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Volume 1, Issue 51;   December 19, 2001: Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?

Are You Changing Tactics or Moving the Goal Posts?

by

When we make a mid-course correction in a project, we're usually responding to a newly uncovered difficulty that requires a change in tactics. Sometimes, we can't resist the temptation to change the goals of the project at the same time. And that can be a big mistake.

When we change our minds about the goals of a project, delays often result. Changing goals can cause delays even when the changes narrow the scope of the project. Why do we make so many major changes so late in development? Two possible reasons are that some goal changes seem smaller than they really are, while other goal changes masquerade as changes in tactics.

Some goal changes seem smaller than they really are
Moving the goal postsImagine that you're an office tower developer, and that your 188-story building in Singapore has in place about 80 stories of steel, 60 stories of concrete floors, and 40 stories of glass skin. One thing that won't be on the agenda of a status review meeting is switching to a different steel alloy for floors 1 through 50.
No one would consider changing something so basic so late in the project. Yet, in product development in other industries, this sort of thing happens maddeningly often. When schedules slip and budgets overrun, our first instinct — too often — is to change the design.
Using computers for new product development is one source of this problem. Whether the product is software, integrated circuits, or even legislation, products developed with software tools don't exist physically until development is fairly advanced. When we're building a skyscraper, the physical form of the building itself helps us see the folly of many proposed changes, but products developed using software tools often lack physical form. Because of this "software effect" we feel free to move the goal posts.
Some goal changes masquerade as changes in tactics
When the workpiece
isn't physical, but is
instead represented in
software, it often
seems more malleable
than it really is
Proximity to the troubles of the status quo lets us see the necessity of a change, but it also distorts our view of it. People who propose changes are usually very familiar with the reasons for the change, and very likely to see clearly — or be affected by — the consequences of not making the change. To the proposer, the change is necessary and merely tactical, while everyone else can see clearly that it's a change in goal.
Every project goes through changes, and we must learn to limit them. Too often, my change is a needed correction, while your change is needless feature-mongering. When a debate about a change has taken this form, it's possible that both sides are right — there is a real need to change tactics, but the change proposed to address that need is more than tactical.

So if you're about to propose a change, ask yourself: Am I actually moving the goal posts — are my perceptions affected by the "software effect?" And if the change is tactical: "Is it only tactical, or is it a change of goal too?" Go to top Top  Next issue: Keep a Not-To-Do List  Next Issue

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