The Mythical Man-Month

The Mythical Man-Month

In the seventh essay of The Mythical Man-Month, Brooks returns to the topics of organization and communication using story of the Tower of Babel as a metaphor for many of the engineering fiascoes seen in software development. In the story of the Tower of Babel, when communication broke down, coordination failed and the project ground to a halt. As projects become larger and more complex, communication and organization always becomes more difficult and more critical.

The essay Why Did the Tower of Babel Fall? presents three mechanisms to facilitate communication.

  1. Informal Communication, which includes all of the telephone calls and conversations that occur in and among teams. Healthy teams and teams of teams talk, interact and share information and ideas.
  2. Meetings are more formal and include reviews, technical briefings, demonstrations, sprint planning and release planning events. Done well formal meetings, whether part of an Agile framework or not, can find problems and share information and knowledge.
  3. Project Workbooks are the repository of the evolving intellectual property that defines any significant endeavor.

Brooks goes into depth on the definition and structure of the project workbook. While the workbook that Brooks describes is a physical construct we should consider that the idea of workbook is less of a document then a structure for grouping information. All the project documents need to fit into the workbook and be part of the overall structure of project information so that it can be reused and inherited from. The ultimate goal of the workbook is ensure that everyone who needs information has access to the information and gets the information.

Workbook Mechanics: In order to meet the goal of ensuring of everyone access to the information they need, the workbook needs to be maintained and organized. For example, Brooks suggests ordering and numbering all project memorandums (we would call these emails now) so that people can look through the list and actually see if they need information. Brooks points out that as size of the effort, project or program goes up, the complexity of maintaining and indexing the project communications increases in a non-linear fashion. Today’s technical tools like wikis, SharePoint and hypertext markup make curating and sharing information easier than paper and microfiche (if microfiche is before your time, Google it). As a reminder, capturing and reusing IP is required in all types of work. As a coder, it is easy to fall prey to the idea that the code and a functional system is the only documentation required; however, this is false. For most large efforts, capturing decisions, designs, architectures and even the occasional user manual is an option that can be ignored only if you want to court a communication failure. Remember however that over-reliance on documentation is not the goal.

Brooks uses the formula (n2-n)/2, where n is the number of people working on an effort, to define the possible communication interfaces. As the number of people increase the number of interfaces increases very quickly. Organization is a tool to reduce the amount of interfaces. This is one of the reasons why small teams are more effective than large teams. Scaling Agile is often accomplished by assembling teams of small teams. We use the metaphor of trees or flowers are often to describe the visualizations of team of teams. Communications spreading from a central point can look like a tree or flower. Organizations leverage techniques like the specialization and division of labor to reduce the number of communication interfaces.

There is often push back on division of labor and specialization in Agile. This push back is often misplaced. Within a team the concept of T Shaped people, which eschews specialization, increases capabilities; however, teams often specialize thus becoming capability teams. Capability teams often tackle specific types of work more effectively and efficiently by reducing learning curves. Capability teams fit into Brooks’ ideas on organizing to reduce the communication overhead.

Brooks proposes that each grouping of work have six essential needs.

  1. A Mission,
  2. A Producer,
  3. A Technical Director or An Architect,
  4. A Schedule,
  5. A Division of Labor, and
  6. Interface Definitions Among the Parts.

Four of these essentials are easily understood; however, the roles of the producer and technical broke new ground and extended the ideas Brooks began in The Surgical Team. The role of the producer is to establish the team, establish the schedule and continually acquire the resources needed to deliver the project. The role of the producer includes many of the classic project and program management activities, but also much of the outside communication and coordination activities. When small effort with a single team the roles of the producer and technical director can be held by the same person. As efforts become larger and more complex the roles are generally held by separate people. The role of the producer in the Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) is handled by the Release Train Engineer. The technical director focuses on the design and the technical components (inside focus). In SAFe this role is held by the System Architect.

Brooks leverages the metaphor of the Tower of Babel to focus on the need for communication and coordination. Projects, team and organizations need to take steps to ensure communication happens effectively. Techniques like meetings and project workbooks are merely tools to make sure information is available and organized. Once we have information organization provides a framework to ensure information is communicated effectively. Without communication any significant engineering effort will end up just like the Tower of Babel.

Are there other mechanisms for organization, communication and coordination that have worked for you? Please share and lets discuss!

Previous installments of the Re-read of The Mythical Man-Month

Introductions and The Tar Pit

The Mythical Man-Month (The Essay)

The Surgical Team

Aristocracy, Democracy and System Design

The Second-System Effect

Passing the Word