Thought for the day: Capstans of industry

The best ideas have been scribbled on the back of cigarette packets, says Colin Beveridge

Colin Beveridge  

Don't knock the ideas scribbled on the back of cigarette packets, says Colin Beveridge. That's when they're at their freshest, and start to dull when translated to the flipchart or Powerpoint presentation.



Anybody got a spare fag packet? I’m collecting them for a friend who is running a government project planning seminar next week and we need at least one packet between two so that each delegate can get the full, hands-on, scribbling experience.

I suppose we could use split beer mats, but I am more of a traditionalist when it comes to materials. You just can’t beat the back of a Capstan Full Strength packet when you are scoping out a multimillion IT spend.

And, it seems, I am not the only traditionalist, if you look at the proceedings of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, which recently challenged Peter Gershon, former OGC Chief executive, over his concerns about major projects that seemed to have been planned on the back of cigarette packets.

Of course, Mr Gershon’s comments in an earlier speech were probably made for dramatic effect, rather than as a matter of record. But you never know.

We may well find in another 40 years or so that we see a whole raft of declassified fag packets made available for public scrutiny. Future technologists will examine their cryptic hieroglyphics, desperate for clues and insights into why government computing in the early 21st century cost so much and took so long.

Perhaps one day the British Museum will juxtapose a grubby Silk Cut carton alongside the Rosetta Stone of ancient Egypt and we will all marvel at the quantum leap in world knowledge derived from these apparently disparate artefacts.

An amusing prospect indeed. But with a serious undertone because in my experience some of the best IT management ideas have been those that were hastily scribbled on fag packets, beer mats and table napkins.

Very often our most incisive and decisive plans can be scribbled on ephemeral objects, such as whiteboards and flip-charts, only to lose their intellectual strength and integrity when transposed to a more formal medium for presentation to others.

I don’t know any IT director who would feel comfortable laying out a strategic plan to the board while clutching a crumpled fag packet or a soggy beer mat. It would be like walking naked down a crowded street so we instinctively reach for our high-tech comfort blankets: powerpoint and colour laserprints, to sell our idea “properly".

And yet the original scribbled notes are probably the most valuable view of the plan because they were conceived in innocence, before being translated and traduced for the intended audience. Too often we will dilute and disguise a concept during translation from the fag packet to the board pack, in the hope that we will gain stakeholder acceptance, sometimes at great cost to project integrity.

Too often, I have seen excellent first-cut project plans that have been doctored to produce politically acceptable outcomes, at least in terms of cost and timescale, by injudiciously tweaking resource estimates until budget and calendar objectives are met, rather than by de-scoping activities and deliverables.

It’s no wonder then that so many projects subsequently over-run some or all of the three key measures of cost, time and quality; because we have compromised our original, and probably most accurate, vision of the task and the effort to achieve.

Perhaps we should get cigarette manufacturers to put a suitably large warning message on their packets. Something like: “Cutting project resource estimates without descoping activities can seriously damage your project…”

But will anybody take any notice? I doubt it.

Colin Beveridge is an independent consultant and leading commentator on technology management issues. He can be contacted at [email protected]

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