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Blind Spots in Software Project Management

Posted on: 11 May '11

Just the other day, I was reading Sujatha’s (a famous Tamil writer) book “Thalaimai Cheyalagam” which deals with the functioning of the brain and written in simple details for any ordinary person, who does not have a medical background, to understand. I was surprised to read about the natural blind spot in our vision system where the nerve systems to the brain connect to our retinal screen region. For a vivid demonstration, look at the figure below.

Blind Spots in Software Project Management

Close your left eye, focus on the dot with your right eye and slowly move your head towards or away from the screen to around 20 inches from it. At one point, the diamond will disappear from sight. (Please do not take a printout to try this out and waste paper! Let us go green!)

It reminds me of the saying “whatever we see or hear might not be the fact, only a deeper investigation/analysis will unearth the real truth”!

Another one of my astounding moments of the realization of the blind spot came when I went through driving lessons in California, US in 1994. Much before that, I had taken driving lessons in Bangalore, India (in an Ambassador car which had the gear right under the unpowered manual steering wheel). My instructor in Bangalore never taught me about the blind spot which happens when using the side and center rear view mirrors. Most of the people in India drive with the side mirrors folded because of the traffic congestion here (fearing the mirrors might get broken). After mine broke, and even though I had a TATA car, the mirror was pricey, I have been managing with a nice plastic patch since then. I wonder how many drivers on the road really know about blind spots here in India. A couple of things my Bangalore instructor told me which I could never forget were, even if a child presses the accelerator pedal, the car will accelerate, so be a sane driver on the road; always have a far sighted view of the road and have a feel for the road traffic; and do not try to look just about the front engine hood while driving (myopic view). The US driving instructor clearly demonstrated the blind spots on both sides of the car by standing right in the blind spot area. Even when I took driving lessons in Dubai during 2005 (it is mandatory out there when getting a driving license!) the instructor never told anything about blind spots!

This triggered my thought process on what the current blind spot areas are in software delivery management. Some of my opinions are given below; feel free to add more relevant ones.

  1. Product Management Vs. Project Management
    Most of the delivery/project managers focus on development or maintenance of the project, rather than product management. In IT services, a product has much longer life than the software careers of the people who have been contributing to it. A product goes through multiple patches and avatars in its life cycle depending on the functional changes required as the time demands. Since the fundamental approach (project vs. product) is not correct, it leads to other problems like myopic view, etc. Most products do not have a single place which details out the current functionality in entirety or a presentation maintaining the history of the product.
  2. Myopic View in Project execution
    Most of the project managers concentrate on the urgent requirements that need to be done on the day rather than the important ones which add to the longer benefits of the product. This leads to living with a problem/handicap for a longer while instead of becoming a trusted advisor to the client on what changes to be made to the product for easier maintenance and functioning. Either from the software engineers’ perspective or from the stake holder, product owner or client perspective, rotation of roles and people is inevitable (especially with Gen Y engineers). In addition to this, with this myopic approach, understanding of the genetics of the product gets lost due to the lack of foresight or scope, for any effective and efficient functional or technical upgrades and maintenance.
  3. Pure Play Project Management and Missing Versatility
    The IT industry has been breeding too many pure play project managers who have not been enabled with functional and/or technical advantage. Since most of the managers are coming from technical or engineering background, communication also becomes an issue. (I always wonder why the engineering curriculum does not have subjects on world history, some amount of literature, soft skills like communication, etc.). I think, with the current situation where technical skills are becoming a commodity in most of the cases, the real value addition will be in having versatile skills. The project and delivery managers should be able to appreciate the functionality of the product as well as the technical landscapes and their pitfalls. There are going to be very few large scale programs in IT where pure play project management will work. 

    This again reminds me of the book “Straight From The Gut” by Jack Welch (former CEO of General Electric). In one instance Jack Welch mentions that one of his next level leaders pointed to him that insurance is a complex business indicating that he can contribute in that division’s solution requirements (note that Jack Welch is from a Chemical Engineering background). Subsequently that leader did not have a place in GE. According to Jack Welch, any business should be explainable in simple terms.

    In today’s IT industry, to empathize with the customer and team members, a PM/DM needs to be versatile and should be able to explain the problem, functionality or solution in simple terms.

  4. Unsaid Requirements – Realization and Implementation
    Normally the PMs/DMs focus on the documented requirements and make their team also focus on the same. There is no effort to go beyond that to discover and realize the unsaid requirements of the product or customer. 

    Once Subroto Bagchi (Gardener and Vice Chairman of MindTree) said that most of the airports are conceived for “bum handling business” (how to fill up the airline seats and get them out of the airport)! Whereas when the Singapore Changi International airport was conceived, it was conceived as an aerotropolis with so much of attention of the unsaid requirements of a traveler.

    In product management as well, the PMs/DMs need the capability to unearth these unsaid requirements and look at implementing them as value addition. Currently, on most of the product management, this side mirror is folded!

    I think Steve Jobs once said, the customers never ask for lithium ion batteries explicitly in their digital equipments, whereas they ask for only longer battery life!

  5. Being a Facilitator Vs Trusted Advisor/Consultant
    Mostly, managers end up being a central hub for communication, sending messages and emails to multiple stakeholders. They function as routers without adding much value to the network. Unless otherwise they have technical and functional know-how to feel the product and its functionality, the value addition is difficult to come through. Again, it falls into the category of having versatile skills with acumen to have a feel of the product. That will move the managers from just being facilitators to being a trusted consultant. Without this acumen, guiding team members on their career growth becomes a challenge as well. 

    In A.G. Lafley’s (former Chairman, Procter & Gamble) book, “The Game Changer”, he indicates that when the Mexicans complained that the washing powder creates a burning sensation in their hands, it is not about manufacturing a better washing powder but it is about the unsaid requirement of a washing machine!

Since this blog has already become long, I will cover some more blind spots in my subsequent blogs. Meanwhile, I welcome your point of views.

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  • Saiganesh Ramani

    Jas – the article shows your experience and in-depth understanding of software development.
    My 2 cents —
    Unfortunate reality is that focus of companies are extremely Myopic (borrowing your analogy here). They are focussed on the next quarter and if you get lucky there will be a odd one keeping an eye on a couple of quarters down the line. So anything that meets these deadlines will be wrapped and sold in the market. Very few businesses today has the longer term outlook and able to sustain a development cycle that could incorporate better development process. That is probably why we see so many Project Managers just focusing on numbers more than technical and functional properties of the Product.

  • Gerson Lapid

    What an awesome article, taking the opportunity let me present you Workforcetrack. It follows all-in-one philosophy meaning to say it has integrated package of tools such as CRM, PM, CT, etc.

  • Naresh

    Jas, great metaphors all through.Well written!!.Software engineering is always a hot topic for discussion.

    Do you think all projects need to be conceived as product development?If that is the case how the estimation technique needs to be improved? In the competitive world, how does one compete with other people, if features of the product get loaded in a single project?

    i believe the requirement errors are the most costly errors in the project execution.How do you think project managers can better manage it?. How they can realize the unrealized requirements?

    I think the topic is complex, many more questions to ask you.Keep posting your thought process..

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  • Jas Sivakumar J

    Thanks Sai and Naresh for your view points. Please see my continuation of this blog at, where I have discussed your view points.
    Thanks again.