The Ladder Project


The Ladder Project

The company leadership had called a meeting to discuss the new project.

"You may have heard that our company has new direction — up", the head of business declared proudly. "Well embark a new project, the Ladder Project".

He adjusted his tie, and continued:

"Unfortunately the timeline on this one is tight. We'll have to split the work over two teams. Alice, your team will build the left half, and Bob's team will build the right half of the ladder."

He glanced at the two managers, as if to make sure they were paying attention.

"What about the rungs? Should we build those too?" Bob asked in a concerned tone.

The head of business thought for a moment, "Ah yes, I think we can split up the work 50-50, don't you think?"

Bob looked at Alice. "I think my team can take care of all the rungs, since they'll all be the same anyway."

The head of business nodded, "Sure, if you say so. The requirements are that the ladder should be 10 meters tall and made out of metal. Any questions? Perfect, I'll let you two agree on the details."

Bob and Alice were left to themselves, as he left the room.

"I think my team can take the left-half of the ladder, and your team can take the right-half and the rungs", Alice said. "My team has a lot of experience with left-half ladders. I think we can get it done in a week."

Bob seemed happy with their agreement. After all, this was not his first project together with Alice and a ladder seemed far from a challenging project. As they were walking down the hall, he said:

"Say, Alice, we probably won't need an RFC for such a simple project, do we?."

Alice stopped, "No, this is a simple ladder. I think RFC's are slow - those are for big and complex projects with lots of specifications."

The teams got to work and a week passed. Alice and Bob met again to discuss their progress.

"Hey, we've finished the left-half of the ladder. Here it is." Alice handed over her piece.

Bob looked at the half-ladder with a concerned look on his face.

"I don't think it's compatible with what my team came up with. Looks like you've spaced the rungs a bit too far apart."

He eyed at the sockets for the rungs and continued, "I think we should move them closer together."

"Oh, I see. Should we agree on an interface for the rungs?" Alice asked.

They sat down and wrote down how the rungs should be spaced. Happy with their common interface, the teams got back to work.

After a week, Bob visited Alice again. To his horror he saw that their half of the ladder would still not fit with the other half:

"Hey, we've got a problem. While the rungs are correctly spaced, you've started the rungs at the bottom, and we've started them a bit up from the ground. We can't connect the two halves."

"Bugger, you're right. We'll have to revise the interface", Alice said in a frustrated tone. "If only we had agreed on the interface for the rungs earlier."

"I know, but I wanted to avoid the whole RFC mess", Bob noted. "Last time was enough. Building a ladder should already be a solved problem anyway."

"It would have saved us an iteration though" Alice muttered.

They revised their interface document, making sure that the position of the first rung was noted down. When they parted, they were quite confident that they had accounted for all necessary parameters in their shared document.

The Ladder Project

They were wrong. During the weeks that followed, the teams wenth through several iterations, fixing their shortcomings in design and planning. They had managed to make a working prototype, but the head of business had not been pleased. He had noted that the rungs should all be equal length.

A few days later marketing had dropped by and noted that the prototype was heavy, and that they should be using aluminium like their competitors.

Finally, after working for a month, the teams gathered for a checkup:

"I think we have a working prototype now, we should call in the head of business", Bob said.

He and his team had been working tirelessly to get the ladder fit together. They were exhausted. All the small annoyances had snowballed into a big mess.

His team had decided to use a new technology for the right half of the ladder, and they had been struggling to get it to work. On top of that, Alice's team had insisted on making the distance between rungs adjustable. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but it had added a lot of complexity to the project.

They called in the head of business to their floor.

"Excellent work, I see you have a working prototype." He said, as he looked at the ladder.

"I'll arrange a meeting with the marketing department, and we'll see if we can get this thing in front of some customers."

"I think we should do some more internal testing before we show it to the customers", Alice noted.

"I agree, we should do some more testing", Bob accompanied.

"What do you mean? It looks like a ladder to me", the head of business asked, looking surprised.

"We'll have to get it into production soon, so we can't spend too much time on testing", he continued. "This shall do."

The company called in the press to see the new ladder. A demo had been prepared. They had tasked an intern from the third floor with climbing the ladder to the top, and then back down again. Both Bob's and Alices teams as well as the head of business were overseeing the demo.

But as the intern sat foot on the first rung of the ladder, it collapsed.

"What happened?" the head of business asked. "Why were the rungs not attached to the ladder?".

Alice and Bob looked at each other, and then at the head of business.

"We thought we could save some time by not attaching the rungs", Alice said in a defensive tone. "You never told us people were supposed to CLIMB the ladder.",

"I thought it was obvious", the head of business said. "We'll have to start over. What do you think went wrong in the process?"

Bob and Alice sat silent for a while, and then Alice spoke up:

"I think we should have agreed on the interface earlier. We could have avoided a lot of the problems we had."

"Yeah, we should have written an RFC", Bob chimed in.

"Furthermore, I think the work was split up the wrong way. We were too siloed", Alice muttered.

She thought for a moment, and then said, looking at her feet:

"I think we might have also over-engineered some aspects. But we thought the competitors did such lousy ladders, that we had to do better", she added hastily.

The head of business looked at the two managers, and then at the ladder.

"I might have been too ambitious with the project. We should have started with a smaller ladder. I think this has been a very valuable learning experience for all of us."

He patted the two managers on the back, and told them:

"This time, we'll get it right."

"We'll start with an RFC and build a small ladder. Once that's done, we can build a bigger ladder. We'll split the work the right way — Alice, your team will work on the top half, and Bob's team will build the bottom half of the ladder."