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Heed the lesson of Brooks’ Law

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in Office Communication,Workplace Communication

In 1975, Fred Brooks turned his experience as an IBM computer scientist into an influential business book, The Mythical Man-Month. He was among the first management thinkers to warn about the dangers of overcommunication in the workplace.

Brooks helped lead a project to develop a massive operating system for IBM’s then-new mainframe computer. The project fell behind schedule. Brooks noticed that whenever another snag arose, IBM’s executives would assign more employees to join the fix-it team.

“Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later,” he wrote. The observation that adding people to a behind-schedule project makes it lag even further behind schedule is now known as Brooks’ Law.

That may sound simple to you, but it’s counterintuitive for many. Some managers assume that if faced with cost overruns or other mishaps with a big project, the solution is to pad the project team and add “experts” to problem-solve.

In fact, Brooks concluded that bringing in newcomers to the team requires more communication and coordination. The rookies need to learn the ropes and get up to speed on the history of the project. They also must forge connections with key players on the team. All this takes time that detracts from actually taking action to fix what’s broken.

The upshot for managers is to limit non-essential communication, not expand it. Avoid sending e-mail to dozens of people who don’t need to receive it. If a project team hits speed bumps, don’t bring in “advisers” or add members in a misguided attempt to help advance the group’s progress. Host meetings for the critical few who must attend; don’t invite five others because they might otherwise feel slighted for being excluded.

Free up your technicians to apply their technical skills. Don’t burden them with coordinating tasks and keeping everyone in the loop—or else they might lack the time to make the most valuable contribution to your project.

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