29 April 2019

Project Management: Planning Correctly Misundersood I


It is sometimes helpful to take a step back, observe, and then logically generalize the extremes of the observed facts; if possible, without judging people’s behavior as there’s more to it as the eyes can perceive. In some cases however one can feel that the observed situations are really close to extreme. It’s the case of some tendencies met in project planning - not planning, planning for the sake of planning, expecting a plan to be perfect, setting a plan as fix, without the possibility of changing it in utile time, respectively changing the plan too often.

There are situations in which it’s better to be spontaneous and go with the flow. Managing a project isn’t one of these situations. As Lakein’s Law formulates it succinctly: “failing to plan is planning to fail”, or paraphrasing Eisenhower (1) and Clausewitz (2) - plans are useless as no plan ever survived contact with the enemy (reality), but planning is indispensable - as a plan increases awareness about project’s scope, actions, challenges, risks and opportunities, and allows devising the tactics and logistics needed to reach the set goals. Even if the plan doesn’t reflect anymore the reality, it can still be adapted to fit the new requirements. The more planning experience one has the more natural it becomes to close the gap between the initial plan and reality, and of adapting the plan as needed.

There’s an important difference between doing something because one is forced to do it and doing it because one sees and understands the value of planning. There's the tendency to plan for the sake of planning, because there's the compel to do it. Besides the fact that it documents the what, when, why and who, and that is used as a basis for action, the plan must reflect project’s current status and the activities planed for the next reporting cycle. As soon a plan is not able to reflect these aspects it becomes thus in time unusable.

The enemy of a good plan can prove to be the dream of a perfect plan (3). Some may think that the holy grail of planning is the perfect plan, that the project can’t start until all the activities were listed to the lowest detail and the effort thoroughly assigned. Few plans actually survive the contact with the reality and there can be lot of energy lost by working on the perfect plan.

Another similar behavior,  rooted mainly in the methodologies used, is that of not allowing a plan to be changed for a part or whole duration of the project. Publilius Syrus recognized more than two millennia ago that a plan that admits no modification is a bad plan (4) per se. Methodologies and practices that don’t allow a flexible way of changing the plan make no service to projects. Often changes need to occur immediately and not at an ideal point in time, when maybe the effect is lost.

Modern Project Management tools allow building the dependencies between the various activities and it’s inevitable that a change in one place will cause a chain reaction and lead to a contraction or dilatation of the plan, and this can happen with each planning iteration. In extremis the end date will alternate as the lines of a seismograph during an earthquake. It’s natural for this to happen in projects in a first phase, however it’s in Project Manager’s attribution to mitigate such variations.

The project plan is a reflection of the project and how it’s managed, therefore, one needs to give it the proper focus, how often and how detailed required.

Referenced quotes:
(1) “In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable” (Eisenhower quoted by Nixon)
(2) “No plan ever survived contact with the enemy. ” (Carl von Clausewitz)
(3) “The enemy of a good plan is the dream of a perfect plan.” (Carl von Clausewitz)
(4) "It's a bad plan that admits of no modification." (Publilius Syrus)

Data Management: From Disintegration to Integration

Data Management

No matter how tight the integration between the various systems or processes there will be always gaps that need to be addressed in one way or another. The problems are in general caused by design errors rooted in the complexity of the logic from the integration layer or from the systems integrated. The errors can range from missing or incorrect validation rules, mappings and parameters to data quality issues.

An unidirectional integration involves distributing data from one system (aka publisher) to one or more systems (aka subscribers), while in bidirectional integrations systems can act as publishers and subscribers, resulting thus complex data flows with multiple endpoints. In simplest integrations the records flow one-to-one between systems, though more complex scenarios can involve logic based on business rules, mappings and other type of transformations. The challenge is to reflect the states as needed by the system with minimal involvement from the users.

Typically it falls in application/process owners or key users’ responsibilities to make sure that the integration works smoothly. When the integration makes use of interface or staging tables they can be used as starting point for the troubleshooting, however even then the troubleshooting can be troublesome and involve a considerable manual effort. When possible the data can be exported manually from the various systems and matched in Excel or similar solutions. This leads often to personal or departmental solutions hard to maintain, control and support.

A better approach is to automatize the process by importing the data from the integrated systems at regular points in time into the same database (much like in a data warehouse), model the entities and the needed logic in there, and report the differences. Even if this approach involves a small investment in the beginning and some optimization in logic or performance over time, it can become a useful tool for troubleshooting the differences. Such solutions can be used successfully in multiple integration scenarios (e.g. web shop or ERP integrations).

