Good managers fail because they don’t understand the need in complex situations to know their options and to be flexible—what W.R. Ashby labeled “requisite variety” in his 1964 landmark book An Introduction to Cybernetics.
One of the greatest challenges that organizations face is how to establish development frameworks that are flexible enough to allow staff and managers to select the right silver bullets, at the right time, for the right problems. This flexibility comes from the application of sufficient variety to handle complex environments. A manager needs a variety of methods and tools to handle a variety of problems. The more problems, the more complex the problems, the more variety a manager needs in order to solve the problems.
In high-speed, high-change environments, the path to success is through exceptional personal effectiveness from both development staff and management. One of the reasons why managing extreme projects is so difficult is that managers must have a large number of coping mechanisms to combat variety in the environment. In low-change circumstances, managers can survive with a brief set of specific rules—if this happens, do X; otherwise, do Y. In high-change circumstances, the range of responses is much more demanding, requiring judgment, juggling, thought, and swift action.
The need for creativity, flexibility, teamwork, collaboration, and fun exists on all projects. Typically, however, as projects move from the 1,000 function-point size into the realm of 10,000 function points and beyond, most organizations revert to discipline, bureaucracy, and strict process control as if customer feedback, iterative learning, and excitement were no longer important.
Requisite variety is the antithesis of silver bullets. Silver-bullet solutions are targeted toward a predictable, optimized world—a world diminishing in size. Extreme environments require adaptive solutions—those with the requisite variety to address challenges from many directions.