Magna Carta, and Other Key Documents

The four remaining copies of Magna Carta, the foundational document of British democracy (or so we are usually led to believe) are being brought together for the first time, and will go on display at the British Library in February next year. It doesn’t matter what the document actually says, only what everyone believes it to say. It exists, and exerts a sort of mythical, gravitational pull on everything else.

Years ago when I worked (with comical ineptitude but considerable pleasure) in software engineering, I instinctively lighted on one of the pillars of project management, by assembling and circulating a brief document stating under a few heads and in a few bullet points the goals of a particular iteration of software we were working on.

I say instinctively, because I had no project management training, just a sense that we all needed to know what it was we were trying to achieve, in terms as clear and unambiguous (and, for my sake, non-technical) as possible.

And it turns out that the promulgation of key documents is in fact a central requirement of software engineering projects. I later read the Mythical Man Month, an ancient classic of software engineering management technique (!), and now remember only two things from it: that, counter-intuitively, the addition of more manpower will not shorten, but rather lengthen, the distance to completion of a project; and that you should summarise the goals of the project in one or two key documents (I later added a slim coding practice document to the aims document).

Well, a few years later not only the project but the company folded without much fanfare, so I suppose my discovery of the principle was not as effective as all that. It may be that King John’s barons – or, indeed, the rest of the English throughout history – made a similar discovery. However, being able to refer yourself to a sort of gravitational centre is, if nothing else, psychologically stabilising.

If you wish to be psychologically stabilised by viewing the assembled Magna Cartas, you will have to enter a ballot. Only 1215 individuals will be allowed in.


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