A Commonplace

What is a commonplace?



Introduction - the Late and Over-Budget notebook

This in an experiment. It's a blog - but it's the simplest kind of blog possible. Using the tiniest amount of software that I wrote myself to make it possible. I've called it the "Late and Over-budget Notebook" but really it's what Steven Johnson calls a "commonplace" which was a kind of notebook that intellectual Gentlemen kept in the enlightenment.

There's a story here. And because this isn't the book that I want to write - it's the notes for that book, I can write things in the chronological order that they came rather than trying to structure them as I probably should when I finally come to writing the book. The reason I came up with the name "Late and Over-Budget" is because a "Go-getter" project manager hung up on me in a phone conference. He was the chairman of the small web and ipad development company that I was working for at the time and he'd just been insisting that we all sign up to a set of actions that we'd agreed on. I don't quite know why I was feeling so bloody-minded, actually I do. I'd already had an argumen with him earlier in the week, where I'd refused to create a "detailed Gantt chart" for the whole of a project. The reason being that I simply had no idea of the detail of what we would be doing in six month's time, so didn't see the point of making it up.

The result of this flounce-out, storm off wasn't that dramatic - I simply decided not to renew my contract with this company - even though the technical director still wanted me to stay (I've since heard that the "Go-getter" project manager is no longer with the company either). But it did get me thinking - chiefly it lead me to thinking about the value of plans, and how they're used. It also made me realise that the bulk of the working life of a project manager is spent in situations where the project is late and over-budget, but the bulk of training and writing about projects is spent telling people what they should do to make sure that their projects aren't late and over-budget.

And so I thought that maybe I could write a book called "Late and Over-Budget" in which I explained why projects were often late and over-budget and what to do about it. I wrote some of that book, but then I had a bunch of problems. Here are just a few of them:

So I left it for a bit and continued kept on and "trod the maze of error round" as George Crabbe would say for a bit longer. I read some more books that added to my understanding of why projects were late and over-budget. Especially, I read a chapter on "The Planning Fallacy" in Daniel Kahneman's book "Thinking Fast and Slow" and this added to my understanding of why so many projects are late and over-budget. I also, with the concept of "What You See Is All There Is" started to get the first inklings of what a solution might look to the problem of being late and over-budget.

And then a bit of time passed. And then, I'm not quite sure how (I've sadly got a good idea why) I saw a description of a book called "Dead Man Working" and decided it would be a good idea to buy it. On the whole it wasn't, not for the book anyway. It's really just an extended whine by a pair of lefty academics about work. There was one seriously useful thought in the whole book - although it is a powerful one, which we'll probably come back to at some point - I hope we do, we certainly should. That thought was the idea that worked simply cannot be described by a set of rules - that one of the most basic ways that a group of workers can a get a system to grind to a halt in fact, is actually work to rule.

But the most important thought that I had while I was reading "Dead Man Working" wasn't one that they were expressing or developing. Maybe it was when I was reading a section where they were complaining about having to write a book at the weekends about how work is crap for example because you have to work at the weekens. No, the most important thought that I had while I reading this book was this one:

These guys are losers!!!

Now this may seem like a very insulting thing to say. But it actually was slightly less insulting and slightly more interesting than it sounds. Because what I meant by that was that these guys weren't "losers" in the normal sense - they were losers in a specific sense, outline by a blogger and now author called Venkatesh Rao in a blog post that I'd read a couple of years earlier called "The Gervais Principle."...