Saturday 26 March 2016

How Wargame Projects Go Wrong

Somewhere, on a shelf, I have a really interesting book that is not about wargaming, but in fact, about some aspect of my professional work. The book is ‘The Mythical Man Month’ by Fred Brooks. Brooks was the project manager for the development of the IBM 360 operating system in the 1960’s, and the book is the fruit of reflection on that experience.

There are a number of things that I could say about the tome. While we might expect it to be horrendously out of date, it is not. The problems remain, even if the technology has moved on. One point that Brooks makes is that adding extra people to a project that is already behind schedule does not speed it up, no matter what managers might expect. The time taken out of the existing worker’s effort to train and bring up to speed the new personnel means that, counter-intuitively, adding people to a running, if late, project, slows it down further. From my observation at work, this is still true today.

Another point Brooks makes is that there is no silver bullet. Here he is referring to the slaying of monsters in myth and fairy story. A monster has, to fair things up, a weakness. In the case of werewolves and the like, they could be slain by a bullet made of silver. A lot of time, both in research and development, is spent looking for the silver bullet that will solve the problems. Brooks’ argument is that there is no such thing, no big idea or techniques that will slay the monster in one go. Again, as I watch some senior managers jump onto the latest bandwagon that will sort out the problem in the organisation, I realise that Brooks knew what he was talking about.

So, in all this, where is the wargaming content?

We all have them, those good ideas that are now stowed away at the back of the cupboard, or hidden in the wargame cave. Those projects we were all excited about, that filled our dreams and imaginations with expectation, and caused us to switch every effort across to that project rather than the one which was ongoing. And, eventually, sooner or later, it just becomes too much, we get too frustrated, the new becomes old and we go chasing after the next bright shiny thing.

How do projects get delayed? This is another of the questions that Brooks asks and tries to answer. The expectation is that some spectacular event destroys the whole thing. The engines of our innovative spaceship will not provide enough power for lift-off. War breaks out so we cannot finish our nifty design for a transporter machine. Or something like that. Some spectacular event or failure means the project collapses.  

Brooks argues that this view is incorrect. Projects, in fact, get delayed one day at a time. There usually is no spectacular event, no awful oversight that means that a project collapses suddenly and definitively. There is a gradual chipping away at the project trajectory and its achievements until it is so late that it gets abandoned. So, for example, a key milestone gets delayed because the person delivering the final part is off sick. No problem, everyone things, it is nearly there and it will only be a day or two. The project schedule slips a bit, but it can be caught up easily when Bill is back.

Then, of course, it happens again. Perhaps Wilma is off on a course for a week, and so another bit gets delayed. Again, no problem, Wilma will be back and will sort it out, probably more quickly because she’s just learnt all this stuff to do things faster. But still, the project is delayed by a week and somehow the time never quite gets caught up.

As I have been painting my way through these tiny ships, I have noted, in microcosm, these problems. One weekend I had a cold, and did not feel up to painting. No problem, it is only a week. My schedule (a pretty feeble one, I admit) was to paint ten ships a week for fifteen weeks and then I would be finished. A week does not matter in the scheme of things. It is, after all, only finishing at the end of April rather than the middle.

But then as a result of the cold I had some breathing difficulties, being an asthmatic. Now I can paint in these circumstances, but the medicines make me a bit shaky, and so painting, especially small things, is a bit harder and so for another week I did not do any. And so it goes. The project was delayed, not spectacularly, not because I no longer want huge fleets of tiny boats, but one week at a time.

The problem then is that if we do not see some progress, we (or at least I) tend to give up. I decide that the project will never be finished, and raising a paintbrush will not achieve anything. So I stop. The toys are consigned to the back of the cupboard, and my executors will find a whole bunch of shiny toys that only express discouragement and frustration.

I wish I had a pearl or two of wisdom as to how to get out of this, but I do not. I can only recommend reading Brooks’ book and, if possible, leaving it around so that any passing manager can steal it. As far as wargaming projects go, I can only suggest setting small, achievable milestones, like painting ten small boats a week.

Tiny ship account: Finished & based 96; finished & not based 10; untouched by paint: 45.


