Tag Archives: project


The whole team got this email today. Okay, it wasn’t today and these are not the exact words, but it was something like this:

We have a serious regression in build 456. We have set the project back rather than taken it forward. We need the utmost focus and commitment on fixing it. We’ve broken it and we stay in the office until it’s fixed.

I’ve had a few of those messages over the years and while it’s intended to focus minds it often has the opposite effect. Let’s examine why.

Projects see the same mistakes made over and over and this email encompasses many of those sins; it’s one message but represents a microcosm of large part of my career.

Here are a few problems that I see immediately:

  • No problem definition
  • No person accountable
  • No next action
  • A deadline but no understanding of the work involved

This has a number of consequences.

There are studies that show if you have a heart attack in a crowded area you are less likely to receive life-saving CPR from a stranger than if you’re in an area with one other person.

In this case the passers by (the project team) don’t know that they’re needed. Without a problem definition I don’t know if the regression was caused by one of my changes or even if it affects my code. Without a person accountable everyone likely assumes that it’s someone else’s code. “Someone would have mentioned it if it was my code.” And with no “next action” it’s easy to assume that someone else will handle it.

Arguably the deadline is not really a deadline. What if the fix would take a week to implement? Instead it’s a target. You can’t take an estimate and reduce it to fit to an externally imposed date. It doesn’t work like that. You may hit your deadline if you’re lucky, but a good plan doesn’t need luck.

Even worse, the arbitrary deadline and lack of direction gives the entire project a sense of panic. I think the intention was urgency but urgency implies you know what you need to do and that you need to do it quickly. As we’ve seen, the task above is neither well defined nor assigned. The only clear things in the original email are the version that is broken and the deadline.

However, the biggest sin is questioning the commitment and competence of the people needed to resolve the issue. In my experience, this is rarely the case, yet asking the question can make it true. If you’re not trusted, why put in the extra work? Next time you need to make a change, are you going to do it the “right” way or the way with the absolute lowest risk? Putting in a lot of good work and then getting kicked for your efforts is not a good incentive for doing a job well.

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