A set of reports for each entity can help identify the differences between the various entities. Starting from the reported differences the users can identify, categorize and devise specific countermeasures for the various issues. The best time to have such a solution is shortly before or during UAT. This would allow to make sure that the integration layer really works, and helps correcting the issues as long they still have a small impact on the systems. Some integration issues might even lead to a postponement of the Go-Live. The second best time is during the time the first important issues were found, as the issues can be used as support for a Business Case for implementing this type of solutions.

In general, it’s recommended to fix the problems in the integration layer and use the reports only for troubleshooting and for assuring that the integration runs smoothly. There are however situations in which the integration problems can’t be fixed without creating more issues. It’s the case in which multiple systems are involved and integrated over an integration bus.
One extreme approach, not advisable though, is to build a second integration to correct the issues of the first. This solution might work in theory however there’s the risk of multiplying the issues is really high and the complexity of troubleshooting increases with the degree of dependency between the two integrations. It would be more advisable to rebuild the integration anew, however also this approach has its advantages and disadvantages.

Bottom line is that integration issues should be addressed while they are small and that an automated solution for comparing the data can help in the process

24 April 2019

Project Management: The Butterflies of Project Management


Expressed metaphorically as "the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas”, in Chaos Theory the “butterfly effect” is a hypothesis rooted in Edward N Lorenz’s work on weather forecasting and used to depict the sensitive dependence on initial conditions in nonlinear processes, systems in which the change in input is not proportional to the change in output.  

Even if overstated, the flapping of wings advances the idea that a small change (the flap of wings) in the initial conditions of a system cascades to a large-scale chain of events leading to large-scale phenomena (the tornado) . The chain of events is known as the domino effect and represents the cumulative effect produced when one event sets off a chain of similar events. If the butterfly metaphor doesn’t catch up maybe it’s easier to visualize the impact as a big surfing wave – it starts small and increases in size to the degree that it can bring a boat to the shore or make an armada drown under its force. 

Projects start as narrow activities however the longer they take and the broader they become tend to accumulate force and behave like a wave, having the force to push or drawn an organization in the flood that comes with it. A project is not only a system but a complex ecosystem - aggregations of living organisms and nonliving components with complex interactions forming a unified whole with emergent behavior deriving from the structure rather than its components - groups of people tend to  self-organize, to swarm in one direction or another, much like birds do, while knowledge seems to converge from unrelated sources (aka consilience). 

 Quite often ignored, the context in which a project starts is very important, especially because these initial factors or conditions can have a considerable impact reflected in people’s perception regarding the state or outcomes of the project, perception reflected eventually also in the decisions made during the later phases of the project. The positive or negative auspices can be easily reinforced by similar events. Given the complex correlations and implications, aspects not always correct perceived and understood can have a domino effect. 

The preparations for the project start – the Business Case, setting up the project structure, communicating project’s expectation and addressing stakeholders’ expectations, the kick-off meeting, the approval of the needed resources, the knowledge available in the team, all these have a certain influence on the project. A bad start can haunt a project long time after its start, even if the project is on the right track and makes a positive impact. In reverse, a good start can shade away some mishaps on the way, however there’s also the danger that the mishaps are ignored and have greater negative impact on the project. It may look as common sense however the first image often counts and is kept in people’s memory for a long time. 

As people are higher perceptive to negative as to positive events, there are higher the chances that a multitude of negative aspects will have bigger impact on the project. It’s again something that one can address as the project progresses. It’s not necessarily about control but about being receptive to the messages around and of allowing people to give (constructive) feedback early in the project. It’s about using the positive force of a wave and turning negative flow into a positive one. 

Being aware of the importance of the initial context is just a first step toward harnessing waves or winds’ power, it takes action and leadership to pull the project in the right direction.

22 April 2019

Project Management: The Choice of Tools in Project Management


Beware the man of one book” (in Latin, “homo unius libri”), a warning generally attributed to Thomas Aquinas and having a twofold meaning. In its original interpretation it was referring to the people mastering a single chosen discipline, however the meaning degenerated in expressing the limitations of people who master just one book, and thus having a limited toolset of perspectives, mental models or heuristics. This later meaning is better reflected in Abraham Maslow adage: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”, as people tend to use the tools they are used to also in situations in which other tools are more appropriate.

