Houses and the Harvard method

Do you know about the Harvard method?  I’m not talking citations or negotiation; I’m talking making lists. I was told it by a friend of mine and it’s the best thing ever. (That, obviously is a wild exaggeration. I can think of many things that are much better, including champagne, my daughter’s GCSE results, the smell of jasmine on a summer evening, etc etc, but in the breathlessly excited tone that is required for this sort of blogging, I will let the statement stand.)

Step 1: You take a piece of paper, preferably A4 or letter but it can be any size

Step 2: You divide it into three or four sections using a pen, pencil or other writing implement of your choice

Step 3: You write your list

The amazing and wonderful thing is that the process of thinking “which section shall I add this item to” causes you to sort the list items on the fly, and helps you to prioritise.

Because that point is, after all, the key struggle in project planning. How do you set your priorities? Do set priorities, you need to know what your goals are. And if you haven’t recognised your goals, then they change and flip around and mess up the priorities. I’ve been reading a book by Gavin Essler, “Lessons from the Top” (no, I am not going to cite that correctly in italic and publisher and blah, I’ll give you a link, isn’t that enough? And it’s not to amazon because of their behaviour on UK tax – correct but amoral.)

Sorry, got slightly distracted their. Essler quotes Alistair Campbell as saying that the key questions are: objective, strategy, tactics. And if you lose sight of the objective and get distracted by the cleverness of the tactics, you will fail. The tactics must always be subordinate to the strategy which must always be subordinate to the objective.

This is true for all projects.

An example of how it goes wrong (substituting stategy for objective) is to think that the point of the house conversion is to have a beautiful house. It’s not. It’s to have a happy family life. If you get stuck on the beautiful house bit, then you invest all your resources into the house, lose money, have enormous rows and go bankrupt, get divorced and everything goes phut. Having a nice place to live is a way of assisting the objective. And the method of converting the house to make it a nice place to live is merely a tactic.

So when you sit down in the morning or the evening with your piece of paper (or in our case a hardback book) and draw the lines on it, and start sorting the items in your list. Think clearly, think long-term. Some of it really doesn’t matter that much, but sometimes, short-term goals will hinder that final objective.

Feature development and house conversion

I’ve not been blogging for a while because we have bought a fixer-upper house which needed a fair amount of work. I can’t help but be struck by the horrifying similarities between house conversion and software development.

  1. The estimates are always too short: people calculate the work period, and even when they’re being generous, they forget to allow for being pulled off onto another more important (paying) job, set up costs, or the time spent searching for the library routine/thermostat which will do the job you want rather than all the others which nearly do the thing you want.
  2. The code/wiring/plumbing that you have to interface with is always spaghetti and it takes much longer than it should do.
  3. The code/drainage/etc that you have to interface with has not been documented and you will need to follow it through twisty strange paths and try and work out where the spurs go.
  4. Even if it used to be fine, old code/wiring/plumbing does not match with current building standards/operating systems and has to be re-done.
  5. Good programmers/builders etc cannot resist the temptation to do something well rather than well enough. This can take a long time.
  6. Ambitious heads of engineering/house owners will suddenly have a brilliant idea about how something could be done better and require the whole thing to be re-designed half way through. They may well be correct but it adds a great deal to the time and cost.
  7. It is disheartening to see no apparent progress.
  8. There is a struggle between designing a usable interface and a functional system. Sometimes the people who have to do the extra work to make something easy and pleasurable to use rather than the way they’d first thought of it can be resistant to extra work.

So, given the fact that all the engineers/builders involved are intelligent craftsmen, how can the process be less painful?

I decided to apply some of the principles of Agile project management to the building project.

In Agile management, there is this fantasy (and it is a fantasy in many cases) that you can work on a discrete feature and get it through design and test in a solid blast, close it off, and then go onto the next thing. There are various buzz words around it, such as the scrum, the daily stand-up meeting when everyone talks through how they’ve got on and what needs to be done.

It’s not a place for novices.