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The Boundary

Mr. Watts Humphrey‘s final book, titled “Leadership, Teamwork, and Trust: Building a Competitive Software Capability” was recently released and I’ve been reading it online. Since I’m in the front end of the book, before the TSPPSP crap, I mean “stuff“, is placed into the limelight for sale, I’m enjoying what Watts and co-author James W. Over have written about the 21st century “management of knowledge workers problem“. Knowledge workers manipulate knowledge in the confines of their heads to create new knowledge. Physical laborers manipulate material objects to create new objects. Since, unlike physical work, knowledge work is invisible, Humphrey and Over (rightly) assert that knowledge work can’t be managed by traditional, early 20th century, management methods. In their own words:

Knowledge workers take what is known, and after modifying and extending it, they combine it with other related knowledge to actually create new knowledge. This means they are working at the boundary between what is known and what is unknown. They are extending our total storehouse of knowledge, and in doing so, they are creating economic value. – Watts Humphrey & James W. Over

But Watts and Over seem inconsistent to me (and it’s probably just me). They talk about the boundary ‘tween the known and the unknown, yet they advocate the heavyweight pre-planning of tasks down to the 10 hour level of granularity. When you know in advance that you’ll be spending a large portion of your time exploring and fumbling around in unknown territory, it’s delusional for others who don’t have to do the work themselves to expect you to chunk and pre-plan your tasks in 10 hour increments, no?

Nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself. – A. H. Weiler

  1. fishmonger
    March 29, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Love that quote. Is this book specific to software development or more generic to relate to all us prom dicforcers?

    (I’m still looking at the spine of your zapposbook–its #3 im the cue

    • March 29, 2011 at 8:04 am

      The front end of the book, which I think is very good, is applicable to any industry where “invisible” knowledge work is more important to an org than “visible” physical work. The back end, which I think is “meh”, is specific to big software development projects.

      Don’t forget to let me know what you think of Hsieh’s DH book when you get done reading it.

  2. PNeumiller
    March 29, 2011 at 8:36 am

    That sounds all rather altruistic to me. I think must hapless programming blokes spend most their time reinventing the wheel or stealing and modifying someone else’s code…

  3. August 23, 2011 at 8:48 am

    That is a brilliant quote. Managing 21st century Knowledge Work challenges with 20th century approaches is just not the perfect solution. In Humphrey‘s writings from the 1980th it is obvious that his initial approach was applying Quality Management lessons from manufacturing to Software Development. I was not aware Humphrey had such brilliant analysis and understanding of knowledge work. I always placed him in a total 20th century context. Already there is a big inconsistency for me. I therefore totally share your conclusion. I have to read that book too!

    • August 23, 2011 at 12:37 pm

      Thanks Andi. I do recommend reading the book. I think all of Watts’ books have both good and bad ideas in them. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve enjoyed reading many of them.

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