Let me just do it: A self-fulfilling prophecy

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.06 December 1998

Mike is the manager of an IT department, and Tom is one of his programming team leaders. Tom is about to begin a three-week project.

Mike starts with, "show me your plan for this little project."

Tom says, "I know how to do this project, it's all in my head. Trust me and let me start now."

Mike trusts Tom (Tom is honest), but does not have faith in Tom's ability to hold this project in his head. Mike doesn't want to risk money on a project without a plan.

Tom continues, "It'll take me longer to plan this project than to do the work."

Mike states, "Then do the plan quickly on a scrap of paper."

Tom doesn't say it, but he is upset by Mike's lack of trust. Tom has always come through before - well almost always, and Mike doesn't understand software projects like this. The plan will take longer than the project.

Tom "agrees" to create the plan, and Mike is satisfied.

Tom will now prove his prediction. He will complain, stall, and find other things to do besides plan. In three weeks, the plan won't be ready, and he will be right. The planning will take longer than the three-week project.

The three-week project? Well, it won't be done either. All that "planning" kept Tom from "working." The project failed because Tom didn't want to make a plan, and Mike didn't realize that Tom would rather see his prediction come true than the project succeed.

These self-fulfilling prophecies happen frequently. Someone doesn't want to do a step; a manager coerces them to agree to it; it never happens, and the project fails.

Mike, and all managers, must realize that complaining, stalling, and failing are likely outcomes of this situation. Mike could replace Tom with someone who will do the plan right and right now. There is often no one available to replace Tom, so Mike must consider other options.

Mike could bring in a person to help Tom create a plan. Mike could accept some risk by accepting a plan from Tom on a napkin. Tom could prove his own prediction wrong by creating a simple plan in one day. There are other options and many issues with each option.

The point for IT managers, if we think a step is necessary and a team leader thinks it is a waste of time, WATCH OUT! We are both right, and the team leader will probably prove his prophecy is true.

Dwayne Phillips has worked as a software and systems engineer with the US government since 1980. He has written "The Software Project Manager's Handbook, Principles that Work at Work," IEEE Computer Society, 1998. He has a Ph.D. in electrical and computer engineering from Louisiana State University.

Dr. Phillips can be reached at d.phillips@computer.org.