How not to mange software projects

There is one thing in the IT industry that happens often, yet makes no sense. When a given project is not progressing at the pace it was planned to, quite often this has nothing to do with how efficient the participants of the project are. More often than not, this is due to underestimation of the effort required at the beginning of the project. In such case, unless there are clear indicators that there are other factors affecting the speed of the delivery, there is little that can be done to improve it.

Unfortunately, this is not how some project managers think. In some teams, when certain deadlines aren’t met, the measures that are introduced by those managers include increase in the length and frequency of meetings and the requirement for each team member to write all of their tasks into a weekly, or sometimes even daily, time report.

Of course, as stretched as the team members already are, they now have even less time available to do the actual project work. So do the managers themselves. After all, they are the ones who have to read all of those time reports. After these measures are implemented, the progress usually slows down even further.

The practice is obviously irrational, so why is it so widespread? The answer to this is simple. These seemingly irrational actions are driven by a deeply ingrained human trait:

The irresistible urge to take action when things aren’t fully satisfactory, regardless of whether any action is appropriate in a given situation or not

This is how the term “duck” was born in software development

The job of a manager doesn’t have to be about micromanaging the team. Sometimes, all the manager has to do is set targets and let it go with the trust that the team will deliver.

And it is a well-known fact that micromanagement is bad. However, the practice is still widespread. This is purely because many managers subconsciously feel like they are not adding any values when they are not constantly micromanaging or requesting changes, even when there is no problem with work ethics within the team and the products that are being built already meet all of the requirements.

This is how the term “duck” was introduced into software development jargon. The term refers to any highly visible, but useless feature that was put into the product specifically to distract the over-zealous managers or product owners, so they will request to alter or remove it, leaving the rest of perfectly functioning product intact.

The legend says that the term came from a company that has developed an animated chess game in the 1990s. After being fed up with constant requests to change something, one of the developers decided to give the queen figure a duck. As the queen was moving around, the duck was flapping its wings and turning its head. When the manager saw it, his reaction was just what developer has expected: “everything looks great; just get rid of the duck”.

So, if you, as a manager, give in to the urge to keep changing things, it may make you feel good, but you will decrease the actual productivity of your team. Instead of making progress on the actual functioning product that satisfies all of the requirements, they will distract themselves with adding the features to distract you.

The problem is much wider than the IT industry

Of course, IT industry is not the only place where this human trait manifests itself. Politics, for example, are especially notorious for it. This is what most people already realise at the intuitive level, as many things that politicians do are perceived to be done purely because they have nothing better to do. This is where most of “the red tape” comes from.

For example, having heard that cookies on websites can be used to steal users’ data, people running the European Union have decided that any website that uses cookies (which would include virtually any website) has to display a message that says so. Essentially, users had to provide their consent to use cookies.

Of course, being a victim of identity theft of hacking is horrible. However, the cookies consent law is a perfect example of an action being taken purely based on an impulsive desire to do something, without either learning how the said technology works or considering any consequences.

Cookies are not the only technology that allows the data to be temporarily stored in the browser. It just happens to be the best known one. Any website can still legally store any data in your browser without displaying any message at all. It just won’t do it via cookies.

Even those people who intend to use the cookies maliciously can still fully comply with this particular law. Most of the users realize that cookies are generally needed for the normal operation of the web pages. Therefore, the majority of them will accept the cookie consent. In this situation, nothing will prevent the website from using the cookies for malicious purposes.

Also, if anyone will want to place the cookies on their website without displaying the consent message, they can still do it with no consequences to themselves. The law is almost impossible to enforce.

So, the law has provided virtually no protection against any malicious internet activities. The only actual effect of the law is significant amount of money, time and effort spent by large number of law abiding organisations to make their websites fully compliant with it. That’s the money, time and effort that can never again be spent on improving the actual products and services.

The same mentality can often be seen when speed limits are reduced on a given road following a particularly bad road traffic accident. The scenario usually is as follows. The road serves its purpose perfectly well for quite some time, until one day some driver crashes his car, either killing or injuring himself or somebody else in the process. Now, either the family of the victim or the local authority feels the urge to react. Therefore, after a while, the speed limit on that road is significantly reduced. Everybody feels better now, except for the drivers who are now forced to spend more time on the road.

