The first law of holes

It is a good thing to follow the first law of holes; if you are in one, stop digging.”
Denis Healey
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Unfortunately it’s far too easy to find yourself in a hole on an OSS project. I have to admit that I’ve ended up in a few OSS holes myself. Even sadder, I have to admit that a few project teams I’ve been involved with have just wanted to keep on digging.

Interestingly, there have been three common themes when I look back on these projects:

  1. Too much thinking, talking, documenting… and not enough doing
  2. When a project is slipping, management ask for more and more status updates that take time away from doing
  3. Organisational change management has not been given enough forethought and the organisation isn’t structured in a way that it can adequately adapt to the OSS change

You will have noticed that each of these three items are self-perpetuating. The more that they’re holding the project back, the more attention will be focussed on it and hold the project back further.

So, to follow the first rule of holes, please put the shovel away. A different approach is required to halt the negative feedback loop/s.

The following suggested remedies will undoubtedly cause senior managers to shudder, but if nothing else, perhaps try them for a week or two and see whether the results are having a positive impact. If not, give something else a try, but don’t re-commence the digging!

For items 1 and 2, I’d recommend to disallow the implementers on your team from documenting and reporting. Instead get them to focus on “doing.” Building prototypes, setting up sand-pit environments, building interfaces, migrating data, etc. Ask them to start building things and collaborating on a trial and error approach rather than hypothesizing and ensuring perfection.

Item 3 is a tough one. When the organisation isn’t coping with the change that the OSS project is bringing about, then it invariably won’t catch up if you keep ploughing ahead with the implementation. Sometimes you just have to take resources away from the implementation and put time into setting up the organisation so that it will be able to accept the change. You may need to revisit your change management plan, such as the Kotter Eight Step Plan that’s mentioned here. Unfortunately the re-allocation of effort will probably delay the project, but you will have to try different alternatives than to just keep on digging!

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