Revisiting Augustine’s Laws

Augustine’s Laws is a collection of management insights first published in the mid-1980’s by former undersecretary of the Army and CEO of defense contractor Martin Marietta Norman Augustine. It contains 52 (one per week) “laws” of management that Mr. Augustine picked up in his many years working in government and the defense industry.  Each law is written in the form of a humorous vignette that is meant to stand on its own.  The book is still available via Amazon (though at a premium) and given its substantial enduring wisdom is surprisingly hard to find through the library system.

Most of the book is specific to government contracting circa late 20th century but some of the insights are just as applicable today as they day they were first written.  The canonical list of the laws are available at Wikipedia.  Here are some of the more interesting ones:

  • Law XV (aka Law of Insatiable Appetites) – The last 10% of performance generates one third of the cost and two thirds of the problems.
    • Corollary 1: The price of the ultimate is very high indeed. Sometimes it would seem that one might be better served by having a more of a little less.
    • This is very similar to George Patton’s statement – “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week.”
  • Law XXIII (aka Law of Unmitigated Optimism) – Any task can be completed in only 1/3rd more time than is currently estimated.
    • Corollary 1: If a schedule is three quarters complete only on third time remains
    • Corollary 2: When it comes to schedule adherence everything is relative.
    • Corollary 3: The sooner you start to fall behind the more time you will have to catch up.
  • Law XXIV (aka Law of Economic Unipolarity) – The only thing more costly than stretching the schedule of an established project is accelerating it, which is itself the most costly action known to man.
  • Law XXXV (aka Law of Definitive Imprecision) – The weaker the data available upon which to base one’s conclusion, the greater the precision which should be quoted in order to give the data authenticity.
  • Law XXXVII (aka Law of Apocalyptic Costing) – Ninety percent of the time things will turn out worse than you expect. The other 10% of the time you had no right to expect so much.
  • Law XLVIII (aka Law of Oratorical Engineering) – The more time you spend talking about what you have been doing, the less time you have to do what you have been talking about. Eventually, you spend more and more time talking about less and less until finally you spend all of your time talking about nothing.

The perspective of the book is that of a senior manager working on large defense programs in the late 1970s and early 1980s.  While there are certainly universal truths, much has changed in the intervening thirty years – particularly in the field of software development.  Today software is generally built incrementally by self-directed teams using a flavor of agile.  Most agile teams live by the credo that the best way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  Agile is popular not because the problems are any less changing – indeed application complexity is increasing not decreasing – but because it provides for predictability that simply is not possible with massive projects.

As interesting as laws are, the management observations in the last chapter are as relevant today as they day they were written – if not as pithy.

  • People are the key to the success in most any undertaking, including business.
  • Teamwork is the fabric of effective business organizations.
  • Self-image is as important in business as in sports. A corporate team must think of itself as a winner.
  • Motivation makes the difference.
  • Recognition of accomplishment (and the lack thereof) is an essential form of feedback.
  • Listening to employees and customers pays dividends – they know their jobs and needs better than anyone else.
  • Delegation, wherever practicable, is the best course.
  • Openness with employees and customers alike is essential to building trust.
  • Customers deserve the very best.
  • Quality is the key to customer satisfaction.
  • Stability of funding, schedules, goals and people is critical to any smooth business operation.
  • Demanding the last little bit of effort from oneself is essential – it can make the difference against competitors who don’t have the will to put out the extra effort.
  • Provision for the unexpected is a businessperson’s best insurance policy.
  • “Touch-Labor” – people who actually come into contact with the product – are the only certain contributors in any organization.
  • Rules, regulations, policies, and reports, and organization charts are not a substitute for sound management judgement.
  • Logic in presenting decision options, consequences, benefits, and risks is imperative.
  • Conservatism, prudent conservatism, is generally the best course in financial matters
  • Integrity is the sine qua non (indispensable and essential action, condition, or ingredient) of all human endeavors including business.

 

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