More often then not, such move makes no logical sense. If we look at statistics from any part of the world, vast majority of drivers involved in particularly serious accidents were driving well above the speed limit. So, if someone insisted on driving at 70 miles per hour on a road that only allowed 50, nothing would have changed if the speed limit on that road was 30.

Illegal driving cannot, by definition, be prevented by making changes to the law. There are much more effective things to do in such scenario, such as making sure that the existing speed limit is fully enforced by, for example, installing speed radars. However, the most effective solutions require planning and brainstorming. That is not what people will want to do when they are feeling a strong urge to act.

One of the best example of extremely counterproductive actions based on impulsive desire to make a changes is infamous social justice warrior (SJW) movement. Social justice used to be something that was considered noble. However, because of so-called SJWs, it became a subject of jokes.

The idea behind the movement is simple. Some things that happen within the society are not fair. There are still groups of people who are disadvantaged based on their race, gender, sexuality, income or any other factors.

Having this unfairness is bad, therefore an aggressive action needs to be taken to eliminate it. So, SJWs go on the streets, university campuses and social media to make their feelings known and aggressively suppress anyone who doesn’t agree with them. What they don’t do, however, is stop to think whether their actions are likely to lead to any desirable outcome. They also never have time to research why inequalities within the society exist and how the current society compares against the society of 40 years ago in terms of fairness.

Needless to say that, for the most part, their effort yields the results exactly opposite to what they intended. And this doesn’t only include the fact that, because of their actions, social justice is no longer taken seriously by the larger society. Their effort has also contributed towards the election of Donald Trump as the US president, a man who stands for everything that SJWs are against.

Of course, this is far from being the only reason why he was elected. However, the rise of SJW movement in the years leading up to the election have caused the nation that has previously voted Obama, a man concerned about social justice, to vote for someone to whom social justice is a joke. Ordinary and honest people were simply fed up with being constantly called privileged, racist, sexist and homophobes by SJWs, so they voted for a man that opposes them just to piss those SJW snowflakes off.

How to control your counterproductive urges

There are many deeply ingrained negative human impulses that are difficult to eliminate. Some of them, such as procrastination and overeating, are obvious, as they affect people directly. However, the impulse to perform any sort of action without thinking is something that is much harder to spot.

Procrastination and overeating affects you in a very obvious way. Impulsive action, on the other hand, either affects you indirectly or doesn’t even personally affect you at all.

It is clear that acting purely out of an impulse may make you feel better temporarily, but is very likely to have detrimental effect on people or things around you in the objective terms. So, what can you do to not be the one who’s existence is detrimental to the progress of everything else around you?

When you feel the impulse to act, the first thing that you should do is pause and take a deep breath. After that, have a think about whether the action that you are about to take is necessary.

Perhaps, it is not likely to change anything at all. This is a situation where the said action will probably make things worse compared to what would be if no action would be taken. In such scenario, taking no action is definitely a better choice.

Stopping to have a think often doesn’t feel like an action, but is an action non the less. In fact, in most of the uncertain situations, this is by far the best action you can take. After all, this is what people in many professions are actually paid to do. Software developers, for example, are not paid their above market average salaries just to type.

Another important point to remember that impulsive desire to act is often tightly linked with procrastination, even when it doesn’t seem this way. After all, you can’t feel that you are procrastinating when you are being busy.

A manager who schedules unnecessary meetings probably has enough productive things on his todo list. It’s just that those things are more tedious and less glamorous than being in a room full of people and having an opportunity to feel important in front of them.

Likewise, young people who are happy to occupy the Wall Street to protest against the income inequality are often incapable of as little as tidying up their own room, let alone hold a steady job. Every hour they spend at a pointless protest is an hour that they won’t be able to spend on improving themselves and building their own life the way they want it.

So, when an irresistible urge to take a particular action hits you, ask yourself if this indeed is the best thing that you can do right now. Are you sure you don’t have any other responsibilities that you should prioritise? If the action you are about to take is intended to affect others, are you sure that you have put your own affairs in order first?

Last but not least, beware when somebody is asking you to hurry and act now. This person or organisation is probably well aware that this impulse exists in humans. Whatever they want you to do is unlikely to be in your best interest.