Theory-W management

A software project involves many stakeholders with competing interests, including bosses, developers, end-users and maintainers. Theory-W provides a project-management framework for reconciling competing interests.

It is based on making an explicit effort to understand what the different stakeholders need in order to “win” negotiating conflicts among the stakeholders win conditions and then structuring the project so that everyone realizes their win conditions.

Theory-W produces its schedule savings through improved efficiency of working relationships, improved progress visibility and reduced risk.


  • Potential reduction from nominal schedule: None
  • Improvement in progress visibility:  Very Good
  • Effect on schedule risk:  Decreased Risk
  • Chance of first-time success:  Excellent
  • Chance of long-term success:  Excellent

Major Risks

  • None

Major Interaction and Trade-Offs

One practical management approach that supports rapid development is called “Theory-W Management” (Boehm and Ross). Theory-W takes its name from its most important principle: Make everyone a Winner.

Most software projects begin with a group of project stakeholders who have competing objectives. The table below shows the stakeholders and their typical objectives.

Customers Bosses Developers End-Users Maintainers
Quick schedule No overuns Interesting design work Lots of features No defects
Low budget No surprises Exploring new tech areas User friendly software Food documentation
Successful project No grunt work Fast software Easy modifiability
Home life Robust software

Source: Adapted from “Theory-W Software Project Management: Principles and Examples”
(Boehm and Ross 1989)

Specifically, Theory-W Management supports rapid development in the following ways:

Clearer project objectives

Because a Theory-W project begins by identifying each of the stakeholders, the project’s objectives are clear from the start. The negotiating that takes place at the beginning of the project reinforces and documents the project’s objectives. Setting clear objectives is probably the most important key to motivating developers and motivating developers is probably the most important key to rapid development.

Better user relations

Many projects are set up to provide a win for the user and a loss for the developers or vice-versa. It’s hard to maintain good relations when one of the parties is losing. Theory-W projects by their very nature improve relations between developers and users because everyone stands to gain.

Several development-speed savings arise from improved user relations:

  • Efficiency improves as a result of better communications and better user understanding of the user role in the project.
  • The amount of rework drops because we do a better job of analysing requirements. Negotiations over feature details take less time because everyone is aligned on the main goals they want to achieve.
  • Early goal-setting produces realistic schedule expectations, which improves the perceived development speed and eliminates problems associated with overly optimistic schedules.

Reduced user-related risk

Many risks arise from the user side of a development relationship, including feature creep, slow communications and micro-management. Establishing a Theory-W relationship with out users helps to minimize or eliminate such risks. It helps us to manage the remaining risks because we can keep a close eye on user-related risks and get early warnings about them.

Using Theory-W Management

When we use the Theory-W Management Practice, we have everyone sit down at the beginning of the project and identify their win conditions. Then everyone negotiates to create a project-wide set of win conditions that we can reasonably achieve.

Project management for the rest of the project consists of monitoring the projects to ensure that each stakeholder continues to win. If one of the stakeholders starts to slide into a lose condition, we adjust the project accordingly.

Make Everyone a Winner

The best work in developing win-win situations has been done in the field of negotiating. Here is an outline of a general process we can use to set up a win-win situation from “getting to yes” (Fisher and Ury 1981):

  • Separate people from the problem
  • Focus on interests rather than positions
  • Invent options for mutual gain
  • Insist on using objectives criteria

The table below provides a summary of how these win-win steps apply to Theory-W Management.

Steps in Theory-W Management

1. Establish a set of win-win preconditions before we start the project
  • Understand how people want to win
  • Establish reasonable expectations on the parts of all stakeholders
  • Match people’s tasks to their win conditions
  • Provide an environment that supports the project’s goals
2. Structure a win-win software process
  • Establish a realistic plan
  • Use the plan to control the project
  • Identify and manage our win-lose and lose-lose risks
  • Keep people involved
3. Structure a win-win software product
  • Match product to end-users and maintainers win conditions

Source: Adapted from “Theory-W Project Management: Principles and Examples”
(Boehm and Ross 1989).