The Mythical Man-Month

Note: I’ll be using the male pronoun. Not because there are only men in the world. But because I really like the association between Man-Month and Mothman. For a long time, Iunnamed thought that the title was inspired by the urban legend of the Mothman. It probably isn’t. I still like it.

In a previous post I discussed the Bermuda Triangle of Project Management. Or the Iron Triangle as it is properly known. I promised to return to the mythical man-month later. Lets do that.

The following thoughts are not my own. They come from a classic essay by Frederick Brooks, written in 1975. And it appears to have been completely forgotten. Well. Not forgotten, it is a classic. But apparently no-one has learned anything from it.

Think back to the ideal world of project management. In that world everyone knows, that if we cut ressources, the project will be delayed. It follows logically, that if the project gets delayed, we should assign more ressources to it. That might be a good idea. It might be a horrible idea. And in some situations, the thought of getting an extra man-month should fill the project manager with the same terror as the mothman did to the good citizens of Point Pleasant back in 1966.

The basic idea is, that if the project runs late, it should get more ressources, in order to finish on time. The observation is, that the added man-months will actually delay the project even more. Why would that happen?

First of all, in most projects, men and months are not interchangeable. We all know that some of our colleagues are more productive that others. Maybe they just have other qualifications. Just because you are a great database engineer, does not mean that you are qualified to make the userinterface. And the man-month your project is assigned does not know the project. Some of the members of the project team will have to spend time training the new guy. In a really bad scenario, Brooks describes a situation where one member of the team have to use a month to train three new team members. The project might have been assigned three man-months. But the first month uses four man-months on training. Placing a net drain of one man-month on the ressources available to the project, compared to the initial situation. After one month, the project is even more delayed. And the project manager now has to explain to his boss why. A difficult question to answer when you have just been assigned more ressources.

Secondly, the tasks performed in a project are not interchangeable. They are usually sequential in nature. First we have to do this, then we have to test it.

Project managers often refers to people who believes that if you assign nine women to the task of carrying a pregnancy to terms – you will become a father next month.

So – what to do? There is no simple answer. The task of management is to pressure the project manager to perform. As a project manager, it is easy to come to the conclusion that they dont understand anything, and that their demands are unreasonable. But maybe, just maybe, you actually could do better.

When you have done better, you are still left with the task of explaining to your boss, that he is not going to be a father next month, just because you get more womanpower. Good luck.