A Commonplace

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21/6/2020

Thirty-One days in a time of corona

Day 2

A long hard look at the shiny thing

How do software development projects get funded? This is a big question, and as I'm writing it, I'm not sure that I know much of the answer. This is the sort of question that someone should probably do some proper field research to understand. And it strikes me as I'm writing this that somebody might have actually done that and I don't know about it. And I should probably do some reserach to find that research.

I suppose, very often in big organisations, or in government, the process by which project might get funded, probable has a cost-benefits analysis bit in it. Somewhere along te line, someone prepares a document which at least pretends to show that the benefits of the project will outweigh the costs. I must admit, that in all the projects that I've been involved in, I've never seen such a document, and it isn't something that anyone has offered to show me.

What are the reasons, in my experience, that projects get funded?

  1. We the existing system is analog, it needs digitising

  2. The old legacy digitised system is terrible

  3. We need to do something different from what we know how to do

When I'm talking about "The shiny thing" here, I'm talking about the appeal of the project. These are the reasons that I've come across for projects being funded. My guess is over the last ten years those projects that I've been involved in cost between £500m and £1bn. Here are just some of them.

  1. A publishing company's website, which made nearly all of the profits for the company had become so unmaintainable that no more functionality could be added to it.

  2. A state-owned bank's computing systems were terrible. The government bought in a "tier-one" consultancy, which recommended a hugh programme of projects to increase efficiency.

  3. A government department decided to digitise the whole of its process (a process which has been developing for 1000 years), from first engagement with a taxpayer to final engagment with a taxpayer.

  4. A government department's existing system was loathed by everyone. They decided to build a new one to replace it.

  5. A cool company had done very well being innovative inside one industry. They knew enough about their industry to know that what they were doing wasn't going to be profitable for much longer, so they decided to branch out into an industry that they didn't know so much about.

When you look at this list, a couple of things become uncomfortably clear.

Firstly, all of these reasons, "beg the question" as we say in philosophy. What do I mean by that? I mean that in each case, there's an obvious question to ask, which probably can't be answered.

For example:

  1. The publishing company. Their existing system is terrible. What makes them thing that the new system is going to be better? What are they doing try to make the new system better?

  2. The state-owned back. OK, it's called an "efficiency" programme. Does that in any way guarantee that it's going to delvier efficiencies?

  3. The government department digitising an end-to-end process. Why? Is digitising it obviously better? Why try to do the whole thing at once? Why is that better than trying to do bits of the process?

Are you getting the idea by now?

  1. Yes, the government department's existing system is terrible, give that it's the same department that's going to commission the next one, why should there be any reason that the next one isn't similarly terrible.

  2. This cool company knows enough about their business to know they can no longer make really good money in it. So they're trying another business. Why did they think could make better money in a business that they didn't know about than you could in a business that you did know about? Guess what? They couldn't.

My guess is that if you're working on a software development project, it will probably have some kind of reason for being funded that is like this "Digital", "New", "Different."

Of course, what's uncomfortable for me, writing this, is that if I ask myself why I'm writing this book. Well, the answer kind of comes under number 5. I've made good money for ten years being a project manager (or "coaching" other project managers) but now I want to do something else that I hope will pay off better. This is in spite of the fact that I know people who are very good at writing books that don't make money at it. Even though I know this. I'm still hanging onto the shiny - if I write a book, people will think that I know what I'm talking and will hire me to help them deliver their projects. Written like that, it's an utterly rubbish strategy. But I'm still doing it.

OK - let's pull away from the existential vortex for a second.

What's the point of today's post?

The point of today's post is that the headline rationale for doing the project is very unlikely to be a carefully reasoned set of pros and cons. It is more likely to be one word, a word so shiny that nobody questions its value.

New. Digital. Different.

There's another one that I could add to this list, although I haven't been involved in this one personally:

What our competitors are doing.

And why am I telling you this? What is the point?

The point is that if you want to deliver a successful project, it has to have some actual value. And being new, digitial or different, aren't in themselves things that can deliver value.

But it isn't all doom and gloom. In most projects, there's an obvious thing. There's a thing that is so bad in the old system that if just that could be done in a new system, that would probably be obviously valuable. Or there's a thing that's so time consuming in the analog system that if just that were done online it would make life a lot easier.

With the doing something different? Well, if there isn't an obvious little thing that you can do? Then it's a really bad idea.

Tomorrow - why is doing the small thing so hard?