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Legal Business

Specifications Failure!

Here's a picture of the field from Sunday's Jaguars-Saints football game, from

Look at the directional arrows painted on the field next to the yard markers. Compare the arrow on the 10-yard line at the top of the picture with that at the bottom.

(They're supposed to point to the nearest end zone. The bottom set is wrong.)

This points out an interesting (apparent) paradox of project management:

  1. Specify that which can be misunderstood.
  2. Keep the specifications as simple as possible, or you'll spend way too much time writing and reading them.

I call it an apparent paradox because the second statement has an "out." Understand that things can slip through the cracks, but...

  1. Things slip through the cracks anyway. People make mistakes.
  2. The longer the specification, the more likely that something won't get read (or comprehended, or be self-contradictory, or...).
  3. The only way to prevent #2 - and to some extent #1 as well - is to have teams checking on teams,1 which generates massive overhead and inefficiency. That's a reasonable cost in, say, nuclear reactors or airplanes. It's an unreasonable cost in most projects.

The directional-marker mistake is not uncommon on projects, as much as we hate to admit it. Errors creep in that don't really affect the final work product but do offend our sense of fitness and quality. We wish these errors hadn't been made. We vow to do better next time. We do get smarter over time, over projects.

And next time, different errors will creep in. I hate them, but how much am I willing to overspend to avoid them?

No one ran the wrong way with the football.2

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1And then add the "quis custodiet" team to check the checkers. And so on....

2Even the Seahawks seem to know which direction the end zone is, even if they don't find it very often.