This is Sparta?!! – Since when did it become a norm not to achieve any result?

SpartaDuring one of my previous employments, a rumor came through the grapevine (you know how it is) that 300 people are going to be laid off next week. Putting aside what it did to the overall mood in the workplace, something bothered me about the number itself.

A moment later, I recalled when I heard this exact number recently, and it brought to my mind the movie “300” and the real story behind it. Because knowing the real story, I couldn’t brush off the parallels with what just happened.

In the movie we learn about the heroic stand of 300 Spartans versus the mighty Persian army in the Thermopylae Pass. After all of them die defending the Pass, we’re let to believe that their heroic death was not in vain, because it was the first step to the future victory of the Greeks at Plataea.

But in reality, this was not the case. The stand of 300 in the Thermopylae Pass didn’t achieve any practical purpose. It didn’t delay the Persians long enough to save Greece (which was burnt to the ground) and it didn’t inflict any casualties serious enough to cause the Persians to postpone their invasion (which proceeded as planned). In fact, the later victory at Plataea was not against the invading army, but against the much smaller occupying force left behind after successful invasion.

Nevertheless, the fact that the legend of 300 survives to our day, shows that appreciation of effort more than appreciation of results is deeply engrained in our culture.

Back to our own times and problems, the day has come and 300 people were let go. In some cases it erased whole departments from head to bottom. I’m absolutely sure that those people have worked diligently and tirelessly on their projects, projects that were scraped together with all the resources that went into them. Projects that were initiated by the company after supposedly complicated process of weighing all their possible risks and benefits.  Even though I completely understand the mechanisms that pushed the company to such drastic measures, it is still amazing how much effort we can put into something that does not bring any benefits.

The question here is: is this case an exception in the generally successful decision-making process or did it somehow became OK not to deliver anything in the end? Was this a local problem of a specific company, or maybe this is the general situation on the market?

With today’s crisis upon us, we can hardly afford investing in unsuccessful projects. The only way to get our act together is getting back to result-oriented thinking. And in order to do that we must free our decision-making process of logical fallacies and cultural bias. It is wrong to assume that one can get away with not producing real results by stating that the established process was followed to the end. In the end, by ignoring the future we’re reduced to desperate measures like cutting the flesh of the company, in a semi-religious hope that a sacrifice will help.

We’re not here to sacrifice anything, but to help our companies make money.

THIS IS NOT SPARTA!!!

9 thoughts on “This is Sparta?!! – Since when did it become a norm not to achieve any result?

  1. I agree with you.
    Except on one detail.
    I am not here to help a company make money, but to help my community find better ways to achieve results.
    I like to think that my community is the global community.

  2. Hi Fungus, always glad to see you 🙂
    I think there is no contradiction between the aforementioned goals – the main point is to achieve results in what you’re doing.

  3. There is no contradiction.
    … however … long term meaningful goals are relevant. I will not push for the extra yard to make my boss richer (or to entertain the Persian army at the Thermopylae Pass), but I will strain every nerve to build a healthier community, even if I have to stay behind at the Thermopylae.
    There is no contradiction, but there is a difference.
    😉

  4. Hi! This is Robert from Haifa. 🙂
    Some years ago I have read this book:
    http://books.google.co.il/books/about/Death_march.html?id=8MjZAAAAMAAJ&redir_esc=y

    It suggests that in the field of software development almost all the projects are planned in such a way that they are doomed to fail because of 3 main shortages: money, people or time. The main reason for such a situation is that a realistic planning would make the project unattractive in the eyes of clients or “big bosses”, so they will prefer a plan that will promise “more for less” even if it turns to be a disaster later. Therefore, any project a programmer is entering must be percepted by default as an “impossible project” which, though, has a chance to succeed by means of team exhaustion by overworking and various compromises on the product quality and time schedule.
    I am not a programmer myself. The field I have worked in for 4 years is Wastewater Treatment in Israel. I frequently encountered the same situation: people don’t like to be realistic at the stage of planning and commercial proposals. You have to promise “too much to too many” and then be very good at saving your face and making excuses.

    That’s why I left and became a Ph.D. student in Technion. 🙂

  5. Hi Robert, thrilled to have you here :-)!!

    I haven’t read this book, but if it proposes developers to start any project with anticipation of exhaustion by default, no wonder so many of them fail …

    Resources’ shortage is rather a consequence of misuse along the way or inadequate planning from the start. A professional project manager would apply relevant tools to plan it through phases with corresponding level of resources at each. The caveat, especially in IT projects, is that perceived value of outcomes and amount of efforts required is very subjective. Often in SW development “first to market” plays the major role in reasoning, which results in rushed decisions, “spaghetti code” and not the most efficient use of resources.

    I can definitely relate to point you have raised; to make a project attractive to sponsor is more of an art, than precise science. (One of the reasons why I have a separate rubric “Utilizing Data and Research in Mngmt”). Mature companies implement gradual approach to estimates and approval process; however even then, human factor plays a huge role in decision making, i.e. personal ambitions, wishful thinking, perceived value of expenses/outcomes, etc. My take is that no project should be called successful if none of the real benefits were achieved (even if the sunk cost is high). Till we learn to strip away our misconceptions, projects will continue to fail and resources to be wasted. At the time of crisis to be realistic is a “must have” feature.

    Academy is an “industry” on its own, with its budgets/grants, artifacts/articles, products/findings, etc. Technion is a wonderful place 🙂 and I’m wishing you good luck in this tough endeavour!

  6. @Robert:
    Ed Yourdon devised the Structured approach to software project management. The idea was that through a structured sequence of steps, the developers (managers, designers, programmers, testers and so on) could trace user requirements to product features and they could focus in using resources efficiently. That may have been the first time that software was treated as an engineering discipline.
    I have not read this specific book, but based on other works by Yourdon, I am sure that the thesis is that you can control some of the weaknesses you mention through Structured Analysis and Design. I agree. It is a good step in the right direction.
    (you may also want to check the CMMi DEV at “http://www.sei.cmu.edu/library/abstracts/reports/10tr033.cfm”)

    Fungus

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