Train wreck “Question: How does a large software project get to be one year late? Answer: One day at a time!”  Frederick Brooks, 1975 (The Mythical Man Month).

I’ve been run-over by the mythical man month recently.  It’s been slowing down my startup, and it’s driving me crazy.  None of the start-up books or blog posts talk about it, but its as effective at slowing down my attempts to get to market as anything else I can think of.  Not familiar with the ‘mythical man month’?  I bet you are, you just don’t know it by that name.

As an example, some time ago, when I was working in well funded tech start-up, a consultant said to me that getting a successful product into the market would take twice as long and cost twice as much as the company thought.  It certainly seemed to be taking longer than management said and that would also certainly lead to more costs.  But twice as much?  No way!  The company had lots of great people, working really hard to get the product out the door.  It had well credentialed management (although in retrospect, perhaps less well credentialed at running that particular type of business) and was very well funded – to the tune of tens of millions of dollars in the bank.

As it tuns out, it took much longer than twice as long to get the idea to market – in fact, six years after I left the company, they the technology has yet to be fully commercialised.  So maybe that consultant was right…

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m facing the same problem again, only this time on a much smaller scale.  I have gathered a small group together to bring my idea to market, and the clock is ticking.  Why is the clock ticking?  Well, my idea is a consumer product, so Christmas sales loom large in the calendar.  I start every email to my business partners with “X weeks to Christmas!!” just to make sure my sense of urgency isn’t lost in translation.  But despite my best efforts to push things along, the mythical man month keeps biting me on the you-know-what.

If you’re not familiar with the idea of the mythical man month, it’s an idea coined by Frederick Brooks in his 1975 book, the Mythical Man Month (go figure..).  Brooks was a software developer and after some analysis he observed that  “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”. What resonates with me more than that is the quote at the top of this post which points to the fact that it’s often not the major disaster that makes a project late, but the accumulated effect of lots of small delays.  Fred was sick on Monday, the photocopier was broken Tuesday. Wednesday the courier company was on strike and Thursday the computer network was down… Again. You get the idea.

In my case, the issues are things like aligning calendars, days of delay responding to email, family issues and many more.  Individually they don’t really matter, but I can feel time running through my fingers every time one of these little events occurs.

Is there a solution for this?  Well, good planning and agreed ways of working never go astray. Having everyone signed up to the project and business timelines also helps (going back to the start-up I mentioned above, the challenge of getting everyone to sign up to goals was so problematic, that the company’s internal slogan one year was ‘delivering on our commitments’…). But much like the problem is no single event, the solution isn’t one either.  And that’s where good management and leadership come in.  It takes a consistent and persistent effort to make sure everyone responds to emails (or use the phone!), to organise meetings well ahead of time, and putting some slack in the schedule so that time risks can be effectively managed.

This sort of discipline often gets missed in discussions of innovation, pivots, minimum viable products and the customer discovery process.  But it’s an important discipline to have or to develop when you’re in start-up mode.  Because as sure as VCs will want more than you want to give (!) there will be a range of things that you can’t control that will slow you down.  So when there are things that you can, you’d better make sure you’re on top of them, or you’ll end up being a lot more familiar with the mythical man month then you are at the moment!

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  1. Tim I share your frustrations. There are lots of macro factors affecting business – change of government, exchange rates, commodity prices, weather events…….these things are beyond our control and at the end of each month I used to look at our performance and try to read how these factors have impacted us. We recently started working with a consultant who has rightly pointed out that we have such small market share that our trends should be independent of how the general market is fairing. He also made us aware of many micro levers available to us to steer its course. And by putting measures in place, setting targets, and reviewing our position I know we are moving forward. We’ll see how things go.

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