? You'd most likely reach your destination on time with these added resources.

It's about adding the right extra human resource and thanks to PMaaS there is an abundance of the exact talent that you need. Brooks' law has never been more untrue. When you have a trusted PMaaS consultant, one who gets to know you and your projects, the PMaaS universe opens up unlimited solution space. Adding an extra human resource, adding any kind of extra resource can have a hugely positive effect on your project.

When you reframe Project Management thinking in this way, time, scope, costs, quality, risk and resources are no longer constraints they are metrics, yardsticks by which capacity and capability can be measured and key areas that can be improved.

Usually, an IT Project is green-lighted to generate profit or to facilitate some business change. Any delay in delivering the end result of your project can increase the time to market and lead to a reduction in or stalling of profits, there is no room for any kind of constraint.

One word of caution. Naturally, scope is still one to watch, you don't want your project sponsor to get a whiff of the fact that you are managing without constraint and hand you a list of extra deliverables that they expect for the same cost and within the same time. Scope still needs to be guarded, that said, I have worked with teams who have used PMaaS resources to deliver extra client demands without increasing overall project portfolio costs - so don't close your mind to saying yes to scope change requests.

The world is very different now to when each of those project management constraints were first conceived, and it is constantly changing.

Truly now, in this PMaaS era, the only Project Management constraint is yourself and your team, the only limitation is your imagination and your willingness to explore new ideas and resourcing options.

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