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The Mythical Mother Month
Balancing cheap, fast, and good
Cheap, fast, and good
People want an excellent product delivered quickly for a low price. But it often becomes a “you pick two” scenario.
If it’s good and fast, it won’t be cheap (i.e., luxury cars)
If it’s good and cheap, it won’t be fast (i.e., non-profit projects)
If it’s cheap and fast, it won’t be good (i.e., fast food)
Balancing the three-legged stool of resources (cheap), time (fast), and scope (good) is the foundation of project management.
Resources: The company cuts the budget, so you can’t hire more people
Time: The deadline moves forward, so you can’t push the launch date
Scope: You promise deliverables, so you can’t cut the scope
Under no circumstance are these equal. One or two are always more important than the third, so it’s best to negotiate the lesser point with stakeholders. What I’ve found: Adding resources rarely works (too difficult to get budget and ramp up new people), and time extensions are risky (can create a slippery slope of never delivering), so it’s best to cut scope (one fewer feature, a “good enough” quality, etc.)
The Mythical Mother Month
Clarence wants a baby. Clarence reasons that a baby requires nine months of effort, so rather than one woman spending nine months, he could have nine women spending one month. Since Clarence doesn’t want to wait nine months for his wife to give birth, he gathers eight other women into a room and tells them to “distribute the load.”
Instead of a baby, Clarence receives eight face-slaps and one divorce.
The Mythical Mother Month is my renaming of a software concept (the “Mythical Man-Month”), which states adding more labor to go faster doesn’t work because it’s challenging to partition complex projects. For instance, it’s easy to partition bricklaying. A wall-building project that requires one mason for one year could finish in one month with 12 masons. But a year-long software project with one engineer isn’t solvable in one month with 12 engineers.
Most creative work (scientific research, novel writing, childbirth) isn’t partitionable. Complex projects require heavy communication, which exponentially scales with each person added. Adding people to a complex project is likely to increase the time for getting it done.
Throwing bodies at a complex project makes it take longer. Cut scope instead.
I once wrote about chasing two rabbits, and the concept is worth repeating.
Warren Buffet famously asked a young person to list 25 things they wanted to achieve next year. He asked them to circle the top five. Those became List A, and the other 20 became List B. He told the person to only focus on List A and avoid List B next year. List B was the biggest threat to List A.
More than reduced resources or lost time, the biggest threat to success is increased scope. To focus on what matters, use Two Lists:
Write down everything you want to do (goals for next year, projects for this quarter, etc.)
Circle 3-5 of the most important or interesting
Label the circled items “Will Do.”
Mark the non-circled items “Won’t Do.”