Monday, April 13, 2015

Polydamas Syndrome


..Great strength but little sense


Polydamas was an panktration (panktration - almost no rules mix of boxing and wrestling) champion at 93rd Olympiad, 408 BC.  Beyond Olympic success, there are some legends about his strength and power, that could remember of mythological Herakles (Hercule): he kill a lion with bare hands, he stop a moving chariot and win a fight with more "immortals" of  Persian king Darius.

However, he died trying to held with this hands the roof of cave that is crashing down around him.  

"The death of Polydamas, the Thessalian, when he was crushed by the rocks, made clear to all men how precarious it is to have great strength but little sense."  - Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library,  9.14.2

The key concept is the feasibility of an endeavor: no matter the skills, strength and power you have , but only if all these abilities are matching with the difficulty of the task. Knowing what we cannot do, the limits of our abilities it is very important.

Of course, we want always to go further and test and improve our abilities, but the also the involved risks matter, as in the Polymadas case.  

Polydamas Syndrome in software development 


Software development it is an area where this syndrome it is manifesting rather very often. The high rate of projects failures is not only a problem of inadequate management and inadequate engineering but also a problem of overestimating the involved skills versus the difficulty of  the context problems. 

Waterfall approach, for example, it is sign of this syndrome: if the iterative development try to manage the complexity in smaller parts, waterfall claim that will "eat" all the complexity in one piece.

Software development is the activity where most often smart people repeatably fails due to wrong estimation of their abilities on facing complexity.

Here are other examples from real life:
  • Reckless: We have no idea about how to solve what the customer want, but we commit to solve it (eventually with also a committed delivery date). Possible reasons: wants to gain appreciations from customer and management. The root cause could be a gambling disorder-like behavior or just an immense vanity  
  • Inadvertent: We know that we have no idea about the solution, but we hope that we will find it. That is happening many times with individuals that want a higher role or position and just hope that they will succeed without some previously proved practice. 
There are similar terms that the ones used by Martin Fowler describing the Technical Debt Quadrant. The "Polydamas Syndrome"  instantly produce or induce Technical Debt, that sometime could be irreversible.

By their nature, people could be reckless, inadvertent,  "normal" or too cautions. We need an adequate work discipline in order to get from all of them a good enough estimation for the balance between abilities and difficulties and also of the resulted risks in case of significant imbalance.     
Agile development at least it is defined as the "art of possible" and any manifestation of "Polydamas Syndrome" is a sign of severe agility problems and in general severe problems in the software process that should not be tolerated.

Solution Spikes and Architectural Spikes from XP are an possible answer to feasibility problems in Agile approaches, but a more complete set of practices could be found in DAD - Disciplined Agile Delivery that also have feasibility related milestones and an explicit approach for such risks.


A big problem is that people with "Polydamas Syndrome" are very seductive for management and for customers. They represent at the first sight the dream collaborators: they will quickly commit to any request. The consequences are visible rather on medium and long terms. The main problem is when the management of the development side does not control the result risks. It is rather not expected that the customer side to be aware of these risks and they will surprised when the effects will become visible.

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