One of the most common phrases we hear in the modern business lexicon is “You can’t manage what you can’t measure.” This phrase was originally created by Tom DeMarco, one of the pioneers of the use of technology in businesses and a pioneer in project management. Based on the theories of one of his early books, “Controlling Software Projects: Management, Measurement, and Estimation,” hoards of budding project managers were trained to track every aspect of a project, down to minute details. Still today, there are entire organizations dedicated to training new project managers in this “measure first” mentality.

So I find it fascinating that Tom’s recanting of this philosophy hasn’t gotten much press. Here is what he said in a recent IEEE Computer Society article.

” . . . I’m wondering, was [my] advice correct at the time, is it still relevant and do I still believe that metrics are a must for any successful software development effort? My answers are no, no and no.”

He then proceeds to walk through a simple thought experiment:

– Project A will eventually cost about a million dollars and produce value of around $1.1 million.
– Project B will eventually cost about a million dollars and produce value of more that $50 million.

What is immediately apparent is that control is really important for Project A but almost not at all important for Project B. This leads us to the odd conclusion that strict control is something that matters a lot on relatively useless projects and much less on useful projects. It suggests that the more you focus on control, the more likely you’re working on a project that’s striving to deliver something of relatively minor value.”

This quote, of course, raises the question of why so many of our teams are working on projects of so little value.