The notion of tunnel effect generally stands as a synonym for long-term projects that result in patent failure, only to be detected at the last minute. This term inevitably brings me back to A. E. van Vogt’s short-story “Quest for the Future”, as well as another facet of the tunnel effect: a successful project that turns out to be a failure.
In this short story, the main protagonists, pioneers of deep space exploration, embark on a journey to discover Alpha Centauri. Their voyage, under hibernation, is meant to last 500 years.
Upon their arrival, they are amazed when greeted by human beings. Indeed, their long trip did not prevent Humanity from evolving toward the construction of vessels built to perform the very same voyage in just a few hours. The issue of their quest merely arose sympathetic curiosity.
Control mechanisms had nonetheless been set up: at regular intervals, a member of the expedition was awakened for several hours, but his role exclusively consisted in verifying the expedition’s successful course. A few communication attempts were sufficient to note the vanity of their enterprise.
As an irony of history, our pioneers had even come up with a safety system preventing any deviation in the trajectory. Given the life-long investment required for this expedition, they hence wanted to make sure that nobody could ever turn back during a waking interval. They therefore clustered themselves into their own tunnel, an evolved form of the abstruse trap.
As such, a project can fail even if the plan proceeded smoothly and the initially determined objectives have been reached.
In the same way, it is possible for a perfectly implemented IT project to not reach its initially set goal.
Reasons for this misstep vary. Either the needs of the so called objective have changed during the project, or a competitor has reached the first segment of the target market. Regardless, the start point of this failure remains identical: at a given moment, even at the start of development, we have stated our objectives and ceased to take interest in the environment as a whole.
As a software publisher, what are the various approaches that can avoid such risks with regard to the development of our products?
Agile methods are obviously of great help, one of their interests precisely being the prevention of risks linked to the tunnel effect. Still, it is necessary to take heed of another effect, a shortsightedness that would favour short-term steering in detriment of a regular control of the global objective’s relevance.
One must also note all forms of weak signals, thus fostering an environment that enables the expression of this contradiction. The project, along with its intentions, must constantly be confronted to new perspectives from different professions and horizons, both for the editor and his potential targets and customers.
Mechanisms that are meant to prevent any deviation from the plan must be treated with circumspection. With a day’s close precision, should months-long planning not be taken as the indicator of an unconsidered environment?
Finally, one should pay specific attention when it comes to the organisation practices meant to ensure the project’s secrecy, and make sure that they are not a factor of confinement within the tunnel.
Conclusively, the recipe for success is well-known: agility and communication. One must simply remember to expand these assets beyond the sole project team.