In 1975, a computer scientist named Fred Brooks published one of the seminal texts in the literature of computing. It had the intriguing title of "The Mythical Man-Month" and it consisted simply of a set of essays on the art of managing large software projects. Between its covers is distilled more wisdom about computing than is contained in any other volume, which is why it has never been out of print. And every government minister, civil servant and chief executive thinking about embarking on a large IT project should be obliged to read it — and answer a multiple-choice quiz afterwards.

Why? Because Brooks was the guy who led the team that in the 1960s created the operating system for IBM's 360 range of mainframe computers. This was probably the largest non-military software project ever mounted, and it was of vital strategic importance to IBM, which then completely dominated the computer business. It also turned out to be vastly more complex than anyone — including Brooks — anticipated, and it rapidly metamorphosed into a kind of death march.

The project fell further and further behind schedule. But because IBM was a rich company and OS/360 was so important, it was able to throw more and more resources (i.e., programmers) at the task. But as it did so, the problems got worse, not better. At which point Brooks had his epiphany: He realized that every time he added a programmer to the team the project fell further behind.