Software Project Management Theory: Theory W

Software Project Management is an art that needs skillful integration of human relations, software technology, and economics in a given context of a software project to make it efficient and easy.

The primary challenge experienced by project managers today is that software projects must simultaneously meet the needs of a wide range of stakeholders, including the development team, management, the customer, and end-users. All these parties’ desires result in fundamental conflicts such as features versus budgets, or innovation versus refactoring. In agile project management, the role of Product Owner exists and represents the business. But simply appointing a Product Owner fails to acknowledge the complexity of the stakeholder landscape. We often see conflicts between the demand for new features from the software product owner, and compliance demands such as upgrading databases, and libraries. Such disputes can cause ill-feeling and can leave everyone feeling frustrated:

  • Developers are frustrated because they know the codebase could be better
  • InfoSec are frustrated because they have to lobby extensively to keep software patched
  • Design teams are frustrated because their designs always end up being compromised
  • Managing directors are frustrated because they don’t see the ROI they were expecting
  • Customers are frustrated because they never seem to get the features they were promised on time.

The disputes between all the stakeholders’ interests and needs are the root cause of the majority of project management challenges. Theory W, also referred to as the Software Project Management theory offers guidelines and principles to manage the challenges associated with systems development projects.

The origins of Theory W

Theory W was developed and expounded by Barry Boehm. Boehm has made a number of significant contributions to the field of software development. He created the Spiral Model of software development, Incremental Commitment Model (ICM) as well as many other contributions to the field. His works are repeatedly credited in international conference paper reports on the Project Management Institute’s site, and in the international journal of project management. He has written numerous books on the economics of software project management and has been published by Prentice-Hall,  Addison-Wesley, Pearson Education, and other distinguished publishing houses.  Theory W comes about due to the need for principles and guidelines to help project managers navigate through difficulties associated with software management. Theory W offers a fundamental principle that can be used by project managers. The principle results from the acknowledgment of other overall management principles that have failed to produce an effective combination of specificity, simplicity, and generality. Theory W demonstrates that software project managers’ primary responsibility is to ensure that all stakeholders are winners in a given software process.

Barry Boehm
Barry Boehm – author of theory W
Image “O lendário Barry Boehm.” by “Improve It” on Flickr, 2006

Some project management methods focus on the needs of the sponsor and users. Product Management approaches take a broader view, considering not only users, but also total cost over the product lifecycle. Theory W takes a different tack entirely, by making all individuals in software systems project management winners. The framework is based on the scientific management concepts of Fredric Taylor. Taylor’s scientific management concept illustrated that the most effective means of achieving a task’s objectives is through more precise motion studies, organization of the task into sequences, and specific timelines. The primary role of management is to removing bottlenecks and ensuring that things operate smoothly in a simultaneous manner.

Theory W: Project managers can only be successful if they ensure that ALL software process participants are winners regardless of their status.

The fundamental principle of theory W is well-matched to software project management challenges. It postulates that project managers can only be successful if they ensure that all software process participants are winners regardless of their status! When thinking about project outcomes, the user’s interests must be catered equally to those of the customers and maintainers to ensure they are all satisfied. Theory W’s primary principle is appropriate for software projects considered as people-intensive and whose products are always unknown among the users and management concerns. The theory recognizes the manager as a negotiator and goal setter as opposed to a facilitator or coach. The manager is expected to negotiate with all stakeholders and define the solutions that promote a win for everyone. A manager is also considered a goal-setter who defines objectives and evaluates and monitors progress to balance day-to-day successes.

Win-Win Situation

While a win-win situation is primarily advocated for by Theory W, it may seem challenging to achieve it. In many cases, conditions are often zero-sum, characterized by a winner and a loser. Each individual in a process will lose something for the other to gain. However, in theory, W, it is preempted that one may not lose for the other to win, but all parties must benefit. For instance, if a product is built fast at a low cost, it will benefit the supplier. Still, it may not satisfy the maintainer and the user since it will cost more to maintain and may require regular maintenance disadvantaging the user.

Program managers and Project Managers can achieve Win-win project outcomes by factoring the interests and expectations of all stakeholders. The project manager, project analyst, or business analyst must endeavor to understand all parties’ needs, interests, and anticipations. For instance, when developing software, profit-sharing arrangements could motivate the subcontractor to create an innovative and high-quality product. Consequently, the sales increase while the size of the profit for both parties. Creating effective and efficient software creates a win-win for all stakeholders.

