An Anthropologist Looks at Project Management

Bob Cramblitt reports on Tim Lister’s talk from Business of Software 2007. To sign up for the BoS 2008, visit

“Tim Lister is an anthropologist,” says Simon Galbraith, co-CEO of Red Gate Software. It’s an apt description. Lister uncovers the often-hidden patterns that constitute software culture, everything from the developers’ war against perceived inferiors (i.e. marketing wonks) within the company, to the smell of dead fish that permeates a project that’s doomed from the beginning.

More than 70 patterns are outlined in the upcoming book, Project Patterns: From Adrenaline Junkies to Template Zombies, co-authored by Lister. Here are some of the ones he discussed in his Business of Software 2007 presentation:

  • Mañana – the loss of a natural sense of urgency. Agile development fights mañana.
  • The dead fish of failure – projects that are dead from the start. Everyone smells it right away, but they hunker down and work.
  • Lessons unlearned – Retrospectives rarely trigger change.
  • What smell? – People in the organization cannot detect its underlying vitality or decay.
  • Marilyn Munster – Like the normal girl among the monsters in the old TV family, the esteem often given technical workers versus managerial staff varies. In some organizations, developers are king; in others they are pawns.
  • Surprise! – The manager offering rewards and incentives gets responses in addition to those he planned.
  • Everyone wears clothes for a reason – Complete openness grinds progress to a halt.
  • Music – people with real musical skills are disproportionably represented, sometimes extremely so, in technology organizations.

Lister’s essential message: Look for patterns, name them, then propagate or defeat them.

For more, check out the Tim Lister interview on this blog: