Friday, August 6, 2010

The Mythical Man-Month

Recently, I watched the third episode of The Pillars of the Earth. The book is by Ken Follett and is one of my all-time favorites. His love of cathedrals shines. What caught my eye in the made-for-TV series shown on Starz was a scene in which all of the nearby townspeople come out (in the nick of time) to work one day on the cathedral (for which they are paid and given a free dispensation from the church). The progress is so vast that the project moves from almost dead to sufficiently amazing as to impress King Stephen.

What’s wrong with this picture? It suffers the same problem as outlined by Fred Brooks in his 1975 book The Mythical Man-Month even though Brooks was writing about software design and Tom Builder is designing a cathedral.

When a project is running unacceptably late, a first reaction (okay, probably a second reaction; the first is to lay blame) is to add more people. Brooks postulates that adding more personnel tends to further delay the project because (1) all the new people have to get up to speed, and (2) communication issues increase exponentially. These same issues must have applied to 12th century England, even in the made-up town of Knightsbridge.

Yes, the skills the villagers applied were menial—but still, would one master builder be able to keep all the carts hauling earth, carved stone and the like straight? Might not someone have bumped a support pole here or there? Well, it was in a movie, so I’ll cut them some slack.

Back in the real world, however, we keep applying the same mistake. We see a surge works in Iraq and add more men in Afghanistan—ignoring the communication and infrastructure needed to support the surge. We pour massive resources of people and money at improving our security networks, tell everyone to “play nice” in the sandbox and are amazed when terrorists slip through the cracks.

You can add your examples in the comments below. One point to remember is if the proposed solution is to add staff to catch up, it’s probably going to make it worse.


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