September 24, 2010

Why company politics will cause your project to fail

How can one work in a company where nobody wants to be accountable for their comments, responses to questions or decisions? Recently I had an experience that I wish to serve as a warning to others that allow company politics to dictate how a project progresses.

There is a reason that you will hear software engineers the world over bitching about business analysts and design specifications. Because we know what happens when they don't happen adequately. I completely understand business analysts frustrations too, because that is one of my hats. The problem with specifications is that they need buy in from each of the stakeholders. But what should you do when the only people that have buy in are the ones approving your invoices? That can be an extremely frustrating process.

I wear many hats with this client: I'm a business analyst, requirements analyst, strategist, data architect, systems architect, software architect, team lead, coder and integration specialist. That wasn't by choice, nor was it what I signed up for, it just ended up working that way as it sometimes does. This setup does have some incredible advantages, but it can also bring incredible frustration that someone who wears only one of these hats will never see. Even though I wear all of these hats, I cannot design and build successful software for a client without the buy in of every one of the departments and staff I need information from. By buy in, I mean that this needs to be important to them. They need motivation to make sure that the information they're providing you is complete, accurate, well thought out and is in the best interests of the the parties they may be providing information on behalf of.

Having worked with one client for a while, I've grown familiar with their company politics and some members of their staff who are either unable to or unwilling to put pen to paper for fear that someone can categorically point their finger and say "you're to blame for this!" I can understand why, to be honest, I'd hate to think that someone was always looking to point the finger at me.

Usually I'm fairly flexible with my software design strategy, I can slack off in some areas and be more rigid in others. In some areas you can afford to be, in other areas you cannot. The design brief and interface specification are areas you cannot. Like most software developers, understanding a whole business process and reasons for it before I strategize on a design is non-negotiable. This time, like no other, I spent time with management discussing how things are done and how they want things to be done going forward. The biggest mistakes I made were ignoring politics and trusting that the information provided by management allowed me to draw the correct conclusion. What I'd failed to consider is that management who don't do the job day in day out "forget" things - important things that can and will completely derail the project at the design stage... and by "forget" I mean that it's in their political interest not to give you the information - whether it's a pissing contest with with another manager or being seen as relinquishment of power to an outside their kingdom.

I drew up mockups in photoshop to display the proposed interface design along with detailed process documentation. My request for feedback, was met with "that looks great, code it up". Being a small and fairly informal company, this has always been the way with the project since long before I came on board, and so I didn't want to rock the boat too much. They've always been against documentation in favour of results. I can deal with this in some areas on a small project, i.e. when bugs are reported to me, I may not write them up any further than brief notes to serve as a reminder of what the bug is. The design documents though, I don't skimp on. They include thought processes, things that need to be considered, thoughts on failure of certain strategies etc - something this company is keen to avoid at all costs. So this is something that I [with support of the manager I report to] have always been at odds with - It seems he'd given up arguing with the rest of the managers about it before I came on board. Anyway, I digress - it seems quite apparent that my designs and documentation weren't given more than a hurried glance to make it looked like they'd read it before the go ahead was given.

Let this be the warning: Just because you've drawn up the designs which were built on top of information provided by management and "signed off" by management, doesn't mean that what you have in your hand is completely or even partially correct. When management are giving direction for the design of software that they will not be using day in day out, consult those who will be using it. Do this as soon as you've written down and understood the information provided by management. If you don't, you risk (like I did) spending time writing a feature that cannot possibly be useful in the form you've developed it - even if it's exactly what management asked for and functions exactly the way they described it should.

My prediction is that this project is going to fail, miserably - how can I be sure? Because in my book, it already is. Not because of poor management of the project itself, nor because my predecessors or I haven't made every effort to follow best practices and adhere to and exceed industry standards. It's going to fail because internal politics make it impossible to implement any of the features in a manner that is useful to the users who require it to do their jobs effectively.

But who is to blame? The 'developer' of course [I use developer here loosely, it's really the business analyst that the client is pointing the finger at, though they don't know this - as far as they're concerned, the 'developer' is a catch all term for the vendor handling the project], not once has anyone put a pen to paper to say "I approve that this interpretation of the facts and processes are complete and accurate" and not once has anyone put pen to paper to say "I agree that this design is an effective solution to allow my staff to complete their jobs in the most efficent manner possible." So who is accountable? Well everyone avoided that responsibility because it's all about he said/she said. Even now, with the wheels falling off the project and even though I have gone over and above the call of duty to try and get these things rectified, there is still a refusal to change their practices.

Word of warning to the wise: You may not think that internal politics at a client have an effect on your design process, but if you don't want to be tied up in a project that's destined for failure from the outset, heed the warning signs. If politics amongst the management are dictated by the measurement of their dicks get out before it affects your work and makes you look bad.

Putting best practices aside for a moment there are undocumented and intangible things that are important for a project to succeed:

  • Stakeholder buy in. Everyone must be in the same boat working as a team towards one common goal. If any one/all of the stakeholders are not on board, don't believe in the project or are otherwise not happy with the project, they are a threat to the project.
  • Stakeholder priorities. Everyone must make the software development a top priority. It cannot be put aside as "I'm too busy to read this", "I'm too busy to write that", "I'm too busy to take part in this", "I didn't want any part of this". If they don't make it their first priority, they cannot complain when it doesn't take their views into account. If they don't make this a priority, they are a threat to the project.
  • Stakeholder accountability. If a stakeholder is not willing to be accountable for their decisions, accuracy of their input or completeness of their input then they are a threat to the project.

Lessons learned:

  • Never trust any information provided until you have proven that it's true. If that requires job shadowing, then so be it.
  • Political stakeholders are next to useless unless they're "at the coal face". Get process information those doing the appropriate job. Their manager or their manager's manager isn't good enough unless that manager also does that job. What makes the most sense to the users of the software, frequently isn't anything like what makes most sense to management.
  • It doesn't matter how much stakeholders attempt to avoid accountability, get a signature on a piece of paper that corroborates that your understanding is 100% complete and accurate before you start on strategy and designs. Do the same with your designs before you move to coding. If you don't, eventually the finger of blame will be pointed at you, no matter how unjust that finger pointing may be.

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