The Thermocline of Truth

A new analytical tool has been developed to help understand IT project processes, but it hasn't arrived without its critics.

Business consultants and analysts use a range of models and analogies to explain and describe complex concepts in a manner that is understandable by their audience. Sometimes they fail, quite spectacularly, and sometimes there comes along a new way of encapsulating difficult concepts. One such approach is Bruce Webster's "Thermocline of Truth".

In oceanographic terms, the thermocline is a layer in the water column where there is a distinct shift in the water temperature, from the almost constant temperature surface layer, to the almost constant temperature deep layers. Apart from the fact that it produces a clearly recognisable change in the graphical representation of temperature against depth, it is the acoustic properties of the thermocline that have the most relevance to the use of it as a business analyst's modeling tool. Acoustically, sound energy is reflected away from the thermocline (Snell's Law for those who are interested) and it is difficult for sound energy to move between the layers.

In a large sized business, Bruce Webster argues, there is a distinct layer where accurate information flow stops or is reflected and if a line is drawn on an organisational chart to represent this behaviour then it will take on the appearance of a bathythermal trace (the name of the temperature vs depth graph).

This behaviour can be observed across most sections of a business, but it seems to be exacerbated when Information Technology is involved. Almost all IT workers have at some stage experienced situations where their advice and reporting seems to magically disappear on its way up the reporting chain and have been left bemused and confused at the directives coming back from the C-suites, especially when the advice they originally provided would have influenced the direction a decision would have gone.

It can also be seen in the reporting of project progress and status. Those below the line have a good grasp of the issues and project completion levels, but those above the line seem to have a disconnected view of what is going on. Some of the blame can be placed on having immature metrics and predictive tools (a factor of a young profession), but ultimately the problem is reducible to poor communication, especially when it is with respect to bad news.

Webster's recommendation for avoiding the problems associated with the Thermocline of Truth is to ensure that there are active efforts from the start of a project to keep it from forming and making sure that any time that it appears to be forming steps are taken to keep information flowing freely between the organisational levels. He also points out that this level of information reflection moves up and down the reporting chain as time pressures ebb and flow with project timelines.

Why is this communication problem important? Inefficient communication leads to inefficient business practices, but more importantly poor communication internally can lead to significant business outcomes if regulatory or project goals are not met and fines or penalty clauses are invoked.

This particular model is another in a list of those used to represent internal communication structures, with the benefit of being a relatively simple and straight forward concept to understand (pretty graphs make that easy). It has attracted its supporters and its critics, including Gerald Weinberg, who is critical of the concept. Other critics would argue that it introduces nothing new into the field of project management, poor communication problems have been well known and understood since before Frederick Brooks' "The Mythical Man Month", and that they will continue to exist.

The benefit of this approach, even if it adds nothing new, is that it presents existing complex concepts using an alternative word picture that some will find much clearer than existing models. Anecdotally this already seems to be the case, so there is some value in adding it to the parthenon of analytical models.

Project Managers and those above them should at least be aware of it and the recommendations that come from the model.