Why planes crash and software projects fail

Among the great many Christmas presents I received this year was the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell. In it he argues that success is as much about where we’re from and what we do as who we are and that even the genius needs a helping hand. While this might explain a lack of any meteoric rise in my case there were a several pieces that really struck a chord with me in relation to the world of software development.

The first was his definition of the three qualities for meaningful work:

  • Autonomy
  • Complexity
  • Connection between effort and reward

You need an element of all three to render work meaningful and therefore satisfying, fulfilling and motivational. Remove or restrict any one and the equation becomes an imbalance. This reminded me of the central themes of Leading Geeks by Paul Glen, in terms of understanding what motivates and drives the “geek”. Too often in my experience the equation of meaningful work is at an imbalance within IT projects, but it has often not been clear to me which part of the equation is at fault.

Software projects, like air crashes it seems, are rarely the result of a single catastrophic error (like a wing falling off) but as a result of a series of individual failures (an average of 7 it appears) that themselves could easily be remedied, but when left and combine, impact to such an extent that a serious failure becomes inevitable. At the centre, most commonly are errors of “teamwork and communications”. Sounds like software development? It did to me.

In his almost eccentric style, Gladwell uses aviation safety as a vehicle to look at cultural imbalances both within a culture and across cultures that result in communication barriers that ultimately result in bad decision making. He explains how this was at the core of Korean Air’s appalling safety record in the 1990s (something he was at pains to explain has now been remedied!).

During the discourse Gladwell cites Hofstede’s Power Distance Index (PDI) that measures the extent to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. South Korea (60) has a much higher PDI than the USA (40) which was a significant contributor to the communication breakdown between the US flight controller and the cockpit and between members of the cockpit itself that led to the loss of Korean Air flight 801.

This made me reflect on the implications for software offshoring. If we compare the PDI for the UK and India for example we see a PDI of 35 and 77 respectively. This is a gap of 42 (meaning of life?), over twice the difference between the US and South Korea! Is it any wonder then, that studies like that from Accenture yield results such as 76% of the respondents identified that the difference in communication styles is often the reason for conflict in offshoring and outsourcing?

The solution for Korean Air was simple and effective and at the heart realised that it needed to take cultural heritage seriously and that cultural legacies are powerful, pervasive and persistent.

Clearly, by taking PDI seriously, there is immediately much we could do to improve the potential that offshoring offers above using it for simple “factory” style development tasks as is so often the case today. I am sure this is probably already the case in more forward thinking organisations and would be interested to hear about it.

However, what struck me more was when Gladwell explored the heritage of people from the southern highlands of Kentucky and described the ideas of KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) for under-resourced communities throughout the US. You can take the boy out of “Harlan”, but you can’t take “Harlan” out of the boy it suggests. The point being that culture is persistent across generations and this firmly puts the question of cultural imbalance much closer to home! If we look around our organisation, the cultural mix is massive. Furthermore, if we look at how projects are typically organised it is incredibly easy to see that there is potential for cultural imbalance to occur. The knock on effect is an imbalance in meaningful work which manifests in poor teamwork and communications and ultimately poor project success.

Fundamentally, I would suggest that project failures are due almost entirely to an accumulation of relatively simple and solvable human-based errors that are left uncheck. At the heart of this is poor teamwork and communications. This is not that we don’t communicate, we do, often too much, in ways that obfuscate the real meaning of their intent and with no regard for the social and ethnic culture of the team. This culture imbalance impacts on the qualities of meaningful work causing this too to become imbalanced and unequal.

In simple terms I would say :

Project success is a product of Teamwork & Communication

Teamwork & Communication is a product of Cultural Balance

Cultural Balance is a product of Meaningful Work