Shim Marom’s post on (low) value of industry reports launched an interesting discussion in comment section, which I took part in by the way. The point we reached was how we define whether the project is completed or not.
On Time, On Budget, On Scope
A definition which you will hear most often is project delivery on time, on budget and on scope. And there comes a problem. If we overrun a budget for ten bucks are we still on budget or not? What about thousand? Or hundred thousand? Depends on project, right? So what about 0,1% budget overrun? 1%? 5%? Where is the border between success and failure?
Note: I haven’t even started with time or scope.
While this definition sounds nice it hardly responds to typical complex project environments.
The Story of Changing Goal
I love the Apollo 13 story. Not only because it is a great story about heroes, but also because it is a great story to learn about project management. If I asked you what was the original goal of Apollo 13 mission probably no one would answer correctly. But well, they definitely hit the space for something more to become a base for a Hollywood movie or to coin one of the famous quotes (one of famous misquotations actually). The thing we remember is that Apollo 13 mission’s goal became saving astronauts’ lives. And we all consider it a huge success.
Were original goals accomplished? No. Probably neither of them. The money was spent however. Probably more than planned because of unexpected problems. But over the course the goal has changed.
Recently I’ve read similar story about Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic adventure. It is 18-month long story about fighting for people’s lives. And again initial goal, which was crossing Antarctic continent, was rendered invalid just after several days and the main problem became coming back home in one piece. Thanks to his commitment and determination Shackleton was successful in rescuing every single man from his expedition. Considering conditions a stunning success.
Was Shackleton able to pass the Antarctic? No. Failure then?
Maybe You Tell Us About Real Projects…
You may say that those stories aren’t about typical IT projects which we deal with everyday. Yes, these are extreme examples but the same pattern we see very frequently, but in a bit different scale. Hey, that’s what embracing change is all about. We try to adjust the course of our projects to make them better respond to clients’ needs.
After all I don’t believe all projects you took part in were specified perfectly at the beginning and carried through relentlessly to the end according to unchanged plan. My wild guess is only few of you had a chance to work on at least one project which looked a bit like that (and yes, Glen is probably among those few).
Clients often deliver some wishful thinking as requirements, and then vendors go through them only roughly and come up with a generic document which describes fuzzily what should be done. No surprise the real goal appears to be changing over time as everybody realizes all the assumptions and gaps in initial plan.
Definition of Done Is Changing
OK, so goals are changing over time. So is definition of done. We usually do a crappy job defining done. But then we’re even worse in adjusting the definition along the way. We change expected costs and schedule. We change scope. Do we change our definition of done as well?
I mean unconsciously we do, that’s for sure. After all we’re able to follow our gut feeling and tell this project was a success and that was a failure. We know that major schedule slip will be quickly forgotten if delivered software exceeds expectations. We know that being on time on budget and on scope isn’t a reason to boast when the client doesn’t use the system at all for some reasons.
So yes, we should know what done means in each and every project. And no, we won’t have a single, universal definition which we can use against all our ventures. It is a very individual thing.
That’s by the way the reason why the industry reports on state of projects will be criticized over and over again. There just aren’t universal measures which would be widely acclaimed.