“This … predicts an enormous increase in cost and effort … when a project’s development duration is compressed substantially. It also shows that there are great savings to be gained if a project’s delivery schedule can be relaxed. I suggested a qualitative explanation for this in … the enormous increase in effort with very short schedules is due to the distribution of much of the work on the project into a wasteful activity I called ‘optional chaos.’ When projects have relaxed schedules, they don’t have much of this valueless overhead so a much higher percentage of their work goes into actually creating value in the product.” Phillip G. Armour, “Practical Application of Theoretical Estimation,” Communications of the ACM, June 2011, pg 28.
I love it, but I don’t think Phillip has quite captured the reason why this is — at least not in my experience. Phillip talks about “optional chaos” and I do agree that an aggressive schedule generates chaos and that it is indeed optional. It doesn’t have to happen, just as we don’t have to have an aggressive and undoable schedule.
More on good schedules: Its The Schedule Stupid
Instead, when we’ve taken organizations from late and buggy (low quality) projects to on time with good quality, the solution was almost always first a realistic schedule. The profound findings in these efforts were that projects were taking no longer to complete than previous projects of the same type that were late and buggy. How is that possible? We got the schedule right up front and didn’t need to slip out the schedule during the execution of the project. Starting with an aggressive schedule and then slipping it out is a classic approach to projects that generates what I believe Phillip is describing as “optional chaos.”
More on why slipping a schedule rarely works: In Project Management 9+3 Is Not 12
Does that mean when we finally choose a realistic schedule, the chaos goes away? Nope, not in my experience. Instead, the project is just as crazy with people running around often from perceived crisis to crisis. The difference is that when the chaotic smoke clears at the end of the project and we say it is finally ready to go, we are still on schedule.
The good news is that once we figure out how to do realistic schedules, then we are then in position to start to reduce the chaos. Much chaos comes from people believing that things will be just as bad as in the past or often because they don’t understand that problems are normal in a project. It is not the project problems, that are the problems. It is how we respond to them and plan for the risk of them that makes the difference.
Any good student of process and quality improvement recognizes that we can often quickly get rid of “low hanging fruit” problems (aka special variations) but that it takes time and structural and cultural changes to reduce the wide range of normal problems (aka normal variations) that we encounter. Making any kind of changes or improvements, however, is almost impossible when given a project schedule that doesn’t allow time to do the job right the first time, let alone do the job, deal with all issues, and improve how we do the job all at the same time.
Getting the schedule right is a good first step in ridding our projects of optional chaos. However, optional chaos will not automatically go away with a good schedule. Instead, our team’s ability to get better at what they do and reduce the chaos while doing the project and staying on schedule will noticeably improve.
Have you seen instances of optional chaos in any of your projects?