The hidden taxes of projects, and some ideas of how to address them
The hidden taxes on peoples time that projects might be obliviously paying.
Seneca said “it’s not that we have a short time to live, it’s that we waste of a lot of it”.
In any software development project, the gap between where you are today and your goal is peoples time directed in the right way.
A strong, experienced, modern project manager is critical to running any complex initiative, as they’re aware of second order consequences, the less obvious additional effects of seemingly small or obvious decisions.
Without this, it’s possible to make it harder for yourself and your team than it needs to be without realising it. There’s a beautiful article by Paul Graham (cofounder of startup accelerator Y-Combinator who has so far helped launch 4000 companies including Airbnb, Dropbox, Reddit, Stripe, Coinbase) called “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule” on how project rhythms can have detrimental effects on different team members, without individuals realising so.
Ultimately we’re all trying to build great software with the best of intentions, so here I’ve outlined some of my observations of the hidden taxes that projects might pay through what might seem innocent activity, but leads to teams spending less time on productive execution. As an aspiring project manager, here are some things to look our for, as a seasoned pro, some of these might resonate for you. Always reflect, always improve. Enjoy.
Ignorant principles tax — Committing to a set of principles without having any realisation of what they mean or what the implications are. For example, “we only want out-of-the-box configuration” without knowing what out-of-the-box capabilities are or what the business impact of forcing them would be. The team ends up spending a large amount of time trying to make a workable solution fit unworkable principles. Do make sure all stakeholders deeply understand the principles they are supportive of, and creating a set of principles that fit.
Coordination tax — A large project that isn’t broken down enough into small teams so the team spends a ton of time in meetings to give updates or hear updates, without doing actual work. Do make sure your team spends as much time during the day doing their work instead of on activity in managing them do their work.
“Might be ok” tax — Key project leadership positions eager to please superiors and counterparts and committing to things that are unrealistic, instead of polite stubbornness, with the caveat of “might”. Your customer hears ‘yes’ and your team hears ‘no’. So the team spends a large amount of time doing things to justify how they’ll meet the timelines or reasons why they won’t, instead of doing the actual work. Eg. doing impact assessments, trade off analysis, planning. Do make sure you work on the art of respectful disagreement and avoid unrealistic optimism.
Happy path tax — defining a project plan so dependent on things working exactly as the original aggressive plan that you’re needing to continually come up with urgent interventions each week. Your project should be able to happily survive someone being unwell for a few days, dependencies slipping, solution changes. Slack in a project is critical, without this, the team will continually spend their time needing to compensate for others, rushing, and spend time creating plans to meet the original plan. Do make sure you build in slack, things won’t go to plan.
“I think we really need to do something about that dragon” tax — Not fixing a known problem early on, and it progressively gets worse the longer you wait. It’s easy to slay the dragon when it’s the size of a gecko, much harder when it’s bigger than a house with fire breathing ability. Swapping out someone with the wrong skillset is more problematic to the project each day you delay it. Making a major architectural change is trivial in the beginning but a major reconstruction later. Do address things quickly and decisively, it will save you pain later on.
False idol tax — The need to please a particularly expressive stakeholder because they want things a certain way, yet they’re not an end user or proxy for them, and won’t be using the system day to day once it’s live. The team spends their time making the false idol happy at the cost of building a solution that is right for the actual end users. Do make sure that you have the right decision makers, they should represent the end users and the businesses long term direction, and also be easy to work with.
“Have you seen my keys?” tax — By not labelling things correctly, storing them in the right place, we spend more time looking for things than using them. Do use a standard naming convention and make it easy to find things through search. Use the version control function, archive previous version, get smart at these things. Do keep making things more efficient.
Making your own disposable artistic crockery tax — Creating things from scratch each time when you could’ve reused something or bought it instead. Imagine firing up the kiln and making your own plates before dinner each night then painting elaborate designs on them, and then never using them again after one meal. Create templates and artefacts that are simple, have a defined purpose, and must be reused. Do use a standard set of fixed templates and artefacts, use forms to get input from people, avoid freeform creative expression through powerpoint.
“I prefer hand washing all my clothes” tax — Not adopting modern tools that allow automation and efficiency. Still using basic email and powerpoint to perform their tasks. The individual spends time doing things manually that could be completely automated, with these tools having been available for decades. These opportunities for automation are within Excel, PPT, Software Engineering, the entire Microsoft productivity stack (Teams, Outlook, Sharepoint). Do keep reviewing how can automate things that you’re doing again each week.
“I thought we were renovating the house” tax — Not imposing clear constraints on a program and communicating them and the reasons why. The team works with stakeholders who think they are having a full house renovation rather than replacing the bathtub. As expectations haven’t been managed, the team is instructed to capture everything and put it in a backlog, but had only scheduled time to measure and replace the bathtub. Do communicate broadly what the scope is of your project and the reasons for it.
Multitasking tax — An individual who always has email, their phone, MS Teams/Slack, Jira and 5 other applications open and continually bounces between them. This is exhausting an inefficient, do one thing at a time, you’ll get more done and have a lot more energy. Do make sure you close everything and focus deeply on the task at hand.
“Just a gentle follow up” tax — Either within a team, or amongst a client and partner, where continually follow ups and contractual footprints are required to get anything done, as there is a culture to say yes to everything without pushing back, causing people to agree to things with hopeful optimism, and struggling to deliver to them. Do make sure you assess what you’re saying yes to. Do make sure you’re building a culture where people can comfortably state that they won’t be able to complete a newly imposed task.
Luxury tax — the need to make everything beautiful, even for simple internal meetings through making what could be a simple email or MS Word memo into a beautiful powerpoint, taking something that would’ve taken an hour into 8 hours. Do keep things simple.
Ideology tax — the need to hold onto practices that aren’t helping because it’s “the way”. The team attends activities, ceremonies, process and methods that slow down development and quality. There is no ‘one way’ to run a project, every project has their own needs. Do continually assess whether or not all those ceremonies are helping.
The Emperor has no clothes tax — everybody pretending something is true that isn’t, despite everyone knowing this truth. All their activity is spent on something that is unachievable instead of on something that is. Do make sure you’re running your project based on reality, and address it early if it’s not the case. Now is the time to have a discussion that the original solution won’t meet the new requirements, that the project plan needs to be reassessed. Do make sure you’re continually updating your plan and project behaviour to reflect reality.