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Well Known And Well Practiced

It’s always instructive to reflect on project failures so that the same costly mistakes don’t get repeated in the future. But because of ego-defense, it’s difficult to step back and semi-objectively analyze one’s own mistakes. Hell, it’s hard to even acknowledge them, let alone to reflect on, and to learn from them. Learning from one’s own mistake’s is effortful, and it often hurts. It’s much easier to glean knowledge and learning from the faux pas of others.

With that in mind, let’s look at one of the “others“: Hewlitt Packard. HP’s 2010 $1.2B purchase of Palm Inc. to seize control of its crown jewel WebOS mobile operating system turned out to be a huge technical and financial and social debacle. As chronicled in this New York Times article, “H.P.’s TouchPad, Some Say, Was Built on Flawed Software“, here are some of the reasons given (by a sampling of inside sources) for the biggest technology flop of 2011:

  • The attempted productization of cutting edge, but immature (freeze ups, random reboots) and slooow technology (WebKit).
  • Underestimation of the effort to fix the known technical problems with the OS.
  • The failure to get 3rd party application developers (surrogate customers) excited about the OS.
  • The failure to build a holistic platform infused with conceptual integrity (lack of a benevolent dictator or unapologetic aristocrat).
  • The loss of talent in the acquisition and the imposition of the wrong people in the wrong positions.

Hmm, on second thought, maybe there is nothing much to learn here. These failure factors have been known and publicized for decades, yet they continue to be well practiced across the software-intensive systems industry.

Obviously, people don’t embark on ambitious software development projects in order to fail downstream. It’s just that even while performing continuous due diligence during the effort, it’s still extremely hard to detect these interdependent project killers until it’s too late to nip them in the bud. Adding salt to the wound, history has inarguably and repeatedly shown that in most orgs, those who actually do detect and report these types of problematiques are either ignored (the boy who cried wolf syndrome) or ostracized into submission (the threat of excommunication syndrome). Note that several sources in the HP article wanted to “remain anonymous“.

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