How “what if?” scenarios can halt a project

Let’s admit it; we’ve all worked on an OSS project that has gone into a period of extended stagnation because of a fear of the unknown. I call them “What if?” scenarios. They’re the scenarios where someone asks, “What if x happens?” and then the team gets side-tracked whilst finding an answer / resolution. The problem with “What if?” scenarios is that many of them will never happen, or will happen on such rare occasions that the impact will be negligible. They’re the opposite end of the Pareto Principle – they’re the 20% that take up the 80% of effort / budget / time. They need to be minimised and/or mitigated.

In some cases, the “what if?” questions comes from a lack of understanding about the situation, the product suite and / or the future solution. That’s completely understandable because we can never predict all of the eventualities of an OSS project at the outset. That’s the OctopOSS at work – you think you have all of the tentacles under control, but another one always comes and whacks you on the back of the head.

The best way to reduce the “what if?” questions from getting out of control is to give stakeholders a sandpit / MVP / rapid-prototype / PoC environment to interact with.

The benefit of the prototype environment is that it delivers something tangible, something that stakeholders far and wide can interact with and test assumptions, usefulness, usability, boundary cases, scalability, etc. Stakeholders get to understand the context of the product and get a better feeling for what the end solution is going to look like. That way, many of the speculative “what ifs?” are bypassed and you start getting into the more productive dialogue earlier. The alternative, the creation of a document or discussion, can devolve into an almost endless set of “what-if” scenarios and opinions, especially when there are large groups of (sometimes militant) stakeholders.

The more dangerous “what if?” questions come from the experts. They’re the ones who demonstrate their intellectual prowess by finding scenario after scenario that nobody else is considering. I have huge admiration for those who can uncover potential edge cases, race conditions, loopholes in code, etc. The challenge is that they can be extremely hard to document, test for and circumvent. They’re also often very difficult to quantify or prove a likelihood of occurrence, thus consuming significant resources.

Rather than divert resources to resolving all these “what if?” questions one-by-one, I try to seek a higher-order “safety-net” solution. This might be in the form of exception handling, try-catch blocks, fall-out analysis reports, etc. Or, it might mean assigning a watching brief on the problem and handling it only if it arises in future.

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