Sooner or later someone has to say “fuck it.”

By Stephen Silver — Open Clip Art Library, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=550611

I’ve known this for years. But like a lot of contradictions, I’ve noticed it, avoided it, carried on as if I haven’t seen it.

This is just the plain truth. How much a project is going to take and valuable it’s going to be, there’s a substantial degree to which these things just can’t be known.

Yes, the rational thing to do would be to look at other similar projects, preferably inside your organisation and see how they did.

This is what Daniel Kahneman calls “The Outside View.” What actually happened on similar project? How long did it take, how much did it cost? Did it return the value? Was it worth it?

Do you know what everybody says?

This time it will be different.

I’m writing this book. I’ve been writing a book of some description or other for about eight years. All of them have run into the sand, usually at the editing stage. The “outside view” of this book tells me that probably the same will happen to this one. But what do I see when I look at that outside view? I see something that I don’t want to see. I look away. What do I say?

This time it will be different.

And you know what? Maybe it will, maybe this time will be different. Maybe it will.

Argh. That’s not really what I wanted to write about today, although it’s related.

What I wanted to write about today was the kind of people who say “fuck it.”

We need those kinds of people. If we didn’t have those kinds of people, it seems doubtful that we’d ever go anywhere new or do anything new.

But there’s a problem with those kind of people. What makes it easiest to be the kind of person who says “fuck it,” is not caring whether the project that’s just been green lit succeeds or not.

Most people that I’ve seen who do this, manage to pull it off, by being comfortable with the project either failing or succeedig. If the project fails, they distance themselves from it, quietly but sadly point to other members of the team who’ve let them down. If the project succeeds they are in every meeting, they are giving the presentation explaining how well the project did, they are accepting awards on behalf of the team.

I used to really hate these people. I used to call them names. Sociopaths. That’s what I used to call them. But I think my thinking about this has changed.

Now I realise that this behaviour is just the flip side of being able to say “fuck it.” And if nobody said “fuck it.” In a risky business like software development, nothing would get done. So, maybe this behaviour is sociopathic, but we need somebody to be doing it.

This is what I was starting to think when I was writing about foam a couple of days ago. A project is a mix of ideas, ideals and realities. If it gets to far away from reality it will go pop. If it is too grounded in nothing but reality it will never get going.

In a project that’s too “airy” the people who kick of the project know very little about what can actually be done, and what will be valuable. In a project that’s too leaden and solid, there’s too much focus on what is known to be possible and what users are directly asking for. This is Henry Ford’s “faster horse” problem.

But there’s a lot of space between those two extremes.

Is there such a thing as a “controlled fuck-it”? Is that what a project is?

Originally published at https://www.mumbly.co.uk.