What is the most direct route to from start to finish? This morning I walked to BART behind a guy who veered right and left on the sidewalk as he almost ran to the station. It was 7 am, and I don’t think he’d been drinking, so I can’t explain his odd, snake-like path. It brought to mind a wonderful NPR clip from Robert Krulwich, on “Why We Can’t Walk Straight”. (Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings for this find.)

Image courtesy of the Oakland Public Library

Blind wandering is the kind of thing that happens when you don’t have a plan, even a short-term plan, like the two-week sprints that are often the norm in Agile shops. Krulwich reports that we are somehow constitutionally incapable of sticking to a straight line if we can’t see a major landmark such as a mountain top, or a celestial marker like the sun or moon. Researchers have yet to determine why this is. They’ve run repeated tests, and the results are consistent. Left to our own devices, it turns out that we spiral back to our starting point.

Needless to say, from a project management perspective, this is no way to get work done. Of course, it is true that many good project plans are not strictly linear, or perhaps more accurately, not single-path-linear. Indeed, the more complex the project, the more parallel paths are required between beginning and completion. Usually, in software and interface design development, there is even an iterative loop (or two or three) along the way.

But I think we do have landmarks, in effect. These would be the milestones on a waterfall project plan, and the sprint backlog in the agile world. I’m calling them landmarks, because they are the pointers that keep us going in a forward direction, even if the path has some twists and turns.

Let me say that I have experienced group processes without landmarks: ones in which the participants go over and over the same material, making and un-making the same decisions. It can be tremendously unpleasant, not to mention costly. Perhaps you recognize this shapeless landscape too. Now we know that it’s our nature to act this way, and unless we intervene and impose some mountains (or celestial orbs) we will wander back to the beginning, again and again. It’s clear that having (and using) even a simple plan with high level milestones is far better than having no plan at all.