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What is the “n body problem”, and what does it mean for software project management? June 23, 2009

Posted by HubTechInsider in Project Management.
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It can be shown that for n project team members, there are [ n (n-1) / 2 ] possible working relationships. These working relationships grow with increased project team size as the aforementioned polynomial function shows. Of course, any of these working relationships are in danger of deteriorating, and the ones that are working out great are not necessarily transitive. For example, just because Tom and Wendy work great together, and Wendy and Susan work well together, it does not follow that Tom and Susan will work well together.

Further complicating these working relationships are externalities such as intercultural differences and outsourcing of project resources and pieces of the project work.

As bluesman Robert Cray would say: “Too many cooks are gonna spoil the stew” – or, as Fred Brooks of The Mythical Man Month has said in the central thesis of this classic software development text: “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

The above factors are important to consider as a Project Manager. Poor team chemistry can ruin your chances to overcome the traditional project constraints of time, budget and resources even if your project team has at its disposal high quality technical talent.

The success of your project depends on both the quality of the talent on your project team and the manner in which that talent is engaged on your project.

It is currently fashionable for employers to surmise that a project’s success is only dependent upon the technical skill of the project team members. This is far from the truth, although a pleasant fiction for human resources and senior management.

As a Project Manager, you need to possess a wide range of people skills including team building, negotiation techniques and natural affability, you must be a master communicator, you must understand human behavior and team building and dynamics, you must be a great motivator and have innate knowledge of how to create and enhance esprit de corps.

Even the most highly technical situations are governed by human relationships and human nature. Your technical abilities and credibility as a technician carries weight with management and your project team members, certainly, but it is not your primary purpose as a Project Manager to serve as a technical resource, and all the technical skill in the world won’t save you if you can’t “Herd cats”.

The special challenges of software development will  rear their ugly heads in the midst of this, imposing their will upon the challenges of management of human teams. Only a skilled team, skillfully managed, can achieve success in most software development project situations.

“Good bow, hard to bend. Good horse, hard to ride. Good man, difficult to lead well”


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You’re reading Boston’s Hub Tech Insider, a blog stuffed with years of articles about Boston technology startups and venture capital-backed companies, software development, Agile project management, managing software teams, designing web-based business applications, running successful software development projects, ecommerce and telecommunications.

About the author.

I’m Paul Seibert, Editor of Boston’s Hub Tech Insider, a Boston focused technology blog. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter, even friend me on Facebook if you’re cool. I own and am trying to sell a dual-zoned, residential & commercial Office Building in Natick, MA. I have a background in entrepreneurship, ecommerce, telecommunications and software development, I’m the Director, Technical Projects at eSpendWise, I’m a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Tshirtnow.net.

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