Conceptual Integrity And The Mythical Man Month

2013-10-09 15.49.33A 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

Every month or so I see an activity that has lost its conceptual integrity, it’s drifted from the original vision and objectives.  In my world it’s the job of the conceptual solution to link the objectives to the solution that will deliver them.  The conceptual architecture is critical to governance of the solution as it evolves at the logical and physical levels.  This extract from the Wikipedia entry for the book summarises the importance as Fred saw it:

To make a user-friendly system, the system must have conceptual integrity, which can only be achieved by separating architecture from implementation. A single chief architect (or a small number of architects), acting on the user’s behalf, decides what goes in the system and what stays out. The architect or team of architects should develop an idea of what the system should do and make sure this vision is understood by the rest of the team. A novel idea by someone may not be included if it does not fit seamlessly with the overall system design. In fact, to ensure a user-friendly system, a system may deliberately provide fewer features than it is capable of. The point is that if a system is too complicated to use, then many of its features will go unused because no one has the time to learn how to use them.

It sounds like something Steve Jobs would have said doesn’t it, but Joel Spolsky is more of a hero of mine than Steve Jobs, so I’ll let him illustrate the importance of conceptual integrity 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.

Joel then 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 typical 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.

Considering the second point it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that we forgotten important lessons about 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 scope, objectives, people, progress, discussion, review and quality.   Joel has written a great book,  that has some useful insights into these and many other issues.

The picture is of the beautiful Filey Bay, where I will be walking next week.  No better place to be thinking or not thinking at all.

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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