Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Panic mode

If you carefully observe the current economic crisis, you'll recognize that some market participants are acting in panic mode. This comes to no surprise if you ever have read books like those by Jose Ortega y Gasset. Unfortunately, panic mode is never helpful because it leads to spontaneous activities that are not motivated by thorough and systematic planning. Instead, people tend to think they have to react quickly and often draw the wrong conclusions which worsens the situation instead of improving it. If you look at some current stock values such as Intel or Siemens the situation is somehow out of control. With other words: it could be a could idea to buy stocks now. Maybe, Douglas Adams was wright when he once mentioned that nothing can travel faster than light with one exception: bad news!

If you look at software development projects, you'll often find the same issues. As soon as deadlines are getting delayed or dropped, participants are increasingly starting to get nervous. After a while the whole organization is typically entering panic mode. There is a possible alternative flow which I call Lemmings mode. This is when people refuse to recognize they are facing some severe problems and continue the project without any countermeasures which denotes a typical human behavior.
As an alien you'll recognize panic mode in an existing project by encountering different indicators. For example, if meeting frequency is high, and architects and developers spend more time for meetings than for productive work, this might either be a clue for developer's hell or for a project in panic mode. The same holds for situations where the organization is constantly generating new or enforcing uncontrolled and unplanned activities (actionism) in a higher rate than they can be processed. If you interview people in such a project context, you'll receive inconsistent and contradicting statements, because there is no synchronization or coordination in place.

Although it is obvious that panic mode worsens the situation and even leads to conflicts among the persons involved, projects fall into this trap pretty often. I believe, this is caused by the psychological fact that all participants in such a project are caught in the trap. In these situations, I generally recommend to involve an external person who is not part of the problem (aka as project) and acts more as an external observer and mediator. In addition, this mediator needs a peer in the organization's senior management able to enforce all recommendations (if accepted), because otherwise all suggestions would be ignored. To be honest, architecture reviews or other forms of assessments work exactly that way.

A way to address problems very early in projects is to use an agile approach, especially to elaborate what risks exist and how to address them systematically. In contrast to common believe such risks are non constrained to architecture and technology but also extend to politics, partner and vendor relationships, organization, quality, development processes. Risks analysis is not just about recognizing the risks but also about strategies and tactics for addressing them.

By the way, this is exactly what currently happens in the economic crisis. Since market participants don't seem to be able to address the challenges themselves, politicians and central banks are forced to bring countermeasures in place. All the risks in the market have been subject to constant ignorance.

The later risks are detected, the more likely the project will enter panic mode. This is why I always recommend regular flash reviews of architecture, code, test strategy, development process (for example, at the end of an iteration). They represent means for detecting problems very early and for getting rid of them (for example, by refactoring).

To cite Douglas Adams: DON'T PANIC!


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