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Worth Repeating: The BigBook Technique

by Deborah Hartmann Preuss on May 22, 2006 |
In 1994 the Standish Group reported an appalling 31% of software projects failing, a number which does not include "challenged" projects delivered late or overbudget. The 2004 10th Anniversary CHAOS Report showed a 50% decrease in this figure. Still, this 16% failure rate was estimated to have cost $80 billion in wasted development effort, almost a third of total development spending.

In the wake of yet another big-project implosion, this time Apple's Aperture photo editing software project,  Marc Hedlund has trotted out a favourite story, which he says he'll repeat until it's common knowledge (and, presumably, no longer needed).

What he calls The BigBook Technique was a simple ploy used by a group of BigBook engineers to communicate clearly with their CEO about the reality of an impossible death-march project.  They used Frederick Brooks' classic book The Mythical Man-Month in a unique and effective manner. Literally: used the book. Or rather, a stack of them.

Brooks wrote, over thirty years ago, about how project management bears only a passing resemblance to abstract math - for example, doubling staff will never deliver a troubled project in half the time. The article quotes what's become known as "Brooks' Law":
Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
It's a lesson business are are still, unfortunately, learning the hard way.  This book is considered by many to be standard reading for project managers - the 20th anniversary edition published in 1995 added 4 new chapters to the original text. If all this is hitting very close to home: a second notable book for those who would rescue a project in deep trouble is Death March by Edward Yourdon.

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