Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Alternative Votes, Politics and Software Projects

Aside for my non-UK readers: On May 5th 2011, the UK is holding a referendum on switching our electoral voting system from 'First Past The Post' (voters select a single candidate and the one with the most votes wins) to 'Alternative Vote (AV)' (voters rank candidates in order of preference, multiple analysis rounds take place where the candidate with the least votes is eliminated and their votes are redistributed to the next preferences until one candidate has 50% of the vote).

Yes, this is a software blog and yes, this is a political posting. Have I gone mad? Well, not quite. On May 5th 2011 I will be voting YES to change the UK electoral voting system from First Past The Post to Alternative Vote (AV). I have felt for a long time that the current political system is fundamentally broken. Switching to AV is the first tiny step in what will hopefully become a gradual move to a better way of doing politics.

So why do I think this is the case, and what has it got to do with software? Read on to find out....

A Badly Run Project

Consider a badly run software project. Typically the project starts out full of hope. The business defines its requirements and a development team is established to build the solution. An Architect is appointed, technologies are selected and a high-level architecture is defined that will make delivering all the requirements a doddle. Development commences. After many months the project fails to deliver, moral among the development team is very low and the business is disillusioned with the project, the Architect and development team.

Why has this happened? I'm sure any engineer who has worked on such a project can produce a myriad of possible reasons! However, there are some broad areas that tend to be common across most of these failed projects:

Over Ambitious Requirements and Scope: At the start of the project the business defines a set of requirements that encompass everything they want to see done. They expect the new software project to be able to change the world and the developers don't give them any reason to doubt this is possible. As the project starts to struggle, the business is reluctant to let go of or revise these requirements so the development team is forced to press on even though they now know it will lead to failure.

Overly Complex Architecture and Poor Technology Choice: The project's Architect has some great new technologies and patterns they have read about and want to apply. The technical requirements for the project are defined in a way to justify needing these new approaches and an architecture is built around them. As the project develops it is found that some of the choices were not good but it's either too late to go back and undo them or the Architect is unwilling to admit that he/she got it wrong. Extra architecture is added to work round the limitations of the original choices and complexity grows. Productivity is significantly reduced and quality suffers.

Poor Day-to-Day Project Management The management team for the project fails to adequately manage the scope of the project. They allow features to creep in from the requirements that are not truly essential to the completed project. They allow technical debt to accumulate in order to deliver agreed upon feature sets on prematurely early fixed dates. They fail to manage the relationship between the developers and the business. Deadlines are missed, problems covered up and an air of mistrust develops between the project team and the business.

So what happens next? Well, the project fails to deliver and the business gets upset. The project is stopped and the senior people are removed (CTO, Architect, Programme Lead and so on). The business still needs the software so it looks for a new team to take over the project. The new team reviews what was done before and decides that the only way forward is to rip up most of what was done and start over. The project is full of hope. The business reviews the requirements and comes up with a new over ambitious set. The new Architect selects his set of preferred new technologies and patterns. The team are excited again and agree to deliver the new requirements on the new architecture. The project managers vow to not repeat the poor management of the old project. Every thing starts again and the same happens all over again. Sound familiar?

A Bad Political System

Now, let's take the above and replace 'business' with 'electorate', 'development team' and 'project management' with 'government' and 'Architect' with 'Prime Minister / President'. See where I'm coming from?

It's election time and the electorate have become disillusioned with the current politicians' ability to deliver. They create a whole lot of expectations of what the government should be doing (requirements). The various parties and candidates promise they have a set of policies (architecture) that can deliver these expectations. A new party (development team) with its great leader (Architect) is voted into power. They start by throwing out the policies of the previous government and putting their new approaches into place. They make sacrifices to the long term (technical debt) to allow demonstration that they can deliver. After a while they find their their policies are not making the changes that they had hoped, but it's too late to turn back. They push on, adding extra policies to cover up the failed short-termist ones that came before. Finally their failure to deliver becomes entrenched, the electorate becomes disillusioned, a new party is voted into power and the whole process starts over again. See the similarity?

A Well Run Project

Let's consider the alternative of a well run software project. Yes, they do exist!

In this project the business has a set of requirements that they want to achieve. A good working dialogue is established between the development team and the business. The requirements are discussed. The dev team identifies those requirements that will be difficult or complex to implement. They add their own input about additional (non-functional) requirements that will be needed plus work that will be required to ensure the long-term health of the project and avoid the build up of technical debt. The business and dev team then prioritise the work, ensuring that there is a good balance between delivering essential requirements early while also ensuring the long-term objectives are taken into account.

The Architect doesn't throw away everything that came before just to try something new. Instead he selects tried and tested solutions and the stuff that is working. In those areas where there are problems or specific challenges then new approaches are tried, perhaps using a new technology that seems to be the correct fit for the problem. Planning is more about long-term adaptation and evolution of the architecture through refactoring rather than sudden and seismic shifts in architectural approach.

Given this more evolutionary approach to the architecture, the business is more willing to commit to investing some percentage of development effort into the architecture and ensuring technical debt is not built up. At the same time the development team sees an ongoing commitment to the programme and is thus less likely to take short-termist decisions to meet immediate goals that they know will hurt them later.

Communication between the business, dev team and project management remains high, open and honest. When things go wrong (and they always will) then this can be brought into the open, discussed and priorities changed, without recrimination, to resolve the issue. If requirements change then a good dialogue is already present that allows a different direction to be taken with minimal upheaval.

This is a perfect example of a collaborative, agile project that is not stuck in a particular dogma of process, technology or mindset.

What About Politics?

So, if a well run software project can work in this way, why not government? My belief is that the current adversarial, party-political system is fundamentally in conflict with this collaborative approach. The fact is that that generally one party is in power. They are trying to deliver an over ambitious set of promises built around a particular philosophy quickly enough to ensure that immediate results are visible to ensure that they get elected again. This is identical to the model of our failing software project.

What I ultimately want to see is a model much closer to our well run project: one where there are no party politics. All politicians should be elected on their individual merit. They should then come together to form a government of collaboration. There is honesty and openness with the electorate over what can be achieved and when. Policies that are working are allowed to continue (as opposed to being abandoned because they are too left/right-wing). Those that are failing can be addressed with new approaches. Policies that will need a longer period of time to deliver results are allowed the time to do so. There should be continuity rather than fundamental flips in philosophy every ten years or so.

And the AV Referendum?

My true hope is that by voting for a switch to the AV system that we will end up with a series of coalition governments. This will start a process of continued government through collaboration. There should also be a level of continuity as, in the three party system we have in the UK, it will mean that one party always remains in joint power across elections. I would then hope that over time the UK electorate will grow to expect a collaborative coalition government and that this will foster the parties to work together rather than against each other. From a small seed of AV, hopefully a large (and fundamentally different) tree will grow.

We all want to live in a successful, well governed country don't we? I know that I certainly want to be on the well run software project.