(Hello world! Welcome to the Sense & Respond corner of projectmanagement.com. This is the first of what we intend to be a series of articles focused on the rapidly changing world of product development and management. We hope to provide you with practical, tactical tools and tips you can use to make your teams and organizations even more successful. Like something we said? Disagreed? Want us to cover something specific? Let us know in the comments. Josh Seiden & Jeff Gothelf, authors Sense & Respond)
For years now, we’ve heard that software changes everything. But what does this mean? Is it just hype, or is there something behind that?
It’s not hype. Software is changing everything for two big reasons. First, it is a new material, and making things with software is unlike making the things we used to make. Software is not steel, rubber, bricks or paper. The process of making software is radically different from the process of making anything else, and we—especially those of us who work in project management—need to pay attention and adapt.
But the claim isn’t just that software is a different material. It’s that this material changes everything. But does it really?
Turns out, yes. Since Marc Andreessen made his famous claim that “Software Is Eating The World” in 2011, software has in fact gone on to eat the world. It has become the beating heart of every large company. Every industry and every service—from financial services to entertainment, from food production and distribution to utilities and transportation, from entertainment to law enforcement—just about every fundamental service that we consume is either managed, mediated, or delivered with software. Think about how this “digital transformation” has affected your work. You are not alone. The change has affected all of us, for better and for worse.
Sensing What The Future Will Bring
The biggest changes that software has brought is a result of the complexity of the software systems we build and the uncertainty that is complexity’s cousin.
Think about your most recent software project. One of the fundamental questions we face in project management is, “when will it be done?” This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer well when we’re working in software. Why? Well the simple answer is that most software projects involve building new things for the first time. We reveal new dimensions of the problem as we’re working on solving it. This makes software notoriously difficult to predict, because this complexity tends to shred even our best estimates.
A more frustrating answer is that software systems tend to be complex, and unlock new patterns of human behavior. Who would have predicted in 2010 when Instagram launched that it would lead to this:
Yes, poachers in Africa are using innocently-posted Instagram and Facebook pictures from nature lovers to track and kill rare rhinos. These are the kinds of second-order effects that are difficult to predict, but illustrate the real consequences we face when we work with software at scale. Stuff that we only dreamed of in sci-fi novels is here now.
Responding to Uncertainty & Complexity
What if we told you that predicting the future was easy? Hopefully, you’d laugh at how absurd a claim we were making. Except that to some degree, we’re being asked to predict the future every time we come in to work.
You may not face the same high-stakes challenges from poachers that the folks at Instagram do, but your stakeholders ask you to plan and deliver work to create value, or to make some change in the world. That means that they’re asking you and your colleagues to figure out what will work and then deliver it.
How do you do that? How do you predict the future? What process should you use? What does governance look like? (And of course: When will you be done? :-)
You start by recognizing that many of the tools we used to manage work in the past work less well in today’s context. Detailed work plans, careful specifications, exhaustive requirement lists—these tools have their place, but that place is rarely on a software team. More often, software teams are using methods that let them explore uncertainty, test assumptions, and move forward based on the information they gather.
Sense & Respond
Over the last few years, we’ve been speaking with PMI and the project management community about the changes in the world, and the new methods we’ve seen rise up in response. We’ve seen the rise of Agile, and the increasing importance it plays not only in software development, but in every part of management.
We’re excited to announce our partnership with PMI. In the next few months, you can look for articles, webinars, and starting in the fall, professional training opportunities that we’re developing for the PMI community. We’ll help you understand how Sense & Respond methods apply to your work—not just software development work, but every type of project and initiative you take on—and we’ll help you add these tools to your arsenal.