It’s sometimes admirable people and even organizations’ stubbornness in using the same tools in totally different scenarios, expecting though the same results, as well in similar scenarios expecting different results. It’s true, Mathematics has proven that the same techniques can be used successfully in different areas, however a mathematician’s universe and models are idealistically fractionalized to a certain degree from reality, full of simplified patterns and never-ending approximations. In contrast, the universe of Software Development and Project Management has a texture of complex patterns with multiple levels of dependencies and constraints, constraints highly sensitive to the initial conditions.

Project Management has managed to successfully derive tools like methodologies, processes, procedures, best practices and guidelines to address the realities of projects, however their use in praxis seems to be quite challenging. Probably, the challenge resides in stubbornness of not adapting the tools to the difficulties and tasks met. Even if the same phases and multiple similarities seems to exist, the process of building a house or other tangible artefact is quite different than the approaches used in development and implementation of software.

Software projects have high variability and are often explorative in nature. The end-product looks totally different than the initial scaffold. The technologies used come with opportunities and limitations that are difficult to predict in the planning phase. What on paper seems to work often doesn’t work in praxis as the devil lies typically in details. The challenges and limitations vary between industries, businesses and even projects within the same organization.

Even if for each project type there’s a methodology more suitable than another, in the end project particularities might pull the choice in one direction or another. Business Intelligence projects for example can benefit from agile approaches as they enable to better manage and deliver value by adapting the requirements to business needs as the project progresses. An agile approach works almost always better than a waterfall process. In contrast, ERP implementations seldom benefit from agile methodologies given the complexity of the project which makes from planning a real challenge, however this depends also on an organization’s dynamicity.
Especially when an organization has good experience with a methodology there’s the tendency to use the same methodology across all the projects run within the organization. This results in chopping down a project to fit an ideal form, which might be fine as long the particularities of each project are adequately addressed. Even if one methodology is not appropriate for a given scenario it doesn’t mean it can’t be used for it, however in the final equation enter also the cost, time, effort, and the quality of the end-results.
In general, one can cope with complexity by leveraging a broader set of mental models, heuristics and set of tools, and this can be done only though experimentation, through training and exposing employees to new types of experiences, through openness, through adapting the tools to the challenges ahead.

21 April 2019

Project Management: Planning Correctly Misundersood II


Even if planning is the most critical activity in Project Management it seems to be also one of the most misunderstood concepts. Planning is critical because it charters the road ahead in terms of what, when, why and who, being used as a basis for action, communication, for determining the current status in respect to the initial plan, as well the critical activities ahead.

The misunderstandings derive maybe also from the fact that each methodology introduces its own approach to planning. PMI as traditional approach talks about baseline planning with respect to scope schedule and costs, about management plans, which besides the theme covered in the baseline, focus also on quality, human resources, risks, communication and procurement, and separate plans can be developed for requirements, change and configuration management, respectively process improvement. To them one can consider also action and contingency planning.

In Prince2 the product-based planning is done at three levels – at project, stage, respectively team level – while separate plans are done for exceptions in case of deviations from any of these plans; in addition there are plans for communication, quality and risk management. Scrum uses an agile approach looking at the product and sprint backlog, the progress being reviewed in stand-up meetings with the help of a burn-down chart. There are also other favors of planning like rapid application planning considered in Extreme Programming (XP), with an open, elastic and undeterministic approach. In Lean planning the focus is on maximizing the value while minimizing the waste, this being done by focusing on the value stream, the complete list of activities involved in delivering the end-product, value stream's flow being mapped with the help of visualization techniques such as Kanban, flowcharts or spaghetti diagrams.

With so many types of planning nothing can go wrong, isn’t it? However, just imagine customers' confusion when dealing with a change of methodology, especially when the concepts sound fuzzy and cryptic! Unfortunately, also the programmers and consultants seem to be bewildered by the various approaches and the philosophies supporting the methodologies used, their insecurity bringing no service for the project and customers’ peace of mind. A military strategist will more likely look puzzled at the whole unnecessary plethora of techniques. On the field an army has to act with the utmost concentration and speed, to which add principles like directedness, maneuver, unity, economy of effort, collaboration, flexibility, simplicity and sustainability. It’s what Project Management fails to deliver.

