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Project Management Chicken

October 4, 2021

It comes from the James Dean movie Rebel Without a Cause. Two cars driving toward the edge of a cliff. Last one to jump out “wins.” The game is called “chicken.” Just a brief sidebar, I never really considered the James Dean cliff scene as the origin of the game of Chicken. In fact, most versions I’ve seen involved two cars headed toward each other and the last one to swerve wins.

But, the Internet said it was James Dean, and honestly, that’s a WAY cooler origin story than I was imagining.

Alright so what does the game of chicken have to do with project management?

Quite a bit, actually.

Software project management is pretty simple. You have three variables

  1. Features
  2. Schedule
  3. Resources

As a project manager, you can change any two. Stake holders will insist that you deliver on all three.

The schedule says we must ship on September 1. That can’t change.

Well, we need to cut features.

No, that’s not acceptable. Every feature is critical.

Well, we need to hire a bunch more people then.

You can’t increase the budget. Just make do with that you have!

There’s an excellent book called “The Mythical Man Month.” It explains that at some point in the project, adding more people actually makes things worse not better. The logic is,

A woman can have a baby in 9 months. But, 9 women cannot have a baby in 1 month.

Software development is often measured in terms of how long it takes to create it. As project managers we get estimates on how much it costs to build each feature. In other words, how long to create each feature. The results are added up. Then a healthy dose of buffer space is added and the project manager puts it into a calendar.

Projects are projects because they have an end date. But, some projects take years to complete. A schedule never gets shorter. Not on its own. It’s a project manager’s job to keep the schedule on track. It’s often a near impossibility. And a large project will have multiple project managers. You might have someone over the database upgrades. Someone else is responsible for the user interface. Still another group handles the public facing APIs.

Everyone has a schedule and if everyone meets the schedule the project ships on time, on budget with the agreed upon features. But, that doesn’t happen. I might say “rarely” happens, but that would assume that it EVER happens. I’ve only been in project management for about 20 years, so it could be I just haven’t seen it yet.

So, everyone is late, but no one wants to admit they are late. That’s where the game of chicken comes in. Project managers hold weekly, sometimes daily, status meeting. No one wants to be the first to say they won’t make the schedule. So, everyone pretends that things are fine. Really, they are waiting for someone else to admit they can’t make their dates.

Eventually, someone blinks and says,

We are going to need another four weeks to put the print feature in.

Now, everyone can relax. They just an extra month and they didn’t have to take a hit for it.

In case you are interested, I’m a pretty good project manager. I don’t play chicken and work very hard to keep the teams I’m working with from playing chicken.

In the movie, James Dean’s character wins his game of chicken. But, for the wrong reason. Dean would have jumped first except he gets trapped in the car. He wanted to bail out early, but was unable to. He would have fit right in at a project management meeting.

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

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