Advances from Suffering from Mistakes

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.018 January 2008

I wrote 800 words in one hour while riding in the car Another hour editing

We have advanced the practice of managing IT projects in the past handful of decades. Understanding the origin of the advances can help pass them along to new project managers.

During the holidays, I spent time with my extended family. Many hours were with my wife and her mother. Her mother was diagnosed with a form of diabetes a few months ago. Since her diagnosis, she has met other people who also have diabetes, some for many years. My mother-in-law learned how medical science has progressed in the treatment of diabetes. Testing blood, taking medicine orally, self-injecting medicine via shots, early diagnosis - these and other improvements have made life for the diabetics and their families much easier.

I thought about these gains in the treatment of diabetes. If no one suffered from diabetes, these would not have occurred. The advances came from the suffering of patients.

I also thought about the causes of diabetes. Some are inherited, but many are from poor choices in lifestyle. Overeating, poor diet, little exercise - these are some of the mistakes that contribute to the onset of diabetes.

Mistaken living has led to many Americans suffering from diabetes which has furthered medical science in its treatment. Mistakes led to suffering which led to advances.

The same is true of heart bypass surgery. My grandfather died during heart bypass surgery in the mid 1970s. Medical science has improved greatly in the past 30 years in this area. So much so that my grandfather, had he been born 30 years later, would have probably lived through the surgery. Those changes were born of the suffering of millions of Americans in the intervening decades. Like diabetes, the need for bypass surgery sometimes comes from mistaken living. Over eating, eating fatty foods, and stress contribute to clogged arteries. As with diabetes, mistakes led to suffering which led to advances.

I find this same pattern in the IT projects that we manage. We made mistakes; we suffered from them, and through the years advanced the art and science of project management. The field of risk management, for example, exists entirely because of mistakes in projects. If we had not made so many mistakes in IT projects over the decades, we would not have studied how to anticipate, budget, and react to mistakes. We wouldn't know nearly as much about managing risk.

Short iterations in agile development is another change for the better caused by mistakes and suffering on IT projects. If we had not made so many mistakes with requirements, we wouldn't have created a way to build a few requirements, check with the users, build a few requirements, check with the users, and so on.

I found it humbling to realize that so many of our advances come from our history of mistakes. How did we get here? Couldn't we have foreseen and avoided our mistakes?

I believe there are things we can do. Back to the health example, if you could talk to an 18 year old about diabetes and clogged arteries, what would you tell them? Perhaps discussions, demonstrations, and chats with people who suffered from these ailments would help the young person avoid the mistakes in lifestyle that contribute to those maladies.

What about managing IT projects? There are many new project managers in the field - the equivalent of the healthy 18 year old. What would you - a project manager with scars - tell him or her?

Here are a few suggestions:

(1) Requirements are difficult to manage without mistake. Some requirements "mistakes" come from plain human frailty, sort of like an inherited tendency towards a disease. Others, however, are errors of commission. Use short iterations to prove some of the critical requirements with the users.

(2) Things go wrong on projects; that is guaranteed. List the possible problems that could occur on your project. Plan ahead how you will detect and work them. Set aside some resources for working these problems. Manage risk.

(3) Programmers will make many changes in the source code. Changes cost money and cause confusion as to where we are on the project. Use a version contol system to keep the changes organized.

You, a scarred project manager, can probably think of a few suggestions. Use mine and add your own. Show your scars and discuss your sufferings that came from your mistakes. Explain how the advances we have made in managing projects didn't come from philosophical discussions over coffee on care-free Friday afternoons. They came from suffering through mistakes, much like the advances in medical science.