The arrogance of Gantt charts

Gantt charts, popularized by Microsoft Project, are a mechanism for managing projects. The idea is that you list all the tasks required to complete a project. You then estimate how long each task will take. Once you figure out the dependencies between the tasks you the layout a plan from left to right connecting up all the dependent tasks. This allows for some parallelism between non dependent tasks. Given the project start date and all the durations you get the project end date.

As long as everyone sticks to the plan, then the project will be completed on time.

Simple, eh? Err – not so fast! The major flaw is that Gantt charts are task focused so when a new task is discovered the project is guaranteed to be late. The reason behind this is that developers are focused on delivery of the tasks they are assigned – not value to the client. Coupled with the truism that tasks will take as much time as they are given and you will be late.

The task-centric approach only hints at the real problem with Gantt charts: that better planning and task discovery up front would have resolved these issues. This is the most deplorable aspect: God-like wisdom can be achieved and would have fixed the problem.

Historically, software development has used the notion of “defined process control” where all aspects of the plan can be controlled, to a low-level and to a high-degree of accuracy. This does not work for most software projects because software development is not a simple undertaking- it is usually a complex process where small changes in the inputs can greatly affect the outcome.

Big, upfront planning that depends on infinite wisdom does not work and the only mechanism we have for complex problems is Empirical Process Control. This is the notion of frequent inspection and adaptation to a process.

Emperical control is _the_ key to Agile software. You’re not are Agile if you don’t have a regular process for improvement – you’re just hacking away.

Gantt charts have no place in an agile process; they are the tool of bluff used by the project manager that really doesn’t understand software development.

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6 thoughts on “The arrogance of Gantt charts

  1. pah! Forget just SCRUM. You wanna try the Iterative Agile Waterfall scrumming (but just for project managers) model! The company I consult for swears by them 😉

  2. Chris,

    IMO, the problem is beyond Gantt Chart, it’s the way software projects are perceived and treated in traditional Project Management, where all we have is patches and workarounds to make traditional, sequential Project Management to work for the constant changing nature of software projects.

    As for the “Inspect and Adapt” concept in Scrum, I suggest you also take a look this article, Kanban – The Next Agile Revolution, it’s a very good read (by Ketil Jensen).

    • I agree with what you’re saying. I argue that at the heart of it is the arrogance that a simple graph that has no real foundations can solve everyone’s problems.

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