Exaggerated Estimates

In this post I’d like to discuss how estimating is one of the riskiest aspects of any project.  The best book for understanding this isn’t on the reading list for my classes at UMUC, but that’s probably because it’s too engaging to be used as a text book.  

The resource in question is Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.  In the book his characters are faced with a situation where each individual adds their own safety to their portion of the project.  Added up this cumulated safety takes up more time than the project itself does.  What his novel does better than anything else I’ve written is to explain how to work with actual human beings to remove as much safety from each individual line of effort and aggregate a safety for the project as a whole at the end.

Estimating is an extremely dangerous technique for managers.  Organizations with a low tolerance for failure will get unrealistically long estimates from their team members.  Why?  Because adding in the safety to the individual’s line of effort is key to maintaining their employment status.  The opposite extreme is also detrimental.  At this point some pragmatist would argue that picking the point in the middle as the right course of action, and they’d be wrong as well.  

Either extremes or the middle are significantly dangerous ways to run an organization when it comes to gathering estimates.  The right answer is to select a zone near one of these three points that depends on organizational culture, project complexity, and individual capabilities of the team members.  It’s important to pick a zone to operate within on this spectrum because as the project evolves its perception by team members will change and motivational tools (such as the value of estimates) will need to be responsive to these changes.

In conclusion estimates are dangerous to a project because people will want to give themselves as much cushion as possible.  To avoid this one needs to adopt a zone of influence where there are consequences for estimates with too much safety or unrealistic deadlines.  Senior leadership needs to adopt communications lines in a way to be able to understand the framework of the estimates below them.  An arbitrary application of an unrealistic timeline can destroy a great deal of good faith in an existing system and cause an adverse reaction for future projects.  Again, the best book to explain this isn’t on my college reading list.  It’s Goldratt’s novel on the Critical Chain.

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