“Beware the man of one book” (in Latin, “homo unius libri”), a warning generally attributed to Thomas Aquinas and having a twofold meaning. In its original interpretation it was referring to the people mastering a single chosen discipline, however the meaning degenerated in expressing the limitations of people who master just one book, and thus having a limited toolset of perspectives, mental models or heuristics. This later meaning is better reflected in Abraham Maslow adage: “If the only tool you have is a hammer, you tend to see every problem as a nail”, as people tend to use the tools they are used to also in situations in which other tools are more appropriate.
It’s sometimes admirable people and even organizations’ stubbornness in using the same tools in totally different scenarios, expecting though the same results, as well in similar scenarios expecting different results. It’s true, Mathematics has proven that the same techniques can be used successfully in different areas, however a mathematician’s universe and models are idealistically fractionalized to a certain degree from reality, full of simplified patterns and never-ending approximations. In contrast, the universe of Software Development and Project Management has a texture of complex patterns with multiple levels of dependencies and constraints, constraints highly sensitive to the initial conditions.
Project Management has managed to successfully derive tools like methodologies, processes, procedures, best practices and guidelines to address the realities of projects, however their use in praxis seems to be quite challenging. Probably, the challenge resides in stubbornness of not adapting the tools to the difficulties and tasks met. Even if the same phases and multiple similarities seems to exist, the process of building a house or other tangible artefact is quite different than the approaches used in development and implementation of software.
Software projects have high variability and are often explorative in nature. The end-product looks totally different than the initial scaffold. The technologies used come with opportunities and limitations that are difficult to predict in the planning phase. What on paper seems to work often doesn’t work in praxis as the devil lies typically in details. The challenges and limitations vary between industries, businesses and even projects within the same organization.
Even if for each project type there’s a methodology more suitable than another, in the end project particularities might pull the choice in one direction or another. Business Intelligence projects for example can benefit from agile approaches as they enable to better manage and deliver value by adapting the requirements to business needs as the project progresses. An agile approach works almost always better than a waterfall process. In contrast, ERP implementations seldom benefit from agile methodologies given the complexity of the project which makes from planning a real challenge, however this depends also on an organization’s dynamicity.
Especially when an organization has good experience with a methodology there’s the tendency to use the same methodology across all the projects run within the organization. This results in chopping down a project to fit an ideal form, which might be fine as long the particularities of each project are adequately addressed. Even if one methodology is not appropriate for a given scenario it doesn’t mean it can’t be used for it, however in the final equation enter also the cost, time, effort, and the quality of the end-results.
In general, one can cope with complexity by leveraging a broader set of mental models, heuristics and set of tools, and this can be done only though experimentation, through training and exposing employees to new types of experiences, through openness, through adapting the tools to the challenges ahead.
® Originally published on sql-troubles