A few days ago, we uncovered an opportunity that depended a lot on timing.
If we could get it going in five days, we could exploit it… if it took longer than that, the timing was going to impact some other strategic concerns.
I asked a developer for an estimate of the effort, and he said it would take ten days to complete.
About my own estimates
I have always been sensitive to suggest my own estimates to other developers.
My estimates nearly always scared others, but I had a pretty good software career built on hitting them.
Meanwhile, I have seen many projects run into the ground from estimate padding, being 85% complete for weeks on end and struggling to communicate status or progress until they ultimately failed.
Back to our hero
So, I asked him to drop that initiative and refocus on another work item because we just weren’t going to deliver in time.
And his reaction was like I had hurt his feelings. He had gotten interested in producing the estimate and really wanted to do the work.
I explained to him the timing concerns, and what happened next???
He started negotiating his own estimate with me!
Well, that was a conservative estimate.
I want to make sure I have the time to do a quality job and test it.
That was really an external estimate, meant for people outside of IT.
It might be more like five days than ten.
And after all that negotiation, I said “Thank you for explaining this to me… please work on that other thing.”
I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what other people think estimates are.
To me, an estimate is a promise. It is a commitment. It states my intention. It is the beginning of an offer.
When I estimate something will take 10 days, I am saying “If you accept my estimate, I commit to do this in ten days.”
Now, if I need something done in five days, then an estimate that says it will take ten days is not valuable to me.
If I truly have only five days to get it done, then an estimate of ten days is not even relevant to consider.
As I work with my teams, they get to know that about me, and the amount they pad their estimates starts to go down… especially if they really want the most interesting and challenging opportunities.
Actually, one of the ways I can build trust with my teams is by declining their offers that aren’t valuable… and quickly accepting those that are.
Estimates and trust
Since estimates have a lot to do with promises and commitments, you can expect if you have read my writing that they are also a foundation upon which to build team trust.
There are many cultures in which estimate padding is a common practice for self-defense and just-in-case management. Where “demand management” is also commonplace, the combination can lead to poor overall throughput from IT.
It is a practice born out of fear of reprisal, and sometimes out of fear that managers will disrespect how long it really takes to get something done.
So if you are working to build an organization or team in which trust is an important virtue or value, estimate padding might be something you want to address… and to do that you might have to look at cultural and management practices that compel people to do it.