70 Brownie in Motion

In the early days of a new project, its leaders are under pressure to accomplish two things: define what the project will deliver, and make visible progress quickly.

The urge to gain momentum leads many managers to equate population with progress. They begin staffing the team before it is really clear what the new members should be doing. Naturally enough, the new recruits are largely uncoordinated. The result of having too many people with too little direction is random activity, or movement in haphazard directions, rather like the movement of pollen grains in water so famously observed by Robert Brown.

The opposite of this pattern is a project that develops a clear and coherent vision of what is to be done, while the staff remains limited to the essential few. The envisioners isolate themselves until they have developed the project’s goals, its scope, its constraints, and a clear notion of the product to be delivered and what benefit that product shall bring to its intended audience or owners. This vision is complete—demonstrably complete—before additional team members are brought onto the project.

    “Send ’em to the movies. At least until a core group has planned out the structure of the project, and defined what newly hired staff ought to be doing.”
    —Steve Mellor

Two of your authors were involved in a long-term project at a major utility company to design and build its largest application system. The effort ultimately required several hundred man-years, but the basic concepts and high-level architecture were conceived by a team of only three people, over a period of three months. Similar cases abound: Today there are thousands of programmers around the world working on Linux, yet the vision for Linux came from only one person. The visioning of C++ was a one-man effort. On the other hand, a committee envisioned Ada.

Adding people to the project before the vision becomes clear is counterproductive. When too many people are trying to set the plans for the project, the result will be muddied and incoherent. Clear vision comes from an individual or a very small group, no matter how many people eventually form the team.