Just One More Little Change

Dwayne Phillips

Revision History
Revision 1.0Januay 2007

The easiest thing of all is to deceive one's self; for what a man wishes he generally believes to be true.

-- Demosthenes (384 BC - 322 BC)

My colleagues and I struggle to build good products. We make changes along the way as we learn what we and our customers want. There is a strong temptation to take short cuts -- to make just one more little change -- but short cuts rarely work. What do work far more often are diligent, thoughtful efforts. I wish it weren't so.

One example of taking short cuts is in how my organization revises documents. On many occasions I have been assigned to a group of people who had to revise a document. The group would gather and peer at the document. We would proceed as:

1. The group looks at a sentence.
2. One person adds just one, more, little adjective or adverb.
3. Repeat steps 1 and 2 several times.
4. Go to the next sentence.
5. Repeat steps 1 through 4 until you reach the end of the document.

We made just one more little change to many of the sentences in the document. Here is an example:

A sentence: The contractor shall appoint a person who has managed large projects before.

Add an adverb: The contractor shall appoint a person who has SUCCESSFULLY managed large projects before.

Add an adjective: The contractor shall appoint a person who has successfully managed large COMPLEX projects before.

Go wild and add a phrase: The contractor shall appoint a person who has successfully managed large complex projects LIKE THIS ONE before.

The results of this process are predictable. We added five words -- just one more little word at a time -- to a 12-word sentence; an increase of 40%. The sentence is less instead of more understandable, and we spent many person hours degrading it. Just one more little change produces an unreadable mess.

A better way to revise a document is to revise the document. This is not a 1-2-3 process. It is a complex interaction among adults. The people look at the text; someone wants to change the meaning, and they discuss the new meaning. If they agree, they rewrite the text.

Let's consider the same sentence from above: The contractor shall appoint a person who has managed large projects before.

After some thought and discussion, we realize that we want to ensure that the contractor will appoint a person who has done something like the job we are describing and done it well.

Let's try a sentence like: The contractor shall appoint a qualified manager. This sentence is seven words long -- 40% less than the original. It is easier to read and understand and conveys what we mean. The revision is the result of thought, discussion, and work -- not just one more little change.

I have encountered other, far more costly cases of little changes requiring lots of resources but providing meager returns. I recently worked on a US $70M, three-year project. We struggled for the first half of the project to meet any of our scheduled milestones and perform on budget.

We were trying. We met and analyzed our plan, schedules, budgets, and personnel -- everything we were supposed to do. Our meetings produced a series of just one more little changes.

The results were bad. We kept missing our milestones, exceeding our budget, and our product had too many defects.

A senior manager intervened. He had us stop the series of just one more little changes and instead create a new plan for the remainder of the project. The planning was another complex interaction among adults -- i.e., hard work.

The results were good. The final year of the project ran on schedule, on budget, and delivered a good product.

This week while writing this Advisor, I was involved in an integration session among two contractors. We were struggling to build a little network for testing. The programmers and network administrators changed one little thing, then another, and then another. No progress. Someone intervened. We agreed to try just one, more, little change and if that didn't work, we would stop for the day. Quite predictably, the last little change of the day didn't work.

The following morning we met again. One programmer had found some information overnight on the Internet. Another had bought a piece of hardware to work around the network problem. If neither of these resolved the issue, we would work our integration around the situation. The information found on the Internet solved the problem, and the rest of the week was a success.

Just one more little change is like making a wish. As Demosthenes said several thousand years ago, those wishes only serve to deceive ourselves. We believe what we are doing is right, but the results are poor the vast majority of the time.

As a manager, stay above the details and watch for people becoming stuck in a series of just one more little changes. Intervene. Stop. Think, and do the work. That isn't exciting. It relies neither on wishes nor magic. Instead, it relies on people gathering and working together.