Sunday, 22 November 2009 00:00

The Garage Syndrome: Everything Swells To Fit Its Defined Boundaries

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A garageWe have all noticed how there is never enough space, money or time. It escapes no one and nothing. If there are two weeks to do a task it will take two weeks, if there is a $10,000 budget it will take $10,000 to do whatever it was. It is human nature. The goal has been set, it must be acceptable, so we strive to meet it. I refer to it as the "Garage Syndrome"—junk swells to fill the space in the garage.

Think about a project schedule. A task is scheduled to take two weeks. What is the incentive for people to get it done in less time? When asked when a task will get done, workers assure you they will be done on time. Of course, targeting to be done on time, leaves no room for error and, hence, many tasks end up being late with few being done early to compensate.

Resources Include Pad To Meet Odd Requests

Here is the typical course of events:

  1. Joe gets ready to work on his task. He has two weeks to do it.
  2. Pamela, his boss, asks if he can slip in some other work she really needs to have done. Joe looks at his estimates and agrees to do the extra work. He thinks he has time to get it done.
  3. You, the project manager, ask Joe how it's going. He responds, all is well and he will be done on time. You walk away blissfully ignorant thinking he is working on your project.
  4. Joe runs into trouble on his boss's task; it takes a little longer than he thought.
  5. Joe reaffirms he is on schedule to complete your task...

There is no need to continue the scenario because you know where it is going. So what is the problem?

The problem is that Joe had more time than needed to do the project task. He thought he could fit in his boss's request. His boss knows he has extra time since she always gets her staff to fit in other tasks. The corporate culture works that way—Garage Syndrome. Had Joe only had enough time to do the project task, he would tell Pamela no.

This is no different from a garage filling up with junk. If you lived in downtown with no on-street parking your garage would have minimal junk since your car would have to be in it.

Management's Attempt To Control

People complain about managers that cut the budget and the timeline to produce some product, but everyone knows that the Garage Syndrome exists so they try to constrain the project to prohibit its growth. Why does this never work? Because Pamela is the one that cut the budget and Pamela is also the one to ask Joe to do the extra work. Management is only following half the formula. If they are trying to get the project back to what it really needs, they cannot expect there to be slack to handle more work.

Anytime I bring this up, I get huge push back, just like when I say people should not be multitasking. People decry they are great multitaskers and must do it since that is way in today's business functions. I think that is all bunk and is a direct result of people being unable prioritize and make hard decisions.

The theory's testing continues...

Urgency reigns. The burning request filled by a worker makes them a hero and gets them the kudos for be the firefighter and problem solver. However, the result is just no more problem of late deliverables somewhere else. Get the instant gratification and ignore the deferred setback. We need to stop firefighting and get back to prevention.

It Manifests in Scope Creep

By the way, the attitude does not stop here. It is pervasive in how we work.

Lately, I rebuilt my website. It used to be custom html and php and finally the maintenance was more than the benefit. I figured that tools like Drupal, Joomla, Wordpress, etc. had more features than I could ever have developed. I generated my requirements list, got through the evaluation and chose the tool that was the best fit. During implementation, though, I had to keep fighting back the urge to implement this feature or that. The fact that the other neat features existed were a huge temptation to implement just one more little thing and have just that much cooler a site.

It struck me, as I caught myself doing this, how on a recent project I had to fight the message bus team to keep them from implementing dozens of features that were outside the scope of the original design. I also remember how they thanked me twelve months later when they found out those features were incapable of doing the tasks they wanted.

Yes, even scope will swell to fill the holy grail of technology.

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