Shahzad Bhatti

July 28, 2009

Cut the scope and make your life easy

Filed under: Project Management — admin @ 10:45 am

I have been developing software for over twenty years and in every project you have to grapple with iron triangle of schedule/cost/functionality or sometime referred to as cost/quality/schedule or cost/resources/schedule. In my experience, curtailing the scope produces better results than adding more resources or extending deadline. In addition, slashing the scope also produces other side effects such as reducing the complexity of the software, easier learning curve for users, less training/support cost and better communication among team members.

You can reduce the scope by focusing on essential features using Pareto principle (80-20 rule) and companies like like Apple or 37Signals produce great products that are not only more useful but are much simpler to use. However, this is not easy as project manager or product owner have to say NO. Too often, I see project managers say YES to anything to please upper management and users. In the end, the team is overwhelmed and under stress. Also, a big pile of features where all features are of same importance (priority) is biggest reason for death-march projects.

Working with a small number of features reduces complexity such as essential complexity, cyclomatic complexity or accidental complexity because your codebase is smaller. Though, you still have to apply good software engineering principles such as domain driven design, unit testing, refactoring, etc, but maintenance becomes easier with smaller codebase. When you have a small codebase you have fewer bugs as they are no bugs for zero code. Fewer bugs means less support cost when some user complains of a bug or when system crashes in the middle of the night.

With a small set of features, the user interface becomes simpler, which in turn provides better usability to the users. Often, I have seen users get confuse when they have to work with a complex software that has a lot of features. This often is remedied by providing training or adding support that adds a lot more overhead to the projects. Again, better user interface does not come free automatically with a small set of features, but the usability problem becomes easier with fewer features.

Finally, small number of features and small code means your team size will remain small so communication among team members becomes easier. I like to work with team with size of 5 plus/minus 2, as number of communication links increase exponentially when you add more members. Also, with smaller teams that are colocated, you have better
Osmotic communication that Alistair Cockburn talks about. At Amazon, we have “2-Pizza” teams, i.e., teams are small enough to have team lunch with just two pizzas. Another factor when building teams is whether they are cross functional (vertical) or focus on single expertise such as systems, database, UI, etc. I prefer working with cross functional teams that focus on a single service or an application as communication and priorities within a single team is much easier to manage than between different teams.

In nutshell, reducing scope not only helps you deliver the software in time and delight your users but prepares you better to maintain and support the software. The complexity is number one killer for the software and results in buggy and bloated software. You should watch out when someone says “Wouldn’t it be cool if it did X?” kind of feature requests and often I see developers see this as a challenge or an opportunity to learn or apply new technology. However, each new feature takes a toll on your existing features, software maintenance and your team.

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