Five easy ways to fail?

Ok, so I just read Five easy ways to fail, which itself is just a quote from his article on Inc. Magazine. While I usually find Joel’s stuff intelligent, even when I do not agree with it, and I actually agree with much of the article, the piece quoted on his blog is one of the most mind-numbingly stupid statements I have ever heard outside of a political speech.

“Even though a bad team of developers tends to be the No. 1 cause of software project failures…”

I have never seen any statistics which support this statement. In 20+ years, I have never been part of a project (either as a member or as an observer) which would support this statement. I have been involved in projects where stellar teams overcame bad management, bad scheduling and many other common obstacles, but never have I seen a well-managed, well-thought-out project fail because the programmers just were not smart enough. I would challenge Joel to provide any evidence to support this.

Then again, I have never seen anyone stupid enough to have hired an entire team of stupid people, and then been stupid enough to keep them. If this is the case, you have a much more serious problem than dumb programmers.

Also, while it would be nice to have the luxury of hiring only exactly the developers who fit your profile, that is a luxury most of us do not have (see my previous post on hiring). The reality is that you are almost always going to have a distribution of talents on your team – you are going to have stars, you are going to have duds, and you are going to have everything in between. I am always guided by an article I read in Harvard Business Review many years ago, where the late Bill Walsh talked about building great teams. The basic idea was that in any team of ten people, you are typically going have 2 people who are so good, they are going to over-achieve no matter what you do. You will also likely have 2 people who will under-achieve no matter what. The six in the middle may under-achieve or over-achieve, depending upon how they are led. And the deciding factor as to whether you have a stellar team, or a failing team, depends upon how those six in the middle are guided/managed/coached/led.

To say that most projects fail because the team is not competent is not statistically supported, is overly general in the extreme, and smacks of the kind of statement bad managers make to cover the fact that they are bad managers.


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