Pressure and Agility
In a TV episode of the show Mythbuster, Adam and Jamie are investigating what can be done with duct tape. They build a rope bridge that is over 10 meters (30 feet) with duct tape, then they both walk over the bridge. They show that it’s possible to build a 10 meter (30 feet) rope bridge with just duct tape, thanks to its elasticity – it stretches when it’s weighed down.
But there is a difference between Adam and Jamie. Jamie is about 10 pounds heavier than Adam. When the duct tape reaches its maximum elasticity, vibrations start to interfere with the construction. It takes Jamie 5 times longer to climb the bridge than Adam because of the vibrations.
You’re wondering, how does this relate to software development?
When increasing pressure (and expectations) on a group to stretch to their maximum ability, the group needs to focus more on fending off all vibrations than on getting over the bridge. This slows down people. Plan-driven processes are harder to stretch because it isn’t as flexible.
But when working under high pressure, plan-driven processes can be a good thing. It’s when you don’t have clear lines or possibilities that generate much discussion. How far are we prepared to go this time? Can’t we make an exception this time? Can we squeeze that in? This elasticity creates vibrations and the focus on the project isn’t as good. Negative vibrations become noise as we talked about earlier. A more bureaucratic organization doesn’t stretch and therefore there is less noise under pressure.
Going back to Adam in Mythbuster, the conclusion is that he might use duct tape to build a bridge, but Jamie, who is 10 pounds heavier would gain if he builds it with rope that doesn’t stretch as much. Using the same argument, high pressure projects probably would gain if they were more bureaucratic, to help project members focus more. Being bureaucratic helps increase focus on a project and keep the speed up. Too much pressure under uncertain circumstances, on the other hand, lowers the speed because you have to adapt to all vibrations.
A Small Anecdote from my Carrier
My team had plans for a big release in a couple of months. Two days before the release, some business managers were nervous about us closing down the system for too many hours. They had pressured another partner and convinced him about the need of the system’s availability and uptime. So it didn’t look good that we were closing the system for 8 hours on primetime.
They started putting pressure on our development team by asking them to start earlier and finish deployment more quickly. We thought of a way to satisfy this demand.
We worked on a new plan, beginning with doing a full backup starting at 10 pm the day before and closing down the system at 6:00 am instead of 9:00 am. This lowered the planned downtime by 3 hours.
When the vice president started calling specific developers and maintenance personnel, they felt the pressure and focused more on the pressure than on the actual plan. When people felt pressured, quality suffered and the downtime became much longer then planned.
What did this all cost? Coming with an alternative plan took one day and five more people – longer time than if the original plan was executed. Hope it was worth the value of the relationship with our partner.
If you’re always flexible and preach the value of flexibility you could some day be pressured to go a little too far. Everyone probably would have gained if I only dared to stick to the original plan and not allowed a late change. Changing plans the night before actual battle is seldom a good idea.
Have you missed the Dubt tape hour on Mythbusters? Here is the episode MythBusters: Duct Tape Hour 2