Conceptual integrity

A long time ago now I read the Mythical Man Month,  and I remember two things from it:

  1. On a large activity conceptual integrity is really difficult to achieve and maintain
  2. In the sixties IBM seemed to do a better job at managing large development programmes than we do now with all of our computer assistance

I’m often reminded of these two points,  almost every day I see the evidence of an activity that has no conceptual integrity and even when it started with it, most programmes I deal with have lost it completely by the time they have finished.  Joel illustrates the point nicely with this story:

In one of Gerald Weinberg’s books, probably The Secrets of Consulting, there’s the apocryphal story of the giant multinational hamburger chain where some bright MBA figured out that eliminating just three sesame seeds from a sesame-seed bun would be completely unnoticeable by anyone yet would save the company $126,000 per year. So they do it, and time passes, and another bushy-tailed MBA comes along, and does another study, and concludes that removing another five sesame seeds wouldn’t hurt either, and would save even more money, and so on and so forth, every year or two, the new management trainee looking for ways to save money proposes removing a sesame seed or two, until eventually, they’re shipping hamburger buns with exactly three sesame seeds artfully arranged in a triangle, and nobody buys their hamburgers any more.

and goes on to describe how he has been victim of this conceptual integrity drift himself,  although it’s impressive that he realized that it had happened and stopped it,  if this had been an activity run by a project manager and not an owner I bet it would never have been stopped!

This is sort of what happened with our new web design. We’ve been tweaking it and polishing it and changing things carefully, and the firm we hired to design it has been taking us step-by-step through information architecture, site maps, wireframes, initial designs, and several rounds of design. All with a carefully-designed process to get our buy-in at every step along the way. And so far every step I thought the design was converging and we’d get a nice web design out of it.

And then I came back after a week on the road, took one look at it, and thought, oh crap. We can’t go public with that.

So as I was saying – I’m also often reminded about the fact that we seem to have forgotten how to run programmes (and maybe projects as well),  I partly blame computers – today’s projects seem to be way too much about sitting in from of a laptop producing plans, estimates, registers, and deliverables and not enough about objectives, people, progress, discussion, review and quality. 

Joel has written a great book,  that has some useful insights into these and many other issues.

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

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