Monday, 17 January 2011

Spell Failure - what defines success?

In the Project Management world there have been a series of processes and ways of working that have come in to fashion and gone out of fashion. One example of a way of working that is still in fashion in some circles is: Six Sigma. (see here for a recent article advocating the Six Sigma approach).

Originally this started off as a process in manufacturing to set the standard for how many things rolling off the production line could have a fault with them. Six Sigma sets the standard at 99.99966%. Which in everyday language means that for example if you have a pen making factory and want to use the six sigma standard of quality - then it’s ok to have up to 3.4 per million pens produced that are faulty.

OK, so what’s the big deal with Six Sigma? It’s a way of setting quality goals and trying to achieve those. That’s great!

The often-used Six Sigma symbol.(copied from Wikipedia)
However, what has happened is that this process for manufacturing has been taken and applied to other fields such as software development. If for example you have a program that does word processing or is a web browser, if there are 3.4 lines of program source code with mistakes in them out of a million – the result could be that the WHOLE program fails to work. The reason being that those crucial lines contain the instructions that allows the whole function to work (in geek speak it could be the Main loop).

In other words, a process for measuring success applied to manufacturing does not necessarily work for software creation.

The same idea can be applied to the realm of mysticism and magic. An area that I’ll admit is quite difficult to measure success in any case as it’s rather subjective. But…. (there’s always a but), if the working whose success is being measured is meant to have an effect on say the weather – then there’s not much point looking at the psychological effects it has on the practitioner. Either the weather changes or it doesn’t.

However, let’s elaborate on the example above by supposing that the ritual was meant to make it rain so that the practitioner did not have to take part in a race on sports day. If the weather did not change but instead the initiate’s attitude towards competitive sports was transformed such that they now no longer even considered the possibility of losing a race – was the ritual a success? If subsequently during the race it started raining and the race was cancelled, would that be a measure of success or not of the original ritual?

In summary my point is that measuring success is difficult although it’s something that all project managers (and I would also encourage all practitioners) of magic and mysticism to take seriously. Actually coming up with good criteria of success is challenging and care should be taken when taking one domain’s techniques for measuring success and transplanting them in another. Without success criteria it’s hard to improve one’s skills and abilities, which means that self-development is progressing only at a perceived rate with no evidence whatsoever to support such a belief.