A Feature Too Far

November 19, 2007

I just finished the best Software Project Management book I have ever read. It covered proper planning, requirements gathering, resource management, inter-organizational communication, and even discussed the immeasurable factor of individual effort. The book's title is 'A Bridge too Far' by Cornelius Ryan. The book is actually a historical account of "Operation Market-Garden" which was an attack by the Allied forces against Nazi Germany in World War II.

First let me say that I am not comparing Software Development to War. I do appreciate the difference between losing one's job and losing one's life. But as I was reading the book, the parallels between the job of a project manager preparing for, managing, and executing a large project are not unlike that of the job of a General's planning staff preparing for a major offensive.

Operation Market-Garden was a combined ground and paratrooper attack into The Netherlands by the Allies a few months after the invasion of Normandy. Things seemed to be going well for the Allies in the months after D-Day and the Allied Generals became confident that they could launch a lightening strike that would end the war sooner rather than later. The operation seemed simple, Airborne paratroopers would be dropped deep in Nazi territory and would capture key bridges along a route into The Netherlands. A ground offensive would quickly follow using the bridges that were captured by the paratroopers to get almost all the way to Germany's borders. The short version of the story is that the ground offensive never caught up to the paratroopers and the offensive didn't succeed.

Reading the historical account, with the benefit of hindsight, it became obvious that the Allied Generals underestimated the difficulty of the task. The offensive scope was too big for the resources on hand and perfect execution of all the individual engagements was required. The schedule the Generals developed was impossible to keep and schedule slips meant death for many of the soldiers. Communications between elements of the units involved was critical but did not occur. However, because of heroic actions of some individuals and personal sacrifice of many, the offensive almost succeeded.

In the early stages of a project, setting realistic goals, and not putting on blinders as to the quantity and quality of your resources are key to a projects success. Going on the assumptions that the 'development weather' will always be perfect, communications will always work, and that all tasks will be completed on schedule is a recipe for disaster. And you can't always plan on individual heroics to save a project.

I usually try to inject some levity into my posts, but not this one. 17,000 Allied soldiers, 13,000 German soldiers, and 10,000 civilians were killed, missing, or wounded as a result of this failed offensive.

-@nday91