Trust and Verify are the (IT) Elephants in the room


As a party involved in some aspect of software development, why do you think projects are so hard?  Millions of dollars in research work to solve this question, with the result being new models, agile approaches and standards, all intended to streamline software development.

What do you think is the core reason for project success or failure?  Is it the people, process, requirements, budgets, schedule, personalities, the creative process or some combination?

Sure, IT (information technology) is a relatively new industry, plagued by technology advances at the speed of light, industries of customers and users who don’t know what they want, budgets are preset, schedules are imposed, scope is elusive, and, ultimately computer scientists and customers still speak their own language.  Some people argue that it boils down to communication (especially poor communication).  After all, isn’t communication the root cause of all wars, disputes, divorces, broken negotiations, and failed software projects?

I disagree.

I believe that TRUST and VERIFY are THE TWO most important factors in software development

These two elements are the IT elements in the room (so to speak!) I could be wrong, but it seems like the commonly cited factors (including communication) are simply symptoms of the elephants in the room – and no one is willing to talk about them.  Instead, we bring in new methodologies, new tools intended to bring customers and suppliers together, new approaches, and new standards – and all of these skirt the major issues: TRUST and VERIFY.

Why are these so critical?

Trust is the difference between negotiation and partnership – trust implies confidence,  a willingness to believe in (an)other, the assurance that your position and interests are protected, and the rationale that when life changes, the other party will understand and work with you. A partnership means that there is an agreement to trust in a second party and to give trust in return.  Trust is essential in software development.

BUT… many a contract and agreement have gone wrong with blind trust, and that is why VERIFY is as important as trust. Verify means to use due diligence to make sure that the trust is grounded in fact by using knowledge, history, and past performance as the basis.  Verify grounds trust, yet allows it to grow.

President Ronald Reagan coined the phrase “Trust, but Verify” – but I believe it is better stated as “Trust and Verify” because the two reinforce each other.  This also suggests the saying:  “Fool me Once, Shame on You… Fool me Twice, Shame on Me.”

Proof that Trust and Verify are the Elephants in the Room

Software development has a history of dysfunctional behavior built on ignoring that Trust and Verify are key issues. It is easier for both the business (customers) and the engineers (suppliers) to pretend that they trust each other than address the issues once and for all.  To admit to a lack of trust is tantamount to declaring war and accusing your “partners” of espionage.  It simply is not done in the polite company of corporate boardrooms.  And so we do the following:

  • Fixed price budgets are set before requirements are even known because the business wants to lower their risk (and mistrust);
  • Software development companies “pad” their estimates with generous margins to decrease their risk that the business doesn’t know what they want (classic mistrust);
  • Deadlines are imposed by the business based on gut-feel or contrived “drop dead” dates to keep the suppliers on track;
  • Project scope is mistakenly expressed in terms of dollars or effort (lagging metrics) instead of objective sizing (leading metrics);
  • Statements like “IT would be so much easier if we didn’t have to deal with users” are common;
  • Games like doubling the project estimate because the business will chop it in half become standard;
  • Unrealistic project budgets and schedules are agreed to to keep the business;
  • Neither side is happy about all the project meetings (lies, more promises, and disappointment).

Is IT doomed?

Trust is a critical component of any successful relationship involving humans (one might argue that it is also critical when pets are involved) – but so too is being confident in that trust (verify).  Several promising approaches address trust issues head on, and provide project metrics along the way to ensure that the trust remains.

One such approach is Kanban (the subject of this week’s Lean Software and Systems Development conference LSSC12 in Boston, MA).

Kanban for software and systems development was formalized by David Anderson and has been distilled into a collaborative set of practices that allow the business and software developers to be transparent about software development work – every step of the way.  Project work is prioritized and pulled in to be worked on only as the volume and pace (velocity) of the pipeline can accommodate.  Rather than having the business demand that more work be done faster, cheaper and better than is humanly possible (classic mistrust that the suppliers are not working efficiently), in Kanban, the business works collaboratively with the developers to manage (and gauge) what is possible to do and the pipeline delivers more than anticipated.  Trust and verify in action.

Another promising approach is Scope Management (supported by a body of knowledge and a European based certification) – a collaborative approach whereby software development effort is done based on “unit pricing”.  Rather than entertaining firm, fixed price, lose-lose (!!!) contracts where the business wants minimum price/maximum value and the supplier need to curtail changes to deliver within the fixed price (and not lose their shirts), unit pricing actually splits a project into known components can are priced similarly to how home construction can be priced by square foot and landscaping priced by the number of trees.

In Scope Management (see www.qualityplustech.com and www.fisma.fi for more details or send me an email and I’ll send you articles), the business retains the right to make changes and keep the reins on the budget and project progress and the supplier gets paid for the work that the business directs to be done.  Project metrics and progress metrics are a key component in the delivery process.  Again TRUST and VERIFY are key components to this approach.

What do you think? 

Please comment and share your opinion – are TRUST and VERIFY the IT elephants in the rooms at your company?

P.s., Don’t forget to sign up for the SPICE Users Group 2012 conference in 2 weeks in Palma de Mallorca, Spain. See www.spiceconference.com for details!  I’m doing a 1/2 day SCOPE MANAGEMENT tutorial on Tuesday May 29, 2012.

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3 responses to “Trust and Verify are the (IT) Elephants in the room

  1. Carol,

    I’ve been reflecting on this article for a while.
    Root cause analysis is difficult as it’s all too easy to cite symptoms as the issue.
    I believe you have this correct. Trust needs needs effective communication and that requires a level of skill and experience on both sides. I see too many “customers” who do not step up to this.
    Verification needs effective inspection of the appropriate artifacts and measurements. I see too much focus on the input side and little if any on the output side, even something so simple as “count the shalls”.
    Regards Peter

    Like

    • Peter,

      Thank you for your comment. I agree that trust requires good communication between the parties involved and that’s hard work! It is easier to introduce new models and methods and create work arounds than to address the trust issues head on. Denial is a handy vice!

      Like

  2. Pingback: Estimating Before Requirements with Function Points and Other Metrics… Webinar Replay | Musings About Software Development

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