Technical Difficulties from on Top of the Mountain
2004-06-09
  The history of bad project management
People seem to think that software development is something particularly disorganized, and our ability to deliver late and over budget, something having to do with the unique independence of the software programmer. I think I've picked on the construction industry (as people building buildings often mismanage their projects just the same), but it turns out there are perfect examples of bad management way farther back, like hundreds of years. Like for instance, the building and subsequent sinking of the Roya Ship Vasa in 1625.

Commissioned by King Gustav Adolf II of Sweden, the Vasa was designed to be one of the premier warships of the 17th century. Unfortunately, the ship sank two hours after its initial launch in an 8-knot wind.
The building of this ship sounds just like a typical software project: the customer wanted the schedule shortened (so they were behind schedule before they laid the first timber), they build the underlying architecture (framework) for a 108-foot-long ship, but then the spec was changed to 135 feet, the project manager became sick and then tried to run the project remotely which led to department heads reporting sunshine reports instead of the facts, etc. Then there was the testing department:
A few months before launch, Admiral Flemming decided to test the stability of the ship by having thirty men run from one side of the ship to the other. After three such runs, the ship heeled so severely, it was in danger of actually tipping over. Strangely, Jacobsson (the boatbuilder) was neither invited to the test nor informed of the result. The captain decided that less ballast was needed, while the boatswain decided that it needed more.
The final report of the article?
The key issue was not the technology, or where the design went wrong. Instead, the leaders failed to shoulder their personal responsibility to the project, allowing poor decisions to be made and then doing nothing to fix mistakes. While the science of individual engineering fields has progressed a great deal, the dynamics of running projects and motivating a team have not. Human error and inadequacies can doom a project as easily today as they did in the 1620s.
A good read, as well as the Swedish Ship Vasa's Revival.

[more reading]
The Vasa Museum
The History of Royal Ship Vasa and Sweden from Erik XIV until the Thirty Year War.

From: Cornell University's Engineering Library: Engineering Successes and Failures.

 
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