The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned – Fred Brooks, The Mythical Man-Month
I have finally gotten around to reading this collection of essays by Fred Brooks – not all of it but what I have read so far is already illuminating.
Take for example, how many people you really need to get a job done.
Say you have a project and you put one programmer on the job.
The task starts looking too big – so you look at adding a person to help.
This will make things go faster, no?
The first thing that Brooks points out is that you can only share out tasks between people when the tasks can be done without the people communicating with each other.
Picking cotton, sorting beads, moving pallets – all these tasks can be done in less time by fewer people.
Supermarkets, for example, get every employee in a store – from the top manager to the entry level clerk – to rumble the place – get every item on the shelf pointing the right way.
But, if you are doing a knowledge based project then communication is essential and communication causes two main problems.
The first problem is one of training. Say you add a person to help your programmer – the first thing the programmer has to do is train the person – and if that takes a week you’re another week behind schedule.
So, never get your existing programmers to train others unless you’re happy to fall behind even more.
Then, when people start to work together the increased need for communication scales exponentially with the number of people.
The more of them you have to talk to the less work gets done.
But you have to work with people – you need teams to get things done.
Here, Brooks points out that big teams with managers don’t work well.
Instead you need small teams and not just that – you need teams organised like surgical teams where you have a surgeon who does the work, an co-surgeon who is learning or can take over and support staff.
The way you work on a big project is by having lots of these surgical teams.
But the way you get them to work in a way that gets you moving in the same direction is to be very clear on the overall architecture.
A cathedral, for example, is pretty much the same wherever go in Europe because of the general design that Jean d’Orbais came up with.
Generations of builders can add their unique approaches and flourishes but within the overarching and coherent design that guides the development.
That approach – having a clear and coherent “what” allows experts to go ahead with the “how” in creative and inventive ways.
Just these three concepts – be wary of adding people to a project, organise yourself like a surgical team and work within an over architecture – alone can transform the way you manage knowledge work.
It goes beyond programming – and can be used pretty much across service industries that rely on using skilled people to deliver a benefit to a customer – it can even help you design a better sales process.
Because the whole point is to create a better experience for your user – your customer.
Wouldn’t it be nice if they looked at what you’d done for them with even a fraction of the wonder they have when they enter a cathedral?