Against Managerial Time Travel

I just realized that two things that frequently bug me about software projects are really two sides of the same problem: managers who think they are living in a fantasy/science fiction novel. (I’m pretty sure it’s sci-fi, for reasons I’ll explain below.)

See the future!

Johanna Rothman’s recent post “But I Need to Know When the Project Will Be Done” is a great example of the first. A manager wants to know when a project will be done. It’s for a hazily defined feature set, one that will be changed by future feedback. Often, this is asked of teams with little history together, working with novel technologies, and with some staff still to come. But somehow they want a fixed date. It’s like they’re asking for this:

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Do they believe that developers are psychic, able to part the mists of time with the raw power of their minds? Could they think that the team, having already sold their souls for power over bits, can just ask their dark minions about the future? In other words, is it the stuff of fantasy?

Or is it that they think we nerds, among our other magic machines, have one that lets us travel through time? Is it a science fiction dream they’re living?

Change the past!

I think it has to be the latter, because of their desire to change the past. Because what else can you make of project post-mortems that seek to identify every mistake made, and every person who made it? Of bringing up again and again people’s past mistakes, without investing at all in preventing future problems. Of playing out endless “If only you had done X” scenarios. What other purpose could all their blame-seeking behavior serve? After all, it hurts morale, reduces innovation, and eventually drives your best workers out the door.

The most reasonable explanation for this is that they are just saving up issues for when they finally get their time machine, so they can go back and fix all those niggling things that went wrong the first time. Like so many time-travel mad scientists, their obsession with perfecting the past makes them heedless of the future consequences of their actions.

Flip it and reverse it

Of course, people doing this (which certainly includes me, sometimes) have it exactly backwards. What managers (and everybody, but especially managers) should practice is seeing the past and changing the future. And I think the best way to do that is focusing on the present: the people we work with, the systems that guide us, and our current realities. Our powerful imaginations may make the past seem mutable and the future fixed, but they aren’t. When we act as if it were otherwise, we live a fiction.

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