Why Planning is Important

I have been working on a project for quite some time that is considered time sensitive. Due to the time sensitive nature, actually creating full requirements and acceptance criteria is considered frivolous, so the concept is code and verify, based on some unknown standard. It is not quite that bad, but when someone (generally me) argues for planning, I am told the following are equally valid ways of approaching development for this project.

  1. Creating requirements and acceptance criteria (i.e. planning) and then coding to match the requirement and acceptance criteria.
  2. Coding based on a loose, one sentence, “specification” and then fixing issues based on User Acceptance testing.
  3. In short,  the group has opted for a “show me what you have and I will then tell what is wrong with it” versus “tell me what you want and I will show you what you have told me you desire”. While we ultimately end up with the same product, I disagree these are “equally valid ways” of developing a new application.

To illustrate this, think back to your last vacation. If you have not had one in a long time, you should go on one soon, but if you can’t imagine your last business trip. It went something like this:

You woke up at some time during the day (or night) and packed enough clothes for a week’s worth of time. Your spouse and children did the same thing. You then got in the car and drove to the airport and stated to the ticket agent “I have $1500 to fly and 4 people, so I need whatever ticket is the closest to $375 per person for a round trip”. Once you had your tickets, you got on the plane and flew.

When you landed, you went down to the car rental agencies and got a car, using the same logic. “I have $500 to spend on a car, so give me whatever car I can get for a week with that much money.”

You then drove off out of the airport and got on the road whichever direction fit your whim and drove until you found a hotel that seemed to be within your budget. You went up and got a room.

Once in the room, you looked at the local guidebook and figured out what types of things you could do in this town with the amount of day you had left and went out and had fun.

Does this sound even remotely like your last vacation (or trip)? No? Why not? Well, if you are a normal person, you can see all types of problems with this. Here are a few:

  1. What if $250 only buys a ticket to Idaho, in the middle of winter? Did you pack for snow or the beach?
  2. What if you can’t find a flight with 4 tickets available?
  3. What if the car rental agency does not have a car that fits your budget?
  4. What if the hotel does not have rooms available?
  5. What if the town you landed in has nothing you are interested in seeing?

I am sure I can think of more, but the point is that you would not schedule a vacation out of town without some idea of where you were going to go and where you were going to stay, right? But you would be this careless with a “mission critical” project?

There is a belief in some circles that not knowing everything about the final product means you should not nail anything down. To me, this is about as stupid as stating “I can’t book a room at the Hilton for our vacation because I am not sure what I am going to order for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day we are on vacation”. Yes, there are some parts of the project you may not be able to figure out right now, but not planning anything as a result means you are going to, at best, spend a lot more time (i.e. money) to develop the product.

What has happened on my current assignment is I am now getting back pieces to fix. They are logged as defects, but without a criteria of what is right, nothing, outside of failure to work, is really a defect. And, since there is no criteria, “defects” are being found in serial. Take one step forward, find a “bug”, fix that one bug. Rinse. Repeat until all the “bugs” are washed out. The biggest issue here is we can, with any confidence, state when the final product is going to be ready for release, as there is no firm definition of what done looks like.

This topic has been covered as nauseum, of course. Steve McConnell has some interesting insights in his book “The Project Software Survival Guide”, which I think should be mandatory reader for every manager that needs IT work done.

From McConnells’ company site, I have found a couple of neat gems from his book. The first talks about when a defect is created and how much it costs to correct. This is shown below.

If you do not have time to write requirements and work out the architecture and design, every defect is a requirements defect. Pretty expensive proposition, yet this is precisely what is being done.

Here are a set of images from Steve McConnell’s own site that describes perception versus reality. Management often believes this is the optimal development path:

They accept that there is a certain amount of unproductive time (meaning time not moving forward towards the end of the project, whether reworking bad code or going to get coffee), but they don’t want the burden of planning, which is seen like the picture below:

If I get rid of the planning (process), I end up with more productive time. The problem is the reality looks more like this:

Without proper planning, what started as a small amount of thrashing, ends up consuming a huge amount of time, as more and more “defects” are discovered and more and more code has to be reworked based on differing understandings of what is acceptable and what done look like. In addition, more and more time gets consumed in process, including planning how to get from “what we now have” to “what is acceptable. One thing missing from this diagram that is present in the book is the dot just before process and thrashing consume 100% of daily efforts. That dot indicates the luck projects that get released before all of the participants drown in the sea of non productivity.

The ideal situation is enough planning to understand both what done is and how to determine each feature is acceptable to fit that picture of done. This is shown in the final graphic linked from McConnell’s site.

In short: planning works. If you want to read McConnell’s entire treatise on this topic, click here.

My next topic, which I will post in a few days, will cover why “hiring rock stars” is not an adequate alternative to proper planning.

Peace and Grace,

Twitter: @gbworld


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