Picture of the book cover

Commitment by Maassen, Matts and Geary

This week we begin the read of Commitment – Novel about Managing Project Risk by Olav Maassen, Chris Matts and Chris Geary (second edition 2016) The book is a graphic novel that generally uses a six panel page drawn in a black and white style, reminiscent of Frank Miller’s Sin City series (one of my favorites).  Interspersed among the graphics are text in the form of diary entries and blobs (blog entries) to fill in the back story and for exposition on the Agile and lean topics found in the book.  Commitment has seven chapters and an epilogue.  My intent is to re-read Commitment in five weeks, including a recap. 

Chapter One.  Commitment is a story of enlightenment and Chapter One provides the context for the novel.  Larry is the project manager and Susan ‘s boss.  Susan, the book’s protagonist, is the project admin/whip.  Larry is taking advantage of Susan because Susan feels an obligation to Larry, who has supported her when other project managers would not hire her after an earlier project cratered. 

I discussed Commitment with several colleagues this week.  One person had a problem with the trope that management is uniformly unenlightened and that a single team leader can become the Jedi Master that leads the project and organization into enlightenment. While might be a bit tired in 2016, if we accept the use of the trope as a tool to sharply highlight how different the concepts identified in this book are from many typical organizational practices, I do not find it distracting.  Susan, in her role as project admin/whip, passes on Larry’s edicts, does the analysis on project progress and writes all of the reports needed for management.  Larry believes in his own work/life balance while Susan is a first name basis with the night guard.  We all can recognize the project in Chapter One, it is a classic death march. Death marches typically burn out teams, and if they fail, which is a high probability, leave a string of wrecked or damaged careers in their wake.  But if they succeed, and every leader seems to feel they have the magic solution, the success can lead to an addiction to stress.  I had that problem once upon a time. The chapter culminates with the introduction of Lil, Susan’s sister, who pushed Susan to call for help.

Chapter Two. The Commitment follows the classic arc of an adventure story which Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth or The Hero’s Journey.  Chapter One described the ordinary world before change and adventure begins while Chapter Two is the call to adventure (also part of The Hero’s Journey). Larry gets fired and Susan must rescue the project to save her and the team’s jobs. In order to lead the team Susan’s fears including second thoughts and personal doubts as to whether she is up to the challenge need to be overcome. Susan resorts to classic Gantt charts and project schedules to find a way forward. Susan exhorts the team to work harder and smarter (I inferred smarter), even though they are already working at 110%.  Susan returns to scheduling and workload balancing only to find there is no obvious solution.  Lil introduces the concept of real options to Susan. A real option is the right, not the obligation or commitment, to undertake certain business initiatives or tasks. This would include developing, delivering or deferring a specific function or feature. The project’s requirements are being treated as commitments which lock the team into a development path that is death march. If the decisions and requirements are view as choices or options the can team can more easily negotiate a path to success based on the circumstances they discover as the software is being developed. After dinner with Lil, Susan returns to form and uses a schedule that works back from a delivery date (and probably a 100%+ resource utilization rate). If you are using the Hero’s Journey to map the action, this step represents the refusal of the call to action and sets up the “meeting the mentor” step in Chapter Three. 

The concept of real options leverages three attributes.  The first is that an option represents a choice.  If you can’t choose, then no option exists. The second is that an option has value.  The value of an option is a function of the amount of uncertainty (we will circle back to Hubbard and How To Measure Anything later in this series) we have whether to execute the option or not. As soon as certainty exists an option becomes a decision or commitment and so has no value as a potential choice.  Finally, options expire.  At some point, an option ceases to be available because time has passed or conditions have changed.  Here is a simple example, recently I drove from Philadelphia to Fairfax, VA to make a speech.  Getting to the venue was important.  I had two options for the last few miles of the trip.  Having options had value based on the vagaries of DC beltway traffic.  Having options had value because they helped ensure I would appear on time.  As I approached, Google Maps informed me that an accident had caused one option to be a bad idea, and then that option expired. 

The first two chapters in Commitment introduce the primary pallet of characters and provides a context for introducing change.  Chapter Three provides Susan with a mentor to help her on the adventure of introducing Real Options and potentially rescuing the project and her career.