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Project Management

Innovation and Turmoil

How do you keep from going crazy while working on a new project?

Synopsis

  • All projects, from software development to a bathroom remodel, are moving targets. Some changes are hardly noticeable, but others can destroy the project or just be constantly frustrating. This article identifies frequent problems and how to meet the challenge.

The trainee’s great question

New technology; same problems and confusion. Nothing’s changed in 30 years (Note: systems are now called apps).

One of our computer trainees who was working on her first new system app said “Do all new systems have so many changes during development? I always feel so confused.” (Her training program was so much more orderly.)

My answer was “yes,” but I could not explain why that was true. In fact, for every new system that I designed, a time came during development when I wondered if things would ever come together.

This was a startling revelation.

Was this caused by sloppily used design tools and poor programming, or was it due to the nature of systems?

All news systems are inventions. Even if they are replacing existing systems, they still use new hardware, software, or programming techniques.

New systems must be much more productive, provide more information or do more work. Procedures will be changed to meet new user needs. All of this requires innovation.

Designing and implementing new systems should follow an orderly process. After all, we have many tools that help the systems analyst to design and manage projects.

You have to be an optimist to be innovative

Much of the terminology and job titles have changed since the article was first published. The concepts have not. e.g. “system = app,” and systems analyst = about 5 job titles now.

Also, writing is just a different kind of project with the same turmoil, except that it is more solitary.

Note: A checklist describing the nature of the beast and what to do is at the bottom of this article

Designing and implementing new systems should follow an orderly process. After all, we have many tools that help the systems analyst to design and manage projects.

Nature of Systems Work

Innovation means change. It also means creating something that did not exist before. It is up to the project leader to foresee as many of these changes as possible and plan for them.

Even with the best of planning, there will be some disorder and, at times, some confusion.

There are reasons for this:

  1. The world changes! Things that have nothing directly to do with the project change. The company may be purchased by another company, laws may change, management could change, etc. Of course, the chances of these things happening are somewhat remote but they are not under the control of the leader.
  2. The champion leaves! All projects need champions — a person in the user community that has a personal interest in seeing that it is successful. When this person is no longer connected with the project, the project suffers. Someone on the project team must carry on until a new champion can be found. Hopefully, the project has more than one champion on the user side.
  3. The users learn more. The number of changes to the original design will increase as the users become more knowledgeable. They will see things that they want to change slightly. They will also see many new things that can be done. The project leader must be very careful here. If a lot of new items are added to the project, the project may never be implemented.
  4. Large number of variables. As the project progresses, a person is introduced to a large number of new variables. First of all, you must learn the user’s jargon. Familiar words may have a whole new meaning. Databases may have hundreds of even thousands of fields. There are personal adjustments for both you and the users. You may be working with a lot of new people, both in the user community and on the project team. The environment itself may be new to you. It’s no wonder things are confusing.

What Can One Do?

This sounds terrible, but there are things that one can do to relieve stress and reduce confusion. This is true for analysts, project leaders and programmer trainees.

  1. Never, Never lose sight of the ultimate goal! Become obsessed. Make sure that everything that you do moves you one step closer to the goal. However, don’t be discouraged if something fails the first time. Just learn from it and try something else. After all, only the last test counts (the one that works and will be used).
  2. Do something! Produce tangible results as soon as possible, even if it is only one data flow diagram or one working web page. There is a time to stop talking and to start producing.
  3. Don’t try to be perfect. Once you have completed a task, show it to the users, and make the requested adjustments, then stop. Perfection is not necessary, assuming that you have already done an excellent job (shoddy work is never excusable).
  4. Write it down. Document. Keep a notebook of all of your ideas. Include notes from meetings, conversations with friends. Enter anything remotely applicable to the project. This is over and above any documentation that you would normally do.
  5. Visit users often. Go to their work-place. Keep them informed at every step in the project. You will both develop confidence as you become accustomed to each other. Be aware of the environment during these visits. It may change. Once, in a manufacturing operation, a conveyor line was installed between the operators and the spot where I planned to put the computers. It would have been both expensive and embarrassing to have made this discovery after the computers had been installed.
  6. Prototype where possible. Prototyping can help you to work through the logistics of a program or system. It works well even if the system is being built using another tool.
  7. Ask for help or advice. Ask an expert if there is one. If not, explain what you are doing to someone with a general background in the subject. Sometimes, you will find your own solutions by explaining your problem to someone else. This organizes your thoughts. However, make sure that you have tried some tangible solutions on your own first. Don’t become a pest.
  8. Always go home at night with a success. Set one or two intermediate goals daily that can be met if you exert some effort. You will feel better about yourself and your project after a series of small victories. It is surprising how much can be accomplished in a short period of time by using this method.
  9. Leave the project at work. If you take things home, they will hang over you like a cloud and you will feel guilty if you don’t work on it. That causes burnout. Besides, the subconscious mind can work on problems much better if you are thinking about something else. Frequently, the solution to a problem will be obvious the next day.
  10. Keep learning. Read technical web sites, even if only the advertisements. Learn the basics of topics outside of your area of expertise. Study things that are generally related to the user’s areas of interest. For example, if you work for an insurance company, study insurance, how it is created, marketed, financed, managed, etc. The knowledge may not be directly useful on the current project, but it will be useful sometime in the future. However, do this on your own time. Doing it at work can be another form of procrastination.

These are steps that an individual can personally take to reduce his/her own state of confusion and frustration. However, life becomes better for the project team as a whole as the project team learns more.

More knowledge of the user’s area and the technical side provides a firmer base to work from. Even though the outside environment is constantly changing, the broader knowledge base provides the needed stability.

The team will develop confidence as this base grows and the team will handle changes faster and easier.

Back to optimism

We hired the most pessimistic person that I have ever met. We were desperate. I told management “He is perfect to solve our problem, but never let him talk to people.”

The most bubbly person I knew went to lunch with him. When she came back, her expression was just the same as it was the day that her mother died!

Five reorgs later, they put him on the help desk. He was fired within two weeks.

Conclusion

Disorder and confusion accompany any new undertaking, be it a college research paper or development of a world-wide application. It is not your fault. Follow the steps outlined here and things will work out all right.

Condensed Summary

Nature of the Beast
The World Changes!
The Champion Leaves
Users Learn More
Large Number of Variables
Security Issues

What Can You Do
====> Never, Never lose sight of the ultimate goal!
====> Do something!
====> Don’t try to be perfect
====> Write it down
====> Visit users often, even if just in electronic form
====> Prototype where possible (involve hands on users asap)
====> Ask for help or advice
====> Always go home at night with a success
====> Leave the project at work
====> Keep learning

Author’s notes:
These tips apply today and for most new projects, not just IT. Last week, I bought two kitchen cabinets from IKEA. You put them together. About halfway through the first one, I felt just like my trainee. Fortunately, someone else had gone through the innovation part and I just needed to interpret the instructions.

The optimism part occurred after this article was published.

Published in Journal of Systems Management, December of 1987, http://myersww.com/turmoil.html

William “Bill” Myers, Analyzes all, Programmer, retired. If you learn anything new, find enjoyment, have a new thought, then I’m successful. Photo: 1st article

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