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  2. I'm afraid the malaise of my project(s) begin at the first stage: the planning. I was really good at that sort of ting at work, but not so in my hobby. As a wargamer, I've never worried about timetables or deadlines because they're always elastic and time can be made up if it's that important. However, it's the sheer scale of the project that contains the seed of its downfall: my eyes are definitely bigger than my belly, and that's some achievement, I must say. I start off with a good heart and bash away for an uncertain amount of time and then the killer blow falls: distraction.
    I'm unbelieveably easily distracted - by anything really. It only takes a sentence in a book or a photo on the web and I'm away like a greyhound chasing yet another hypothetical hare. Common sense eventually prevails before toomuch damage is doneand I eventually return to the original project like a prodigal project manager, but then the sheer scale of what needs to be commpleted is often overwhelming. Despite a desire to actually finish the damn' thing, I lapse into a bout of apathy.
    Age and supposed wisdom hasve done nothing to counter this and, worse ofall, I know it will happen and can see it happening as it evolves.
    Anyway, got to dash, the 'bedroom man' has just arrived.:O(

    1. Oh yes, further complexity in a wargaming project is that they don't need to be done, nor is there a deadline of any significant sort. When we overbuy we run a real risk of apathy and dejection until the next shiny comes along....

      And I too can see this coming and know what is to happen, but still stumble down the road to a half (or less) completed project. Ho hum.

  3. A fine post, Polemarch, and one I can well relate to. My projects which stall are the ones I've tried to take on too much at once. As you mention, i think it is all about setting realistic goals - things I can see the end of, and try and work towards. Setting up a force for a game down the club, or for a show, works well. But some crazy dream game with hundreds of new figures in a new period works (for me, anyway) less well.

    But I always try and remember its a hobby. And hobbies are about dreams. Even if those dreams sometimes end up in the back of a cupboard, I always enjoy having them.

    1. I find that moving house is a bit of a nightmare, as the once shiny dream sin the back of the cupboard wave at me and grin, and the estimable Mrs P says something like 'Didn't you once have an army for that?'

      Of course, the answer to that is never to move house.

  4. Two separate thoughts. The first is that the Death by a Thousand Delays is the usual problem, I have occasionally seen/been part of catastrophic or at least dramatic failures due to outside factors or an unforeseen, unsolvable (at the time) problem.

    Hobby wise I have learned to avoid a project approach since the minute it becomes a chore necessary to an end I lose interest since it has become "work". The closest I come now is planning to run a particular event at a particular con and then I restrict myself to things that are almost ready at worst so that one short burst of enthusiasm or drudgery will suffice.

    For the rest I have set myself a number of areas of interest and then indulge my whims and do what I feel like at the time. In other words I set a milieu which allows me to enjoy the process whether painting or playing without worrying about an end goal. The enjoyable end is the goal. If a new gaming capability results then so much the better, if it doesn't then nothing was lost since enjoying the process was the goal.

    Doesn't work or appeal to everyone but it works for me, except perhaps that I periodically have to get rid of painted figures to make room for more.

    1. ps I forgot to mention timeframes. I regard a year as short term and am happy to spend a decade building something and have several that have seen periodic use and growth over near to 2 decades. Usually a longer term like that relies on small games or borrowing periodically to confirm and increase interest.

    2. I agree with all of that, but for many finding the right mileau is the problem (or problems). I mainly indulge in ancient and "renaissance" wargaming (scare quote obligatory as it has little to do with the renaissance) with a bit of medieval thrown in.

      But the siren voices of other periods keep calling, particularly as I have a habit of reading 'out of period'. 'Just a small 1745 project. It wouldn't take much. You've already got some highlanders...' I am sure that you know the sort of thing.

      I do think that having a core and adding to it from time to time is a good direction. the project then becomes to add this unit or units, not to do something entirely from scratch, and that is much more manageable.

  5. Interesting to read other's thoughts on this topic. I have many projects that have fallen by the wayside. Some remain packed in the attic providing shielding against radiation while others have sailed the eBay. Even after all these years I am still no clearer on why some projects succeed and others fail. Yes, there is the problem of distractions, both family life and shiny new wargames projects. However, despite these, some projects still succeed. I managed to paint around 8-9000 Wars of the Roses figures for the Towton project we did. I believe that the other players provided a support group in this instance, although that was mainly from me spending my time nagging them to get on with their painting, and the fixed deadline of Salute helped too. However, other projects pursued solo have also succeeded, although it did take a long time. I produce two full armies for the Battle of Helsingborg based on the Polemos:GNW rules. I had bought the figures some ten years or so earlier, meaning to use Koenig Krieg and they languished for ages. Then one day inspiration struck and I sat down and painted both sides, and made the terrain. No idea why I felt sufficiently enthused at that point, but the project succeeded despite a lack of deadlines or support groups. I wonder if it had something to do with the Polemos:GNW rules coming out and seeming appropriate to it. Other projects have followed very different trajectories. My ECW figures remain largely unpainted even after many years. Initial enthusiasm fell away and the project got packed away. Partly this was due to the scale of the project, and partly due to a lack of enthusiasm with the initially chosen rules after the initial buzz, I think.