Similarly to projects, the plan made before the battle seldom matches the reality in the field. Planning is an exercise needed to divide the strategy in steps, echelon and prioritize them, evaluate the needed resources and coordinate them, understand the possible outcomes and risks, evaluate solutions and devise actions for them. With a good training, planning and coordination, each combatant knows his role in the battle, has a rough idea about difficulties, targets and possible ways to achieve them; while a good combatant knows always the next action. At the same time, the leader must have visibility over fight’s unfold, know the situation in the field and how much it diverged from the initial plan, thus when the variation is considerable he must change the plan by changing the priorities and make better use the resources available.

Even if there are multiple differences between the two battlefields, the projects follow the same patterns of engagement at different scales. Probably, Project Managers can learn quite of a deal by studying the classical combat strategists, and hopefully the management of projects would be more effective and efficient if the imperatives of planning, respectively management, were better understood and addressed.

Programming: Pair Programming

“Two heads are better than one” – a proverb whose wisdom is embraced today in the various forms of harnessing the collective intelligence. The use of groups in problem solving is based on principles like “the collective is more than the sum of its individuals” or that “the crowds are better on average at estimations than the experts”. All well and good, based on the rationality of the same proverb has been advanced the idea of having two developers working together on the same piece of code – one doing the programming while the other looks over the shoulder as a observer or navigator (whatever that means), reviewing each line of code as it is written, strategizing or simply being there.

This approach is known as pair programming and considered as an agile software development technique, adhering thus to the agile principles (see the agile manifesto). Beyond some intangible benefits, its intent is to reduce the volume of defects in software and thus ensure an acceptable quality of the deliverables. It’s also an extreme approach of the pear review concept.
Without considering whether pair programming adheres to the agile principles, the concept has several big loopholes. The first time I read about pair programming it took me some time to digest the idea – I was asking myself what programmer will do that on a daily basis, watching as other programmers code or being watched while coding, each line of code being followed by questions, affirmative or negative nodding… Beyond their statute of being lone wolves, programmers can cooperate when the tasks ahead requires it, however to ask a programmer watch actively as others program it won’t work on the long run!

Talking from my own experience as programmer and of a professional working together with other programmers, I know that a programmer sees each task as a challenge, a way of learning, of reaching beyond his own condition. Programming is a way of living, with its pluses and minuses.
Moreover, the complexity of the tasks doesn’t resume at handling the programming language but of resolving the right problem. Solving the right problem is not something that can one overcome with brute force but with intelligence. If using the programming language is the challenge then the problem lies somewhere else and other countermeasures must be taken!

Some studies have identified that the use of pair programming led to a reduction of defects in software, however the numbers are misleading as long they compare apples with pears. To statistically conclude that one method is better than the other means doing the same experiment with the different methods using a representative population. Unless one addressees the requirements of statistics the numbers advanced are just fiction!

Just think again about the main premise! One doubles the expenditure for a theoretical reduction of the defects?! Actually is more than double considering that different types of communication takes place. Without a proven basis the effort can be somewhere between 2.2 and 2.5 and for an average project this can be a lot! The costs might be bearable in situations in which the labor is cheap, however programmers’ cooperation is a must.

The whole concept of pair programming seems like a bogus idea, just like two drivers driving the same car! This approach might work when the difference in experience and skills between developers is considerable, that being met in universities or apprenticeship environments, in which the accent is put on learning and forming. It might work on handling complex tasks as some adepts declare, however even then is less likely that the average programmer will willingly do it!

19 April 2019

Performance Management: The Need for Perfection vs. Excellence

Performance Management

A recurring theme occurring in various contexts over the years seemed to be corroborated with the need for perfection, need going sometimes in extremis beyond common sense. The simplest theory attempting to explain at least some of these situations is that people tend to confuse excellence with perfection, from this confusion deriving false beliefs, false expectations and unhealthy behavior. 

Beyond the fact that each individual has an illusory image of what perfection is about, perfection is in certain situations a limiting force rooted in the idealistic way of looking at life. Primarily, perfection denotes that we will never be good enough to reach it as we are striving to something that doesn’t exist. From this appears the external and internal criticism, criticism that instead of helping us to build something it drains out our energy to the extent that it destroys all we have built over the years with a considerable effort. Secondarily, on the long run, perfection has the tendency to steal our inner peace and balance, letting fear take over – the fear of not making mistakes, of losing the acceptance and trust of the others. It focuses on our faults, errors and failures instead of driving us to our goals. In extremis it relieves the worst in people, actors and spectators altogether. 

