Posts Tagged‘design by committee’

Watching The Camel Being Designed.

If you’ve spent any amount of time in those team building workshops you’ve probably already heard the saying “The camel was the horse designed by committee“. This is even more true when working in government departments where the tendency for people to rise to their level of incompetence with almost clockwork consistency. I have spent all today in one such session (hence the late post) and I can say that without a doubt it was one of the most confusing and pointless exercises I’ve ever been through.

I can easily understand upper management’s vision of trying to make our section more sociable with each other. Its nice to have a work environment were everyone is friends with each other and sure there can be tangible benefits to the organisation in terms of productivity. What I don’t understand is the need to try and force this upon everyone, especially those who have a tendency to you know, not typically socialise that well (yes I’m stereotyping IT workers, but seriously, it’s true most of the time). It’s not that I hate everyone where I work, far from it. I find the majority of them very easy to get along with and I’ve yet to rub anyone the wrong way. Still they’re completely different people to me, most of them in their 30s with kids and have completely different interests to me. Sure there’s some common things but in the majority I’m sure they’re not particularly interested in hanging out with me after work. There’s nothing wrong with this either and if I bump into them while I’m out I’ll be sure to strike up a good conversation with them. But I’m not going to fool myself into thinking that everyone I work with is one of my friends.

And then came the camel designing. There had been a survey sent around some time ago (I think it was before my time) in which they looked for what they did well and what they didn’t. Of course this was an inherently bad idea since one thing that someone believes the organisation does well someone else will refute. So whilst there were some main themes that could be discerned it appeared for many things that we managed to do them both well and badly all at the same time. We started to drift into camel territory quickly when it came time to design some solutions to the problems people had alluded to in the surveys. The themes we had identified earlier were in no way solved by the solutions proposed. Instead there were several agenda pushers who obviously had some goal in mind and directed the group in such a way so that it appeared that the solutions would help, but in reality they did nothing to solve the underlying issues.

I gave up after my idea of having an open forum (to give everyone a voice, not just the senior management) took 10 minutes to explain and was still misinterpreted. I’m more than happy to watch them writhe in their own web of problems.

The problem with the whole process was that it was done with the illusion of giving everyone the opportunity to shape the future of the section, when in fact that power was robbed from them because of the process. The aggregation of results, which were then separated into 6 categories for analysis by each individual team, meant that the power shifted from the survey results to their interpreters. Couple this with the tyranny of majority and any power granted to the individual originally evaporates. They then took a vote from everyone to prioritize these objectives without considering that some of them were already in motion and others overlapped each other (I.E. one was to develop a section wide projects group and the other was to develop a projects pipeline. Realistically the latter should be part of the former). In essence I saw what people thought was a democratic process die a slow painful death right before my eyes.

I’ve never really been a fan of these junkets and this one was no exception. As a contractor who has little power over the direction of an organisation usually being forced to attend something where I had absolutely no power was a pointless waste of time and tax payer dollars. I’ll happily eat my words if they implement 50% of the things they mentioned and they provide some tangible benefit. My guess is that one or the other will happen, not both.

Sure you could also write this all off as me being bitter about having no power to control the direction of the agency I’m working for, and that’s a valid point. I’m not really a fan of going through a process to give me the illusion that I have some power when I know I don’t. The whole process could have easily omitted contractors such as myself who should really not be involved in such things. We’re meant to be hired to fill a temporary gap in skills or to spread the workload so that project work can be completed. In typical Australian government fashion were far from it, with us being treated like permanent employees with the only difference being that our pay comes from a different bucket of money (oh and less HR overheads).

The lack of control doesn’t really bother me. Being told I have influence when I know I don’t does give me the irrates though.

End of rant.

Space Shuttle: Reusable Craft by Committee.

If you’ve ever done any formal project management training (or spoken to someone who has) you’ll probably be familiar with the saying that the camel was a horse designed by a committee. There’s also this lovely picture that aptly describes what unfortunately happens with many projects:


You would then think that after many years of maturing the idea of project management that these jokes would end up sliding by the wayside, only serving as quaint reminders of project management of years past. Unfortunately this is no where near the case, and one of humanity’s greatest projects was doomed by the stereotypical problems that all project managers are trained to avoid.

The Space Shuttle was America’s grand idea to change the way space was accessed, being the first fully reusable craft. Up until the development of this craft all vehicles that reached space and returned could not be used again, as many of the components that made up the (like the ablative heat shields on Apollo) where beyond repair or replacing. Technically this isn’t a bad thing as it makes the craft cheaper and in most cases lighter allowing for more payload to be delivered to orbit. It does however mean that turn around for another launch means producing a completely new vehicle, along with all the testing that incurs. So, resigned to making access to space cheaper and faster America set out to design the first fully reusable launch vehicle.

Initial design of the shuttle went through several different revisions. Initially the craft was designed for smaller missions delivering a modest payload of around 9 tonnes. The reasoning behind this design was that although initial costs were high (in fact exceeding that of comparable non-reusable designs) the high launch rate that could be attained by the reusable craft would, in the long run, make up for it. Studies into the feasibility of reusing this craft showed that the number of launches required was far too high for the pay off to be achieved. In fact the combined launch requirements of the NASA and the Air Force were still not enough for this reusable system. It was therefore decided that all US launches (military, scientific or otherwise) would use this system, and this is when things started to get a little messy.

With so many different agencies now being told that this new reusable system was to be used for their space programs the capabilities of the shuttle had to change dramatically. No longer was the shuttle a ferry craft it also had to become a space transport vehicle as well. What this lead to was an increase in payload to around 25 tons which could accommodate the largest military and commercial satellites. This amounts to is that any satellite that needed to be launched also had a 65 ton orbiting vehicle tagging along with it in essence eliminating that mass as usable payload. This wasn’t the only issue with the design as some estimates required over 50 launches per year for the design to be feasible. Unfortunately this was simply not possible as due to the high payload capacity, and hence large fuel tank requirement, the non-reusable external tanks had a production limit of 24 per year. The writing really was on the wall early on in the design process.

Looking in from the outside the problems that plagued the shuttle seem obvious. The craft was initially planned as the ferry to the space station with a small payload capacity that would probably be used for supplies. Upon adding in the additional requirements of being able to launch satellites the craft swelled to almost 3 times its original size. In essence they were trying to attain the lifting capacity of a some of the larger rockets (like the Atlas V) whilst strapping on an additional 65 tons. The result was a jack of all trades but master of none design that has arguably lead to the massive cost over-runs that the shuttle has been burdened with. Had the orbiter retained the smaller design and other launch systems used in its place we might have attained the high launch number required to make the reusable craft dream attainable. It is unfortunate that we will never know.

For all the problems that plague the shuttle it has had over 120 successful launches and has served to be an icon for space travel. Whilst I lament the costs and design-by-committee process that burdened the shuttle with more than it was capable of handling I still get chills down my spine watching it launch. The shuttle might be a technical failure but it is hard to deny the image that it has left in all of humanities minds. It will be a very long time before that iconic image of a shuttle lifting off is replaced.

And so I await with bated breath, SpaceShipThree. Hopefully the next inspirational space icon.