    My gaming buddy and I do push each other to complete projects, but we are as likely to distract each other too. I've stopped reading wargames magazines which I found to be a huge source of distraction, but t'internet now provides distraction instead. Cutting down on reading gaming blogs and news sites does help though. In some respects, it is easier to understand why projects fall by the wayside than it is to understand why they succeed, or what sparks our interest enough to keep us focused on them.

    On a side note, I am currently painting 15mm sci-fi figures, some of which I bought from Tabletop Games in the 80s and never painted. I am at work in Ireland with these figures. The rest of my collection is at home in England. My goal is to complete all my 15mm sci-fi figures while I am working away from home, and being isolated from all my other figures really helps. Perhaps this is something I should consider for future projects: a wargamer's retreat to focus solely on the project until it is done. I once considered buying a Norwegian island and setting up a medievalists' retreat there. I could have provided a full board centre for medievalists needing to get away and focus on writing articles or books. The island was very cheap, especially by UK prices, and I might have tried something of that sort if I had the money behind me. I wonder if there is a market for wargamers' retreats in a similar vein: bring your figures and we shall provide the support network to ensure your project gets finished while you are here. Or maybe I just need to go into wargame rehab ...

    Actually, while I am wittering, have you seen the Tabletop Commanders paint and chat sessions on Google+? It's a communal Google hangout for people to paint figures while chatting, thus hopefully maintaining momentum and enthusiasm. I don't have the bandwidth here to do that, but it seems like an interesting way to approach keeping going.

    1. Ah, interesting, as support group. 'My name is X, and I have a huge pile of unpainted lead...'

      Actually, in my semi-professional life (I work in "Professional Support Services", but they treat us like children) the latest idea is called 'Shut Up and Write' where a part of a cafe is taken over for a morning, people turn up with their laptops and write for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break, and then another 25 minutes. I think free coffee is given out as well. Amazingly, it seems to work - writing with other people seems to channel energy into doing it yourself.

      Psychologically, it seems that if you look up and see other people typing away, you are more likely to return to writing yourself. Maybe it would work with painting as well. Personally, being someone who should be a member of the Diogenes club, it might not work for me, but it would be interesting top try.

      And maybe we should consider how projects succeed at all, not just the multiple ways they can fail although we have a lot more data on the latter!

    2. I've seen some of these 'Shut up and write' sessions mentioned on Twitter. It does seem like a good way to harness peer pressure for positive reasons, and I suppose the breaks give you a chance to bounce ideas off people before returning to the fray. The paint and chat seems to work in a similar way. The camera is focused on one person at a time who tells what they are working on, and the chat about it gives them encouragement to keep going.

      I suspect that even as a fully paid-up member of the Diogenes Club, this type of thing could be useful for enhancing productivity. One does not need to communicate with those around one for the peer pressure and perhaps also a sense of camaraderie to have its effect. Sometimes it is enough just not to be totally alone.

      It would be interesting to hear more about why projects succeed too. Focusing on that rather than the reasons for failure might help identify what is needed and enable us all to succeed more often.

    3. I do suspect that a good reason for some wargame projects to succeed is due to the 'Fred is relying on me' syndrome, which is absent in other scenarios. If you have to produce an army for a game, a campaign, a show demonstration or similar, then that does add motivation.

      As for solo projects or single armies, I think keeping the interest is probably important. As I've been painting seemingly endless triremes I have been reading about the Peleponnesian war and writing rules for the galleys so interest has been maintained, especially as I realised how important the sea war was.

      But this is not necessarily as easy with other projects. And being able to see how a wargame might go is important as well. I gave up on my Hundred Years War project because I couldn't see how the game would play out either practically or conceptually. Shame really.

    4. I think you have the seeds of a new blog post in the discussion of what makes projects succeed. It might even be more useful for project planning in the future.