The Great Facilitator: Part 3: Commitment-Based Estimation
I want to tie together two concepts I have written about during this series of articles; specifically, how proper facilitation can help a team confidently develop a plan that is realistic and manageable. This is what I call Commitment-Based Estimation. Simply put, Commitment-Based Estimation is an estimation approach that helps a team:
- Develop estimates they genuinely believe are achievable
- Feel ownership for their estimates
- Manage their commitments
Why Commitment-Based Estimation Works
I’ve used the following facilitation exercise to help teams understand some of the flaws with our typical approach to estimation. This activity also demonstrates why Commitment-Based Estimation can lead to much higher-quality results.
I always do this two-part estimation exercise in person and always with a group of people. Important: when you do this with others, be sure to state the following rules:
- You cannot ask any questions. Do your best with the information I give you.
- Write down your answer. This is important (especially when doing this in groups).
- You cannot collaborate or look at your co-worker’s answers.
Here’s how it works:
Choose a shopping mall or large shopping center that is a typical weekend shopping destination for folks near your office. The key is that it shouldn’t be across the street from your office. It should be far enough to require a planned trip to get to. For example, where I work, there is a shopping center called Oakbrook Mall, which is about four miles from my office.
Now here is the first step. I’d like you to estimate personally how long it will take to leave your office, go to the shopping center and find a store that carries designer sunglasses. Then, purchase a pair of glasses with mirrored lenses for your spouse or other family member. Then drive back to your office and drop off the glasses. Oh … and one other thing … On your way back to the office, please pick up an ink cartridge for your inkjet printer.
Now, I challenge everyone to come up with their estimates in about 90 seconds.
The First Readout…
I then go around the room and ask everyone to read exactly what they wrote down as their estimate. It is important they use the exact words! Sixty minutes is not the same as one hour.
If you do this with a group, you will get all different answers. Typically you will get:
- Someone who is optimistic and estimates a very short time. From the office, they might say around 30 minutes.
- A few folks will give a pretty precise estimate. For example 53 minutes, or one hour and 12 minutes.
- Someone who might be swagging it at one hour or “an hour and a half.”
That Was the Setup. So Now You Change the Game…
After everyone has done their readouts, I then say “great job” and explain that I want them to estimate again. However, this time they have something to lose. I pretend that I am giving away an iPad or some other prize to the three folks who provide actual estimates.
So, I want them to redo their estimates. Knowing there is a prize at stake, they now have something to lose!
And Then the Fun Begins…
I now give the group another 90 seconds to redo their estimates.
If you actually created an estimate while reading along, I’d like you to take the opportunity to make it “more accurate.” Pretend you’ll win a real iPad if you create an estimate that you’re confident you can deliver on.
I then go around the room and ask everyone to give both estimates. So again, here are some typical results during the second readout:
- The person who was optimistic at 30 minutes now says: “My original estimate was 30 minutes and my new estimate is 42 minutes.”
- The folks with the precise estimates of 53 minutes either stay the same, or they may go up a little to 61 minutes.
- There’s always someone that will take their estimate and actually lower it. They may go from 80 minutes down to 70. (This baffles me.)
- And every once in a while someone “pads” their estimate and says “one full day.”
Seriously — The Lessons We Can Learn …
While this may seem like a hokey exercise, let’s look at some very valuable takeaways:
- When we give our estimates, do we take them seriously enough? The goal of the entire activity is to realize that if we have something at stake, we will actually estimate differently and come up with an estimate we can confidently deliver on. So when our project teams are estimating, are they approaching this as the first go round? Are they saying, “You want an estimate? 53 minutes.” Or, do they understand there is something at stake … something much more significant than an iPad? If so, they should re-think and verify that they can deliver on their estimate.
- Do we assume that an estimate should be as low an estimate as possible, even if it creates risk to delivery? When we estimate, are we so afraid of estimating for real-world contingency and risk that we always estimate optimistically? We probably shouldn’t pad to a full day, but we aren’t asked to make the estimate the “best case scenario” either. It should be an estimate that we all believe is achievable and can be managed too!
- Can we estimate effectively without asking questions? When I do this in group, everyone wants to ask questions. Is there construction? What time of day are they going? Do they already know which store has the glasses? But as part of the rules, I say no questions are allowed. When they do this exercise, they can even be frustrated that they are being asked to create an estimate without knowing these answers. They think, “How am I supposed to estimate this”? And this is exactly what happens in real life with our project teams! It is the nature of our world that teams will always have some questions that can be answered and many others that cannot be answered. Yet, we are still asked for estimates that we can plan and execute against.
Commitment-Based Estimating is about helping a team deal with all three of these challenges and develop a plan that is both manageable and achievable.
Don’t forget to leave your comments below.
Bob Zimmerman’s career in custom software development spans more than two decades and has been largely dedicated to the process of leveraging technology to drive innovation and growth. As Geneca’s CTO, Bob Zimmerman continues to build on his work as the driving force behind Getting PredictableS.M., the requirements definition and project best practices that are the foundation of Geneca’s mission to make software development predictable. He continues to extend these best practices to leverage more value for clients and new growth opportunities for Geneca.