Challenging Software Management

Seldom does an article pluck a thought lurking in the corners of our consciousness, place a spotlight on it, and then reveal it holds the key to unraveling deeply seated beliefs. Matthew Stewart’s The Management Myth is such an article, a rare piece that takes a practical look at management theory – the history, education, and personal experiences. Reading the article, I found myself thinking, “Finally a management consultant giving an insightful critique of management rather than hype!”

In his article, Stewart explains how Frederick Winslow Taylor came up with the first industrial-era ideas of management theory in 1899. Taylor was working for the Bethlehem Steel Company when he invented a scheme to get workers to load pig iron bars onto rail cars more quickly. He later went on to apply his approach to other business problems and write a book titled, The Principles of Scientific Management.

Even at the time, it was clear that Taylor’s conclusions were more pseudoscience than science. Taylor never published raw data for his pig iron studies. And when Taylor was questioned by Congress about his experiments, he casually admitted to making reckless adjustments to the data, ranging from 20 percent to 225 percent.

Despite serious protocol flaws and Taylor’s failure to adhere to even the spirit of the scientific method, management has doubled down by embracing empirical measurements that are meaningless indicators. The purpose of these number exercises is to convince business leaders that the right things are happening. The belief that if you don’t measure it, you cannot manage it continues unabated within unproven methodologies such as Earned Value Management (EVM) or the prioritization of software backlogs using ROI, NPV, or other numerical or financial metrics. The fact that these numbers are fictitious hasn’t slowed anyone down from using them.

But here is the question Stewart brilliantly points out in his article that sharpens the argument against these practices. How is it possible that empirical management continue to be used when the theories and approaches themselves are not held accountable to the very same metric disciplines they force on everyone else? Every development team must prove, using numbers, that they are on track – but nobody has proven that such accountability is effective.

I can confirm, anecdotally through my personal experience, that project management “number exercises” do not lead to improved performance, better risk management, higher quality, or customer satisfaction. In my experience, for what it’s worth, the more “sophisticated” a management approach, the more likely it will have the exact opposite effects.

In my next blog, I will talk about what we need from software management, which is to set constraints to resist the natural temptation to build “something” rather than the right thing.

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