Thermocline of Truth

Communication

The truth of what is going on with software projects can be difficult to determine at times. What developers know might be different than what the Project Manager knows, and that may be different than what the process owners know. It can be difficult for the truth to percolate up from the developer-level to the corporate management/leadership level. As we all know, it can be difficult for managers to deliver bad news so sometimes bad news is not shared with the people who need to know.

In this article by Bruce F. Webster, he does a really good job of explaining how this happens and why this can destroy a project.

A thermocline is a distinct temperature barrier between a surface layer of warmer water and the colder, deeper water underneath. It can exist in both lakes and oceans. A thermocline can prevent dissolved oxygen from getting to the lower layer and vital nutrients from getting to the upper layer.

In many large or even medium-sized IT projects, there exists a thermocline of truth, a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information regarding the project’s progress. Those below this level tend to know how well the project is actually going; those above it tend to have a more optimistic (if unrealistic) view.

Successful large-scale IT projects require active efforts to pierce the thermocline, to break it up, and to keep it from reforming. That, in turn, requires the honesty and courage at the lower levels of the project not just to tell the truth as to where things really stand, but to get up on the table and wave your arms until someone pays attention. It also requires the upper reaches of management to reward honesty, particularly when it involves bad news. That may sound obvious, but trust me — in many, many organizations that have IT departments, honesty is neither desired nor rewarded.

I know that first hand. I can think of one project — being developed by one firm (the one that retained me) for another company (the customer) — where I was in on a consulting basis as a chief architect. In the final planning meeting before submitting the bid to the customer, the project manager set forth an incredibly aggressive and unachievable schedule to be given to the customer. I objected forcefully in the meeting — after all, we didn’t even have an architecture yet, much less a design, yet the project manager already had a fixed completion date — and later that afternoon, I wrote up a memo listing thirteen (13) major risks I saw to the project. While some of the engineers on the project cheered the memo, management told me in so many words to shut up and architect.

However, less that two months later, I wrote a new memo — based on the old one — and pointed out that 12 of the 13 risks I had pointed out had actually come to pass. Shortly after that, the project manager had to go back to the customer with a new delivery schedule that was twice as long as the original one. A month or two after that, my role as an architect came to an end. I had a final lunch with the two head honchos in upper management, and to their credit, they asked for my final assessment. I told them that many of the bumps and potholes were just part of the software development process — but that they should never have given that blatantly unrealistic schedule to the customer. As I told them, “When you do something like that, in the end you look either dishonest or incompetent or both. And there’s no upside to that.”

You should read the entire article, as it is very interesting.

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