Wednesday 6 January 2010

The hidden wisdom of Kevin McCloud

I was lucky enough to get a copy of the Grand Designs Handbook for Christmas - it's a compendium of building projects from the channel 4 show (the book, not Christmas). The first few chapters have a lot of lessons learned and good practices picked up from 9 seasons worth of experience with, well, variously successful building projects.

Reading some of the advice, there is a lot that can be applied directly to software projects. There is a section on 'how to behave with your team' which is aimed at helping people keep their building sites productive - but the advice translates well to technical projects. Here's a couple of my favorites along with my join-the-dots:

"Don't give verbal instructions on site unless they've been agreed with your consultants and they're backed up in writing. If you just issue verbal instructions, you risk confusion and possible extra costs."

This is a top one for me - especially in the agile world where many interpret 'agile' as 'make it up as you go along' and then end up disappointed. I think maximizing interaction between delivery team and customer team is a good thing especially when both sides recognise the boundary between clarification and change in in-flight work.

"Do take time to prepare detailed written briefs setting out all your requirements for all your consultants. A good brief is an essential part of the design process."

One of the simplest formulas the govern all project delivery (hardhat or mousepad) is that the quality of what you get out with never exceed the quality of what you put in - yet this seems to escape so many of us so often. What you invest in clear instruction and regular contact with developers is a key variable in how happy you'll be with the results.

"Do allow your experts the freedom to do their jobs. Stand back from the project and enjoy your role as client; making decisions and hanging around, generally being a good egg and imbuing the world with optimism and excitement."

I don't exactly advocate stakeholders 'standing back' from a project, and I don't think that's what Kevin means either. Don't micromanage your delivery team and, as a customer, be sure to perceive the difference between decisions you should make (and don't let the team wait for those) and decisions the team should make (and let them use their skills and experience to make them).

"Don't listen to other people outside the professional team. You'll only end up getting very confused."

External feedback and extra ideas are good, but remember that an engineer knows his business best and don't fall into the trap of listening to someone else simply because you like their answers better. I consider myself relatively smart but even I'll say all sorts of wacky things when I don't have any skin in the game...

There are a couple of other sections with close analogies to technical projects - how to be a perfect customer and how to put a good brief together - which I think are 2 other critical ingredients to any successful engineering project (construction or software) but they'll keep for another post.

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