Project Management on the Titanic

One good way to highlight how stupid “accepted wisdom” can be is to transpose the situation into a different setting and see how ridiculous it looks.  This week I’ve been imagining software project management being applied on the Titanic.  Because the project I’m working on hit a big fucking iceberg.

The basic situation is the company I work for has bought a big software package.  The vendor submitted a fixed price tender to supply, configure and install the software.  Fixed price contacts sound great in concept but anyone who’s dealt with them knows their shortcoming. 

Whether you’re building a house or installing software, there are always things you didn’t allow for.  You, the buyer, want these things when they come to light and the supplier says “Sure, you can have that but it’s a change to the contract which means I have to charge you more.”

One of three things happens now:

  1. You don’t get what you want so you’re dissatisfied with the end result
  2. You pay more so you’re dissatisfied with the final cost
  3. You have a big fight over whether or not this is a change and the relationship becomes really adversarial which is no fun for anybody

We seem to be stuck with outcome 3.  And as the Business Analyst I’m stuck in the middle of the business Project Manager and the vendor Project Manager.  I’ve been imagining the scenario playing out on the Titanic as follows:

ME: Iceberg, dead ahead!

Business PM: Quick, get us past the iceberg.

Vendor PM: There was no mention of icebergs in the contract.

BPM: So what? There’s an iceberg there now, we have to deal with it.

VPM: We can deal with the iceberg but we’ll have to charge you for a change request.

BPM: But the owners won’t agree to pay any more.  They wanted you to steer the ship for a fixed price.

VPM: But there were no icebergs in the original plan.  It’s going to take time to deal with it and we’ll have to charge you for it.  You’ll have to document what you want us to do.

BPM: I can’t believe you’ve never encountered icebergs in any of your other ships, what did you do in similar situations?

VPM: I talked to the owner and he was clear he wanted the ship to reach its destination as quickly as possible so we configured the navigation differently.  Don’t you have any existing processes for dealing with icebergs?

ME: Kind of.  People just do whatever’s required to deal with situations as the come up.  There are some guidelines like “don’t hit icebergs” but there’s no detailed instructions. That’s why we hired you, for your expertise.

VPM: We can come up with a solution but we’ll have to bill you for the time.

BPM: There are other cruise lines thinking of installing similar systems on their ships but they’re waiting to see how things turn out for us.  Isn’t it more important to your future to deliver a good result to us than to screw every possible dollar out of us here and now?

VPM: But I can’t keep ordering my engineers to do more and more work when we signed on for a fixed price.  I have no more money to pay them.

ME: Oh shit!  The iceberg just ripped a big hole in the hull.  We’re sinking.

BPM: You have to help us now or we’ll all sink together.

VPM: We have to agree on a change request first.

ME: You two go off and have a meeting then, leave me out of it.

BPM: What are you going to do?

ME: I’m going to throw myself into the icy water and hope I die quickly.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “Project Management on the Titanic

  1. shadowshian

    i dont know, should i feel sorry for you or suggest killing business and vendor project managers and hope nobody notices anything after you are finished with the project.

  2. Having been involved in that sort of debate from the contractor “hey, we didn’t sign on for this shit” side it’s a pain for everyone.

    Essentially, when your contractors start arguing the little details one of three things is happening:
    1 – They’ve almost run out of money, and this change is going to do serious damage to their profit margin.
    2 – They’re practically running late as it is, and don’t want to admit it.
    3 – They’re arseholes.

    It’s just occurred to me that there’s also the chance that they’ve got a really fat contract coming up and they just want to ditch yours at the first possible moment.

    Which gives you 2 understandable human reasons (no money, no time), and 2 arsehole-ish reasons. You decide which is most likely.

  3. counterfnord

    I feel your pain. But if you want to compare your predicament to naval history, take a look at the Vasa. This is more from the point of view of the vendor, but the story reads like the prototype for every single software development project I’ve seen in almost 15 years. That’s why I call whatever passes for testing “making the sailors run”.

