Somewhere, on a shelf, I have a really interesting book that is not about wargaming, but in fact, about some aspect of my professional work. The book is ‘The Mythical Man Month’ by Fred Brooks. Brooks was the project manager for the development of the IBM 360 operating system in the 1960’s, and the book is the fruit of reflection on that experience.
There are a number of things that I could say about the tome. While we might expect it to be horrendously out of date, it is not. The problems remain, even if the technology has moved on. One point that Brooks makes is that adding extra people to a project that is already behind schedule does not speed it up, no matter what managers might expect. The time taken out of the existing worker’s effort to train and bring up to speed the new personnel means that, counter-intuitively, adding people to a running, if late, project, slows it down further. From my observation at work, this is still true today.
Another point Brooks makes is that there is no silver bullet. Here he is referring to the slaying of monsters in myth and fairy story. A monster has, to fair things up, a weakness. In the case of werewolves and the like, they could be slain by a bullet made of silver. A lot of time, both in research and development, is spent looking for the silver bullet that will solve the problems. Brooks’ argument is that there is no such thing, no big idea or techniques that will slay the monster in one go. Again, as I watch some senior managers jump onto the latest bandwagon that will sort out the problem in the organisation, I realise that Brooks knew what he was talking about.
So, in all this, where is the wargaming content?
We all have them, those good ideas that are now stowed away at the back of the cupboard, or hidden in the wargame cave. Those projects we were all excited about, that filled our dreams and imaginations with expectation, and caused us to switch every effort across to that project rather than the one which was ongoing. And, eventually, sooner or later, it just becomes too much, we get too frustrated, the new becomes old and we go chasing after the next bright shiny thing.
How do projects get delayed? This is another of the questions that Brooks asks and tries to answer. The expectation is that some spectacular event destroys the whole thing. The engines of our innovative spaceship will not provide enough power for lift-off. War breaks out so we cannot finish our nifty design for a transporter machine. Or something like that. Some spectacular event or failure means the project collapses.
Brooks argues that this view is incorrect. Projects, in fact, get delayed one day at a time. There usually is no spectacular event, no awful oversight that means that a project collapses suddenly and definitively. There is a gradual chipping away at the project trajectory and its achievements until it is so late that it gets abandoned. So, for example, a key milestone gets delayed because the person delivering the final part is off sick. No problem, everyone things, it is nearly there and it will only be a day or two. The project schedule slips a bit, but it can be caught up easily when Bill is back.
Then, of course, it happens again. Perhaps Wilma is off on a course for a week, and so another bit gets delayed. Again, no problem, Wilma will be back and will sort it out, probably more quickly because she’s just learnt all this stuff to do things faster. But still, the project is delayed by a week and somehow the time never quite gets caught up.
As I have been painting my way through these tiny ships, I have noted, in microcosm, these problems. One weekend I had a cold, and did not feel up to painting. No problem, it is only a week. My schedule (a pretty feeble one, I admit) was to paint ten ships a week for fifteen weeks and then I would be finished. A week does not matter in the scheme of things. It is, after all, only finishing at the end of April rather than the middle.
But then as a result of the cold I had some breathing difficulties, being an asthmatic. Now I can paint in these circumstances, but the medicines make me a bit shaky, and so painting, especially small things, is a bit harder and so for another week I did not do any. And so it goes. The project was delayed, not spectacularly, not because I no longer want huge fleets of tiny boats, but one week at a time.
The problem then is that if we do not see some progress, we (or at least I) tend to give up. I decide that the project will never be finished, and raising a paintbrush will not achieve anything. So I stop. The toys are consigned to the back of the cupboard, and my executors will find a whole bunch of shiny toys that only express discouragement and frustration.
I wish I had a pearl or two of wisdom as to how to get out of this, but I do not. I can only recommend reading Brooks’ book and, if possible, leaving it around so that any passing manager can steal it. As far as wargaming projects go, I can only suggest setting small, achievable milestones, like painting ten small boats a week.
Tiny ship account: Finished & based 96; finished & not based 10; untouched by paint: 45.