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“When Will This Software Project Ever Be Done?”

NoProjects imageDoes this question sound familiar? If you get asked it regularly then you may be part of the mainstream transformation from software projects to products. It’s coming and it's going to turn many roles, certifications and in some cases entire companies on their heads.


The last couple of software projects I worked on were large, multi-year endeavors to build in-house systems that add competitive advantage for the sponsoring business group. It did not take multiple years to build the initial product, instead after delivery the business wanted more functionality, more integration, more automation.

The “When will you be done?” issue

The success and reliance on the new system bred further investment. The fact that business sponsors wanted to continue development was a good endorsement for the value being delivered. Yet there was a conflict at the steering committee level and PMO level. “When are you people going to be finished?” was the common question.

Answers like “never” or “when the business unit stops innovating and enters a decay phase” are generally not acceptable. Things are made worse by the teams being staffed, in large part, by expensive contractors. To the CFO or VP who does not use or see the benefits the system delivers these successful in-house products seem like make-work exercises or country-clubs for development teams that have become all too familiar with the business units they are embedded in.

This is not a problem, this is the future

However, we are not witnessing a problem, we are witnessing the future. Software is becoming more critical to business and projects are ending (or will never end) as we take more of a product vs project view of software.

Software More Critical

I recently attended a keynote from Sue Gardner, she was the executive director for WikiPedia as it rapidly grew from 8 to 200 engineers. She explained how Silicon Valley is a leading indicator or canary-in-the-coal-mine for the future of many businesses. It has been at the forefront of a shift that is transforming many companies. The shift is the significance of software as a market disrupter. As she recounted: “Software is eating the world” and examples include:

  • Amazon disrupting book sales and now other retail
  • WikiPedia disrupting reference books
  • Uber disrupting taxis
  • Airbnb disrupting hotels

The common factor with these disrupters is a reliance on software for competitive advantage and the change is only going to speed up, not slow down. Software is becoming more critical to an organization’s success and software developers who were once regarded as support staff are now critical and core staff.  So, company’s need to figure out how to engage, hire, retain and focus these suddenly more central roles.

No More Projects

The hashtag #NoProjects is a shorthand title for a movement that thinks the construct of a project with a defined beginning, middle and end is harmful to software product development. Instead, proponents like Allan Kelly see software development as a continuous commitment to growing the business, believing it should not end and working for it to end is destructive.

Kellys states: “Software that is useful grows and evolves. That fact that the business wants changes and new features is a sign they actually value it. Stop it’s evolution and it stops being relevant, valuable and a market differentiator. “

However, attempts to manage executive’s expectations about ongoing expenditure and to “finish” projects, create real problems for the ongoing development and health of the system. With the companies I was involved at, our attempts to “draw a line under this release” or “change the project name for next year” worked at best once or twice, but inevitably ended up in a formal project closure and loss of key people.

This is a big topic that has many impacts and I plan on writing a number of articles on the topic. I have added a new blog Category “NoProjects” on my web site so you can quickly filter articles and find them.

Upcoming articles include:

  • Realizing you are part of the problem and deciding to help fix it – Having pushed hard for project closures myself despite knowing the business need continues, how do we create a better system? The NoProjects movement have some good initial ideas about portfolio tools for managing ongoing teams but they seem to lack sophistication and scaling guidelines. Many of these challenges have been solved in the service industry and I think I can help.
  • Helping organizations transition to NoProjects – Often when organizations realize their software development need will not go away they react by outsourcing it. Not wanting to be in the software development business long term they see it as the responsible decision. However, you likely only ever built a successful software product because of the close collaboration between your business group and the software team. Breaking this up and losing the intellectual capital developed is not smart. In addition, inserting new obstacles to communication (remote teams, new roles, new contracts) only hinders the process.
  • The role of a Project Manager in a NoProjects Future – First the term “Manager” came under attack for denoting top-down, command-and-control style of task assignment instead of the servant leader, facilitator role really needed for knowledge worker projects. Now we are doing away with the “Project” part too. What does the future look like for product leaders and facilitators?


Barry Hodge

A project by definition must have a definite start or finish otherwise it is not a project. I think you are right that maybe it is time we stop looking at software as a project and it is something that is continually developed and maintained.

Joe Harvey

I would love to read more on this topic, would you happen to have a book coming out on your experience regarding this?

Mike Griffiths

Hi Joe,

Ha, that would be a fun recap of my last two large projects! My next book is about "Beyond Agile" - using a number of approaches along with agile to help your project be more successful. It will cover some NoProjects elements, but that will not be the focus.

However, if you want to read much more about NoProjects, I have been reading a really good LeanPub book by Allan Kelly about it, you can find it here:

All the best

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