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Baking a cake

One might ask: “What does baking a cake have to do with project delivery?” Actually the process of baking a cake is a great analogy to help understand a common practice which often results in projects spinning out of control leaving both the team developing the project the project’s clients dissatisfied and disappointed.

A rough process for baking a cake follows:

The oven should be pre-heated. We set the oven to 350º F and while the oven is heating up we mix the various ingredients into batter and then pour the batter into cake tins. With the oven now heated, we insert the cake tins full of batter into the oven, and let them bake for around 35 minutes. After 35 minutes we’ll peek in the oven and see if the cake appears to be done. If so we’ll carefully open the oven and pull the cake out so that we can insert a toothpick or similar item into the center of the cake and then pull it out. We’ll look at the toothpick to see if there is any wet batter indicating the cake is not yet fully baked. If so we’ll push it back into the oven, close the door, and bake it for another 5 minutes before checking it again. This process will continue until the toothpick comes out dry and warm.

Baking a cake this way requires about 45 minutes.

But what if we’re hungry now. We don’t want to wait 45 minutes for a cake. Then what should we do?

How about doubling the temperature of the oven? Then we’ll get a cake in ½ the time, right?

You can probably see where this is going. If we double the temperature of the oven when we open it up at the 23 minute mark the cake will be burnt; or at least appear so from the outside. If we’re able to penetrate the burnt crust with a toothpick we’re likely to find the middle is still uncooked; raw batter. All we’ve successfully accomplished is to create a mess, not an edible cake.

Delivering a complex project is much the same. A team is able to work at a certain velocity  — ideally a pace that the team can work at sustainably for an indefinite period of time – and deliver quality results. Unfortunately teams are encouraged and compelled to try to achieve much higher levels of velocity than they are capable of achieving or sustaining. The result of such action is the same as when we change the temperature of the oven in an attempt to bake a cake more quickly than the natural baking process will allow: a mess.

While we can pretend otherwise the fact is that producing work of good quality takes time. Trying to vary time through increased pressure to build more features into a product faster has one long-term result. Burnt cake!

Are you guilty of turning up the temperature too high for your project?

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Vernon Stinebaker

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