The problem w/ “gold-plating”

We had a discussion of gold-plating in project management during my leadership team meeting last week.  To refresh everyone’s memories, here’s a good, if informal, definition of the term (link here):

Gold plating is what we call it when the project team does work on the product to add features that the requirements didn’t call for, and that the stakeholder and customer didn’t ask for and don’t need. It’s called “gold plating” because of the tendency a lot of companies have to make a product more expensive by covering it in gold, without actually making any functional changes.

Andrew Stellman at Building Better Software has a post on why gold-plating is a bad name (post here).  It is an excellent discussion of what the right analogy is — he goes with a combination of gold-plated (a purely cosmetic veneer) and “gilded” (encrusted with useful, but largely-unused features).  Andrew’s bottom line is that such features are “just wasted effort, at least from the perspective of the person paying the programmer’s salary”.

I would say the bottom line is even more stark: gold-plating or gilding not only wastes money, it risks delivery of core deliverables.  Enterprise software projects usually must be delivered by a date certain.  I’ve found that development teams that get distracted by superfluous gee-gaws do so at the expense of priority features.  In other words, not only does gold-plating waste money, it diverts resources from ensuring that deliverables conform to requirements.

Getting, Spending, and Scope Creep

I recently saw a review of a book by Ronald Wilcox (review here, book here, blog here) on why Americans don’t save.  The topic in and of itself is timely — the US has been a negative net saver for years — but the review’s summary of the book provided an interesting clue to drivers of scope creep and insatiable requirement demands. 

We all have “reference groups” — family, friends, coworkers — that influence our spending patterns.  An academic can get a clue as to the car he should be driving by looking at the university parking lot: business school professors drive new cars, English professors older issues of the same brands. Volvos good, giant SUVs bad.

I know, you’re saying, what on earth does this have to do w/ scope and requirements?   Well, how often do you benchmark other applications, processes, buildings, products, etc. for ideas?  These are your “reference groups”.  What happens next is the kicker.

Unfortunately, the clues you get from your reference group are “one-sided.” You notice the Porsche more than the Toyota, the old heart-of-pine floors in a colleague’s house: “And, over time, my beliefs about what constitutes an appropriate level of consumption for my reference group shift towards extraordinary items that generally are more extravagant and costly than what I currently own.”  This is more than the traditional keeping-up-with-the-Joneses; it is keep-ing up with the most expensive items owned by each of the Joneses you get to know…

And we wonder why people come back from trade shows like kids in a candy store…


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