Mildred the Goose

Overview:  Agile processes are easy to grasp after you’ve been on a project that employs them. Until then, many have trouble understanding what an agile process or an agile project is all about.

Whereas traditional project management approaches can offer analogies to traditional,production-line manufacturing, agile processes often use analogies to complexity theory, a slippery subject in its own right. For instance, who can offer a twenty-five word description of “emergence” that doesn’t leave people gape-mouthed. This blog is one of the author’s attempts to create a wider body of home-spun analogies for agile processes for software development.

Overview: For as long as memory serves, geese and other migratory birds travel to warm climes when winter comes, and return to their homes in springtime. Employing many techniques recently modeled by complexity theory, such as self-organization and emergence, these geese have a record of success envied by the Boston Red Sox. What would happen, though, if Frederick Taylor got to a gaggle of geese and taught them a more prescriptive method of migrating? This blog briefly explores the results.

Mildred the Goose Learns Something New

For as long as memory serves, a gaggle of geese had migrated every winter from a certain place in northern Alberta to San Fillipe in Mexico. For the last several years, the gaggle had been led by Mildred. Relying on instinct, keen senses and tradition, the migration had never failed, although in recent years there had been more than the usual number of complications. Feeding along the last part of the journey had been disrupted by the divergence of the Colorado River.

Global warming had confused the geese. And new weather patterns made parts of their journey faster and other parts slower than usual.

In August, 2000, Mildred received a flyer from the Project Management Institute extolling the virtues of planning amid turbulent times. Mildred attended a seminar, followed by several in-depth courses, providing her with the ability to truly plan the next migration. Equipped with a new laptop PC and Microsoft Project, Mildred returned to the gaggle to make this year’s migration more predictable. Using the latest meteorological data, relying on memories of past migrations, and receiving the council of other geese, Mildred pulled together a detailed plan that the gaggle would follow this year. No more guess work! The gaggle would leave on November 2 and be in San Fillipe for Christmas Eve. All of the distances, nightly stops, and even assignments in the V had been planned.

On November 2, Mildred and the gaggle awoke to begin their migration. Mildred had been up all the night before, checking and double-checking the plan, ensuring that all the assignments were understood. A bit more tired than she had hoped, Mildred nevertheless took the lead position in the V, as planned, and led the gaggle South for the winter.

Mildred’s head of the V assignment was for 2.5 hours, with an assigned ground speed of 10.6 knots. Due to tiredness, Mildred was only able to achieve an average of 9.6 knots and had fagged out within less than 2 hours.

However, a plan is a plan, and Mildred continued at the lead for the full 2.5 hours at a rapidly declining speed. When Mildred gave over the head of the V to Nance, the average for her 2.5 hours was only 8 knots, and the ground covered was only 20 miles. This did not bode well, for their planned stop that night would now require more time. Complicating matters further, a nasty headwind picked up.

At 9:30, this exhausted gaggle of geese descended to a pond on farmer John’s ranch in northern Montana. Mildred was deeply concerned. Although they had made their destination by extending their day four hours, what did this portend for the remainder of the journey? Much as she didn’t want to acknowledge it, Mildred was going to have to stay up reworking the plan that night.

Nancy and George, Mildred’s current wingmates, sensed that something was wrong at farmer John’s. Their intuition told them that this wasn’t the same place as in previous years. They communicated this to Mildred. Already burdened with today’s shortcomings and the expectation of a long night, Mildred didn’t want to hear their instincts. She drove the gaggle on to the pond.

Oh, if only she had known that farmer John had turned the pond into farmer John’s hunt club!! Three of the gaggle were lost before the gaggle got below 100 feet. Huddled in the rushes, Mildred counted beaks and found that more than half had been lost or were too wounded to continue.

Mildred would have been at a loss but for her training in planning. She drew on her knowledge, pulled out the laptop, and began to prepare a change order which would lead to a modification of the gaggle’s pert chart.. Unfortunately, before Windows came up the rest of the geese had taken matters into their own hands and terminated Mildred’s future.

System development projects are more complex than Mildred’s migration. Mildred dealt with physical realities. We deal with logical, intangible concepts that are progressively detailed until computers are controlled by our programs. We are haunted by complexities in three dimensions:

  1. Requirements
  2. Technology
  3. People

Agile processes provide systems development projects with the same tools that geese rely on (before Mildred’s ill-fated venture) during migration. Frequent inspection of progress, self-organization and adaptation to what is found, emergence of progress based on the adaptations, and collaboration to determine the best course of action.

9 thoughts on “Mildred the Goose

  1. On a more serious note…. Having a plan is good (we do value the things on the right), but blindly following it can be fatal.

      • Plans surely do not remain perfectly enact (blindly following can be fatal, as the story illustrates), but “falls apart” as a usual consequence (in my experience) is overstating it, if one has clear expectations about the probability curve related to the items in the plan.

        For example, when I picked up my phone the plan was to check and researching one to messages (100% achieved). I had hoped that there was a specific message (it was not there) so the item I had assigned a 30-40% probability did not survive.

      • Plans surely do not remain perfectly enact (blindly following can be fatal, as the story illustrates), but “falls apart” as a usual consequence (in my experience) is overstating it, if one has clear expectations about the probability curve related to the items in the plan.

        For example, when I picked up my phone the plan was to check and researching one to messages (100% achieved). I had hoped that there was a specific message (it was not there) so the item I had assigned a 30-40% probability did not survive.

  2. “No plan survives first contact with the enemy” — nineteenth-century Prussian military commander Helmuth van Moltke

    Strategic intent not a plan – and then let the “doers”, i.e. the team(s) do iterative adaptive planning to meet the goals. It’s not rocket science, eh?

  3. Management could not resist to plan more, do more meetings and add more people due to anxiety.
    Management anxiety is right, due to pressure from stakeholders.
    Stakeholders’ pressure are right, they experienced delays and bad flights.
    And to feel better again, management will plan more, do more and add more.

    Modern day Mildred is not a single manager. A mish-mash of managers, product owners, tech leads, architects and alphas in ‘agile’ setup. Satisfaction has been defined as having planned more, created more evidence of activities and impressive large multi teams working simultaneously in the project. They proceed to complicate requirements for a system that produce mere piece of advice for customer.

    Gone are the likes of Nancy and George. Good luck if their intuition got past the first line of alphas.

    We praise when we hear these new words from Nancy and George; Tasks are Done.

  4. After Mildred’s tragic ending and the failure of the project, Global Migration PMO determined that their project management processes were outdated so fired the director and brought in a Radical Agilist named Bismark. Bismark quickly changed his management structure, replaced old birds, scrapped all the expert knowledge, eliminated the lessons learned data base, refused to read and expand the risk register, told the CFO Hank that time and budget were no longer relevant in the new world order. He appointed new young scrum masters to muster self organize teams of birds this fall. Bismark’s only rules for the teams were that they were to try not to freeze or starve in winter. How they solved this problem was up to them. Some birds stayed and tried to invent fire and domesticate animals, some birds headed further north. some headed east, some went west, a few even went south. Most were never seen again. Bismark refused to acknowledge the project failed and just explained the scope had changed and everything would be fine because we were Agile now, and projects don’t fail they just fade away.

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