This Month’s Pattern *

77 Piling On

Stakeholders profess support for a project but then keep adding bloat until the project founders.

“Piling on” in American football is a penalty called when defensive players leap onto an already downed ballcarrier. The weight of massive linemen landing on the ballcarrier’s back is intended to send him a message, just in case he might ever again have the temerity to carry the ball into their territory. It is justly called a foul.

Piling on in project work usually takes the form of adding marginal features to a product whose cost/benefit ratio hangs in the balance. While seeming to be constructive, the covert goal of such behavior is to add dead weight. This is a variation on what author Peter Keen calls “counter-implementation.” In his classic paper,* Keen offers the intriguing observation that those who would defeat a new project have no need to take the risky step of actually coming out against it. Rather, they can give it the ultimate vote of confidence by suggesting a few dozen additions and improvements that will “help the project achieve its extraordinary promise.”

    * Peter G.W. Keen, “Information Systems and Organizational Change,” Communications of the ACM, Vol. 24, No. 1 (January 1981), pp. 24–33.

Project teams that practice a lot of iteration are not immune to piling on, but they do have a natural and powerful defense against it: As they plan the sequence of iterations, they are obliged to assess features from the essential to the piled on and to allocate priorities accordingly. The early implementations have the essential features and the others are added to the tail end. When adding the next feature promises an incremental benefit that’s less than its incremental cost, the project may well be declared finished. Since all the meat has been delivered early, the impetus to keep the project going is negligible.

Counter-implementation in all of its forms (you really need to read Keen’s paper) is so common that if you don’t see it, you’re not looking hard enough.

* Each month we plan to publish here one of the patterns from our Jolt Award book, Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies — Understanding Patterns of Project Behavior. (Watch this space for a mere 86 months and you'll have read the whole thing.) The book is published by Dorset House Publishing, in the US and Hanser Verlag in Germany. It is available at Amazon and also as a Kindle book.


Brussels, Mastering the Requirements Process
21-Feb-2017 to 23-Feb-2017

James Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. Please contact I.T.Works

for details. 

Oslo, Mastering the Requirements Process
21-Feb-2017 to 23-Feb-2017

Suzanne Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. For more information on this popular course, contact Den Norske Dataforeningen.

London, Mastering the Requirements Process
14-Mar-2017 to 16-Mar-2017

The Spring edition of Mastering the Requirements Process with James Archer. Please contact IRM UK for details.

Brussels, Mastering Business Analysis
22-Mar-2017 to 23-Mar-2017

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London, Mastering Business Analysis
28-Mar-2017 to 29-Mar-2017

James Archer presents Mastering Business Analysis. Please contact IRM UK for details and registration.

Rome, Mastering the Requirements Process
3-Apr-2017 to 5-Apr-2017

Rome, Mastering Business Analysis
6-Apr-2017 to 7-Apr-2017

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Hilversum, Mastering Business Analysis
10-Apr-2017 to 11-Apr-2017

James Archer teaches the popular Mastering Business Analysis. Details from Adept Events in English or Dutch.

Stockholm, Mastering the Requirements Process
9-May-2017 to 11-May-2017

Brussels, Mastering the Requirements Process
13-Jun-2017 to 15-Jun-2017

James Robertson teaches Mastering the Requirements Process. Please contact I.T.Works for details. 

Hilversum, Mastering the Requirements Process
13-Jun-2017 to 15-Jun-2017

James Archer presents Mastering the Requirements Process for Adept Events. Details and registration: English - Dutch.

in depth

A Ruby Beam of Light, Book I of Tom DeMarco's Andronescu's Paradox saga is now available in English in paperback and ebook, from Double Dragon Publishing.

"This war isn't going to blow anything up, only turn everything off."

Suzanne and James Robertson's "Requirements: The Masterclass LiveLessons-Traditional, Agile, Outsourcing". 15+ Hours of Video Instruction. 

Als auf der Welt das Licht Ausging, the German edition of Tom DeMarco's science fiction epic, Andronescu's Paradox, has now been published by Hanser Verlag in Munich.  Translation by Andreas Brandhorst.

James Robertson’s webinar for Software Education explains how agile stories are best used to ensure the right solution. Writing the Right Agile Stories on YouTube. Download the webinar slides.