Creating a Win-Win Situation

Negotiations are at the heart of developing a win-win situation on any project process. To create a win-win solution, it is essential to focus on the principles of good negotiations. The first step entails separating the individuals from the challenges. Also, it is critical to concentrate on the interests, needs, and expectations of all parties instead of their positions. It is the project manager’s role as the negotiator to develop innovative and creative solutions for the mutual benefit of all the parties. These steps call for the utilization of objectivity throughout the negotiations and defining an objective criterion. 

Theory W – the win-win steps

According to Boehm, the project managers ought to understand how parties want to win. It is important to identify the key individuals in any given project or portfolio by conducting stakeholder analysis.  Studies show that software projects often fail since key individuals have not been factored while developing the win-win scheme. It is also essential to understand how the parties want to win rather than relying on assumptions. Understanding them shall enable the project manager to develop appropriate solutions that factor the expectations of all stakeholders. 

Project managers must create reasonable expectations. As indicated earlier, the project manager must operate as a goal-setter. Many challenges in any project often occur because some of the parties do not understand the ease or difficulties of achieving a given objective. As a result, unrealistic goals and expectations are set with the assumption that something is very complicated… or very easy. Boehm recommends that it is vital to bring all stakeholders together and listen to expectations and mismatches. It is imperative to look at the issues based on all parties’ perspectives and allow them to look at the most realistic objectives. These should be accompanied by the correlation of the parties’ expectations to experiences and well-calibrated models. The reconciling of conflicting expectations through team building as well as conflict resolutions.

Project managers must match the project task to the people’s win conditions to attain win-win solutions. The critical objective here is to expand the space to develop a win-win situation. Boehm argues that it is critical to deconstruct and categorize options to identify the best means of determining win-win packages for all participants. These should be followed by a realignment of the specified solution along the premise of a win-win outcome. The project manager and other business specialists’ responsibility is to offer all parties sufficient support to conduct analysis and find the win-win outcome. The support provided to stakeholders should include training. Through these steps, it is easier to attain a win-win situation.

Overall, the win-win preconditions include;

  • Recognizing and understanding win conditions of all stakeholders
  • Development of reasonable expectations
  • Matching and linking win conditions to tasks 
  • Creating a supportive environment

Strategic Guidelines Derived from Theory W

It is critical to promote process planning to ensure efficiency and attain win-win situations in a project. The planning process entails providing operational, training, and installation plans for the users. It must also consider the development of a lifecycle support plan for the product being delivered.

Process planning is preceded by process control, which entails revies, monitoring, and providing feedback. Information technology managers need to conduct constant reviews using techniques such as team building, negotiations, and communications. Monitoring and evaluation by the PMO are essential to determine the day-to-day wins and motivate the stakeholders. Feedback should help the stakeholders build on their strengths and improve their weaknesses.

Risk management is a critical component, vital to ensuring that the expectations of all stakeholders are met. It entails validation of the stability of the process or project. Project managers must also conduct risk assurance and undertake sensitivity analysis, whilst maintaining risk management plans. Such plans reduce the risk of projects failing to complete within expected timelines and budgets or failing to achieve carefully negotiated project outcomes.

The environment in which the software development process and project resides is important. Theory W project management thrives in environments where the principles of trust and transparency are highly valued. Without these underlying factors, win-win propositions may be met with suspicion and mistrust.

Business process design and product structuring are also important. Development processes should be designed to include the plan to ensure the participation of all parties. Such collaborative approaches to prioritization may be alien in traditional project management, but with Theory W, collaborative approaches to agreeing on priorities are commonplace. In Scaled Agile environments, the Agile PMOs (APMO), may organize participatory budgeting events, and offer training programs for all stakeholders. Product structuring is about ensuring that the software product is, easy to learn to use, and tailorable to meet all parties’ needs.


Theory W is significant because it draws much-needed attention to the objective setting in agile project management and portfolio management. There is no shortage of project management methods that focus on how to exert management control and organize for delivery. However, many of the frameworks skip over the importance of setting the right goals and defining success criteria collaboratively. By investing time in goal setting and seeking win-win options at every step, project and portfolio managers are far more likely to achieve success in their projects and deliver products that continue to benefit stakeholders throughout the product’s life.

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