In its proximate semantics though at diametral side through its implications, excellence focuses on our goals, on the aspiration of aiming higher without implying a limit to it. It’s a shift of attention from failure to possibilities, on what matters, on reaching our potential, on acknowledging the long way covered. It allows us building upon former successes and failures. Excellence is what we need to aim at in personal and professional life. Will Durant explaining Aristotle said that: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” 

People who attempt giving 100% of their best to achieve a (positive) goal are to admire, however the proximity of 100% is only occasionally achievable, hopefully when needed the most. 100% is another illusory limit we force upon ourselves as it’s correlated to the degree of achievement, completeness or quality an artefact or result can ideally have. We rightly define quality as the degree to which something is fit for purpose. Again, a moving target that needs to be made explicit before we attempt to reach it otherwise quality envisions perfection rather than excellence and effort is wasted. 

Considering the volume of effort needed to achieve a goal, Pareto’s principles (aka the 80/20 rule) seems to explain the best its underlying forces. The rule states that roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. A corollary is that we can achieve 80% of a goal with 20% of the effort needed altogether to achieve it fully. This means that to achieve the remaining 20% toward the goal we need to put four times more of the effort already spent. This rule seems to govern the elaboration of concepts, designs and other types of documents, and I suppose it can be easily extended to other activities like writing code, cleaning data, improving performance, etc. 

Given the complexity, urgency and dependencies of the tasks or goals before us probably it's beneficial sometimes to focus first on the 80% of their extent, so we can make progress, and focus on the remaining 20% if needed, when needed. This concurrent approach can allow us making progress faster in incremental steps. Also, in time, through excellence, we can bridge the gap between the two numbers as is needed less time and effort in the process.

18 April 2019

Meta-Blogging: Changing the Status quo

During the past years I started multiple posts on various programming-related topics though I seldom managed to bring something close to a publishable form. The main reason seems to be the lack of time needed to put an idea into words, to look at it from different perspectives in form of a logical meaningful unit and, last but not the least, make it count. This is accentuated by the fact that each idea pulls another, and often there are so many things to say that it’s hard to find a delimitation between what to be included and what to be left out. In extremis one feels that something is missing.

Often is required a certain amount of research needed to validate or support the facts. The knowledge about SQL Server and other DBMS is relative – it can be only relative as long their internals are known only to a certain degree. The relativity is found also in the area of applicability, the usage of a solution over another lying in details. Readers want solid facts while all one can give is a dry “it depends”…

Unfortunately, for a blogger not found close to the source of knowledge, the content posted tends to be third or fourth-hand knowledge and, in one form or the other, just duplication of information. As long content isn’t copied and there’s some personal touch the duplication is not necessarily a bad thing. Duplication makes knowledge more likely to be found as the content is indexed by search engines, however it becomes more difficult to stand in the crowd. To bring something new one has to put existing knowledge into new contexts, to be creative, and this takes time as well.

Without access to a pool of readers and of knowledge for a lone blogger it’s hard to succeed, giving up being just a few posts or a few years away. Of course, life tends to take over. It’s also in human nature to be enthusiastic about an idea and renounce shortly with the first difficulties met. On the other side, often it’s hard to keep or to find the needed motivation, especially when there is little support coming from the blogging platforms, tools creators or content publishers. Not being able to monetize one’s effort makes blogging more of a hobby.

With small exceptions the investments made in blogging tools are below expectations. It’s frustrating when the tools or the integration between them stopped working and there’s no simple way to overcome this. Some aspects changed with time, however blogging seems to lose in contrast with other forms of media content.

Despite the lack of time and other difficulties I want to write and share my thoughts, my experience, make the time invested in learning and solving problems count. Blogging is also a way to externalize the implicit knowledge, of sharing, of questioning some of the ideas and practices, and ultimately of getting feedback. In this resides the personal value of blogging.

In the fight with time and words I found myself forced to limit the length of the posts on some random nontechnical topics to 600 words. This number is rooted in the university years, representing the proximate limit of a written assignment to include an acceptable quality and coverage, and involve a bearable amount of effort. 600 is not a perfect number as its leading digit though, for the time being will do.

The challenge is to find a context to express my thoughts and experience without being too boring, without skimming through ideas. Without carrying great expectations, it’s an attempt to change the status quo.
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