Small Projects: Like Riding a Bicycle
Hans Mulder & Jim Johnson
In a follow-up to our Double Dog Dare post, we are comparing small projects to bicycle rides. Many projects are naturally small. In many parts of the world people commonly ride bicycles for transportation. In other parts of the world it takes a little more effort to encourage and make bicycles safe for transportation. For example, Holland has built special bike paths throughout the country. In the Netherlands there are laws to protect bicyclists. Children need to pass a traffic exam and are assessed when cycling in traffic. The result is that in Amsterdam and The Hague up to 70% of all journeys are made by riding a bike.
Bike rides are SAFE. Bikes are simple to learn how to use and operate. We teach young children to ride bicycles and they easily become skilled at riding them. Bikes are absorbent. Years after not riding a bike people can simply get on and ride down the road without the need to relearn. Bikes are fast. You just need to get on the bike and go. You can get from point A to point B faster than by walking or by sitting in traffic. Bikes are economical. Bikes cost a fraction of what it costs to buy and repair an automobile. You do not need to buy gas and insurance. Emissions are clean.
Small projects are SAFE. The most complex algorithms are made simpler because the focus is on solving the problem. Small projects are absorbent. Small projects are done by small teams, and therefore communication lines are much shorter. It is easier to build small projects with teams of skilled people who can absorb requirements quicker. Small projects are faster. Few and focused requirements take less time to build. Small projects are economical. Small projects take less labor and resources to build and implement.
The bike to small projects analogy is not perfect. If you want go from Boston to San Francisco riding a bike it will take much longer than driving, and it might cost more. Similarly, if you want to move a house full of furniture a bike is not a practical idea. But how many times do you need to move a house full of furniture? This is a rare occasion—and so is the need for large software projects.
That doesn’t mean you will never build large systems. On the contrary, you can build a large system incrementally with a series of SAFE, concise deliverables (small projects) versus the old-fashioned and traditional way of building large systems. You will find it faster, too, just like a bicycle can move through city traffic faster than a car or on foot.
In the Netherlands the need for bigger and faster bicycles took a similar incremental path. From the basic bicycle evolved the “bakfiets,” also called the “Cargobike,” based on need. A website of a manufacturer of Cargobikes says the following: “Families with two or more children quickly have a problem when they do the errands by bicycle in the city. Heavy bags on the handlebar, one child seated in front and another behind results in unsafe situations. The Cargobike offers a solution. A transport bicycle that's user friendly and ensures absolute cycling pleasure. The Cargobike has a low instep and the centre of gravity is close to the ground. The Cargobike is extremely manoeuvrable, convenient and light steering. The kids sit in a tough wooden box in front of the rider and are held securely with three-point harnesses.”
What started as a local need in Holland is now an export product to the USA (http://bakfiets.nl/eng/zie-in-actie/5/). The experience of an easy-to-use alternative for city transport, as well as the benefits of not having to pay for fuel, maintenance or parking, plus getting daily exercise, has convinced many Dutchmen and Dutchwomen to use the bike.
Over the last few years the need for a bigger and faster radius of a bike as well as the need for physical support of the elderly biker have led to a revival of a very old USA invention, namely the electric bike invented by Ogden Bolton Jr. in 1895. That creation was also improved incrementally two years later in 1897, when Hosea W. Libbey of Boston made an electric bicycle (U.S. Patent 596,272) that was propelled by a “double electric motor.” According to Wikipedia, this model was later re-invented and imitated in the late 1990s by Giant Lafree e-bikes.
So the history and application of bikes can tell us a lot about how small projects can grow into larger systems. From the basic bicycle, a local market like Holland created new infrastructure of roads and traffic lights for bikes, biking rules and education. This also led to a successful export product, because the infrastructure, education and laws were in place.
This precondition is also valid for companies that want to do many and smooth small projects. Small projects alone are not enough to be successful, however; they must also create value. This holds for the bike as well. For example, our Holland partner, Prof. Hans Mulder, likes to rides the bike to his office or the local university in the city of Delft. This saves him time and money, plus he gets valuable exercise to keep him healthy.
Developing a small project strategy can be difficult for many IT organizations and their partners. First, the budget process needs to be streamlined. Second, the requirements gathering process needs to change from inclusive to exclusive. Third, the organization needs to have a common infrastructure with enterprise architecture. And fourth and fifth, the organization needs a lean development process and a lightweight project compliance and governance policy, respectively. The Standish Group can help to move the organization in this direction with Our Value Portfolio Optimization and Management Service. However, once you learn our value optimization technique, it is like riding a bicycle—you’ll be able to hop right on and ride on your own.