Gravitation, Accretion and black holes

From Wikipedia: In general relativity, a black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape its pull. The black hole has a one-way surface, called the event horizon, into which objects can fall, but never emerge from. It is called "black" because it absorbs all the light that hits it, reflecting nothing, just like a perfect blackbody in thermodynamics. Quantum analysis of black holes shows them to possess a temperature and radiate like black bodies. Despite its invisible interior, a black hole can reveal its presence through interaction with other matter. A black hole can be inferred by tracking the movement of a group of stars that orbit a region in space which looks empty. Alternatively, one can see gas falling into a relatively small black hole, from a companion star. This gas spirals inward, heating up to very high temperature and emitting large amounts of radiation that can be detected from earthbound and earth-orbiting telescopes. Such observations have resulted in the general scientific consensus that, barring a breakdown in our understanding of nature, black holes do exist in our universe. This appears to me as being very similar to some IT projects I do see now and then. Indeed, the gravitational field of these projects is so strong that a lot of individuals get attracted to the project, mostly due to political agendas. There also appears to be an event horizon because people getting in there rarely see the light of day before soon (this usually amounts to several years). The main issue is that the mass of the beast is usually growing, that “companion stars” are sucked in and valuable resources are expended just to create high temperatures and radiations, but little tangible results (not to mention that they are not going to be frequent either). To further the metaphor, one can think of super massive black holes that do make a whole galaxy gravitate around them. One interesting feature of blackholes that also appears to apply here is that space-time also gets massively distorted when it comes to shipping dates and effort estimates. Also note that black holes do reflect nothing, a characteristic that is shared with several large projects where people do seem to have forgotten their brains at home. The one who do not have understood that the longer timeframe and the larger the headcount, the more impressive they do look in terms of “territory” and “army size”. This is really bad when we consider that studies from Larry Putnam and other metrics-gurus tell us for ages that when you go above a headcount of 7 in a project and that a project lasts more than 2 years (1 would be better), you are heading for trouble ! So, a large endeavor should be broken down in pieces that can be addressed by a team of 7 or less. Each team should collaborate with other teams to get things done. Obviously massive efforts will require advance collaboration techniques. Still, the majority of the blackholes that I do encounter are created by accretion of people for not clear reason. These massive monsters can and must be avoided.

What to do ?

Well, first of all, blackholes are usually massive things and you should first think about what your level is in the organization. Just whining will not cut it and only worsen the problem. Furthermore, if you are down the chain, it will just provide management with lame excuses for not achieving results. But if you are in a position of responsibility and if improving your way of working is one of your objectives (since it usually shows on the bottom line),  then it becomes a professional responsibility to do something to remove the blackhole. Not mentioning that doing nothing will result in bad karma, think about the consequences of letting this go:
  • good money is sucked in and never to be retrieved (and the burn rate is usually high), hurting the bottom line severely. In these times of crisis, this amounts to a cardinal sin
  • people who are otherwise motivated in other areas do see the blackhole and reduce their own efficiency, again hurting the bottom line
  • messages are becoming distorted when moving upon command chain and bad decisions are taken in return
  • a heavy politically-laden climate is developing, leading to people reducing productive work and starting to trash more and more
What is to be done is at lease to report the fact to upper management (at least twice). But no whining, just facts and consequences (monetary figures works best). The best way to have an improved situation is to have some kind of indicator able to detect blackholes. As a decision maker, do yourself a favor and add such an indicator to your dashboard, scorecard, KPI's or whatsoever. One of the best indicators will reflect on frequent, tangible, working results. Not reams of paper, not slideware. Ask to see a working prototype, test reports working on real case scenarios against the system delivered, the bug summary reports. Most of all, do not be in denial of problems. Of course, you may not have the time to do these things. But then you need to have them prepared for you and in an unbiased manner. If you are surrounded by "yes-men", this may prove difficult. Get some help there. Another thing to do is to avoid the tunnel effect. This means that the project entered a tunnel at one point and there is no visibility for a long time. Well, this cannot be tolerated anymore these days. Quality assurance (more of a mindset than a phase or a position) must occur and produce metrics and reporting that helps in identifying issues as soon as they do arise. Remember that a project gets 2 years late by a day at a time. Letting it slip is the issue, and reaching for a scapegoat at one point is not a decent approach. Would you drive you car without a dashboard ? If a project is not able to give you a view on quality assurance measurements from a neutral point of view, this is a symptom of dysfunction. Get help there. There are always antibodies in any organism to react to the medicine. Businesses are no different. To close on the issue, please remember that throwing more money at the problem in the hope it will go away will only make it worse. Do resist the temptation since it is well known that hope is not that good as a strategy. Using hope as a strategy is like buying lottery tickets and hoping for the win. It may happen but the probability is pretty weak. Any decent risk manager arouind the block will tell you so. So, if  you suspect you do have such beasts in town, I suggest you avoid digging yourself into a hole (which may end up being more brown than black at the end of day) and and take action to stop the radiations. Just sticking your head in the sand will expose the remaining rear parts to radiations, which may hurt in the long run.