  4. No problem, Mr. Angry. Just give the BPM and the VPM the waterproof, airtight contract to float on and you can hang off the side and make them promise to “Never give up” and pretty soon, you’ll be a big, blue frozen block of Mr. Angry who’s ready to be pushed off the contract and sink to the bottom of the ocean while the BPM and VPM swim off and blow the whistle on you.

    Hmmm….this sounds really familiar for some reason… ;)

  5. Neil

    I think having to navigate around an iceberg (or even a number of icebergs) while crossing an ocean does not adequately compare to the potential scope blowouts of software projects. More valid comparisons would be:
    - discovering that there was a misunderstanding about the location of the destination and that you actually have to cross several oceans rather than one ocean to get there (and in addition the destination is 1000 km inland).
    - discovering that the crew will refuse to work with you unless you steer the ship in exactly the same way that they always have (which involves using an elaborate system of ropes, pulleys, large rubber bands, and chants designed to invoke the assistance of obscure deities).
    - discovering that the whole concept of “floating” does not work like everyone imagined before the start of the project.

  6. Shadow: I think I might be thanked for burying their bodies somewhere

    E0157H7: Cool comic, thanks for the link

    Massif: most of the problem stems from issue 1. I’m hoping we can work out a compromise because I hate fighting over every little thing

    Counterfnord: I’ll look that one up!

    CinnKitty: right now that sounds good – someone should make a movie like that ;)

    Neil: I agree with you in general. In my specific case it’s just an iceberg. We’re in the right ocean but we’re in danger of sinking.

  7. trainmaster01

    In project management terms, it’s more likely the actual building and operation of the Titanic would be a better analogy.

    There’s the management thing:

    Shipyard PM: Yeah, we knew all along this steel is crappy. But that’s what you spec’d and that’s all we can afford. Whad’ya want? Better steel? Or stay in budget and get’er done on time?

    Design PM: Isn’t it a little late to want us to redesign the air-tight compartments with sealed lids. What makes you think water will ever flow from one to the next? This ship’ll be unsinkable.

    Construction foreman: Look, I’ve got that slipway free this Friday. I know it’s the 13th but come on, we gotta lay the keel someday or we’ll never get’er done on time.

    Launchmaster: Hell, everybody makes a mistake now and again. Hey, I’m sorry we rammed your boat when we launched the big T but we hadda get’er done on time. So sue me.

    Then, of course, there’s the actual operation:

    J. Bruce Ismay: It’s my daddy’s company (White Star) and I’ll run it my way. Now get back on the bridge and stop whining about a little cold water. This ship’s unsinkable.

    Boatswain: Don’t waste my time whining about the lifeboats. They’ll launch just fine without doing drills. Besides, this ship’s unsinkable.

    Masters and mates local shop steward: This whole wireless thing is ridiculous. Sure we can pull sounds out of the ether. But my guys need a full night’s sleep and I’m damned if you can force us to keep the radio room staffed all night.

    The name implies it all – SDLC – life cycle – cycle – we never learn our lessons the first time out. We have to keep reinventing the wheel and never getting it right.

  8. Shenpen

    I think “That’s why we hired you, for your expertise.” is bullshit.” The (ERP) industry is expanding, experienced VPM’s are rarea and managing 10 projects at one time and in reality most VPMing is done by 29 years old programmers like me. Heck I did it at 24, right out of the college. Had to, the VPM didn’t know anything more than me.

    Solution?

    There is always an invisible, moral contract behind, which says:

    “You can do whatever to me. You can put more work on my shoulders without moving the deadline, you can ask me to work on evenings and weekends, you can give me impossible and contradictory requirements.

    There is one thing you cannot do: not pay me for my work. I can be your bitch, I can be your psychiatrist, I can be your firefighter, but I won’t be your slave.”

    It’s a question of principles. Not even one hour can go unpaid because it creates a wrong precedent: it makes the customer think it’s not my time they are paying for.

    Tell them to accept the cost.

  9. You might be interested in an article that I wrote about Project Management of the Titanic.

  10. Pingback: The Sinking of the Titanic Project Management Lessons: On the 100th Anniversary Of Its Maiden Voyage :pduOTD – PDU Of The Day

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