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The Great Facilitator Part 4: What Great Facilitators Know About Estimating

Bob_Z_mar_27_28309844_XSIn my previous article, I shared an exercise that helps teams understand how to develop a plan that is manageable and achievable. I call this “Commitment-Based Estimation.” Now I will show how great facilitators can play a role in making their teams super confident about their estimates.

Who Should Facilitate an Estimation Session?

Before we talk about how to do a great job in facilitating estimation sessions, I’m going to discuss how to select the best person to facilitate these sessions.
I typically find that the Team Lead drives estimation sessions. Project Managers and Architects are also fairly popular in this role. The key, however, is to find a person who will allow the team to own the estimate.
When a Project Manager leads the estimation, they usually drive a team to develop estimates that reflect the project plan. Once the Project Manager starts imposing schedules, or challenges the team to optimize an estimate constantly, then the team won’t feel ownership. This is not how to get a Commitment-Based Estimate.

Similarly, when an Architect drives the estimate, they typically assume a technical frame of reference and try to help the team understand the mechanics of the estimation. If they impose their vision for the complexity of certain tasks, once again, the team won’t feel ownership.

So who makes the best facilitator for estimation sessions? I’d say look for a person who is:

  • Part of the team and has skin in the game
  • Already a respected leader and trusted by the team not to impose their personal views
  • Is experienced in helping teams balance risks, contingencies and dependencies

The One Rule You Should Never Break

There is one rule the facilitator must never break: Allow the team to come up with estimates they believe in. Unless the team is very junior or new to estimating, every team needs the freedom to come up with their own estimates. If the team asks for two weeks, never impose a shorter schedule and tell them to get the job done in one week.
Now you may be thinking: Does this mean I can never challenge a team? It does not. What it does mean is that as a good facilitator, you ask the right questions and help them share and test their assumptions.
For example, ask the team: “What would you need to get this done in a week?” or “How much can you get done in a week?” By asking the right questions, the scope may get reduced. Now you get the deliverable within a week because the estimation was not imposed on them. Again, the facilitator does not want to undermine the ability of the team to own the estimate.

Other Things Great Facilitators Do:

Some of the other approaches that have helped me personally manage some very strong groups include:

  • Make sure the team does not give an estimate that is simply unrealistic. I talked about this recently on my blog, in a post called “Attitude of Estimation.” As a facilitator, you want to encourage the team to come up with an estimate that is workable.
  • Ask questions and create assumptions to make the team think of scenarios that might happen. This helps the team create more accurate estimates.
  • Make sure everyone has a voice. Business Analysts need to be able to articulate the business needs and clarify what is being delivered. Project Managers can offer perspective on dependencies and resource availability. The QA team needs to test not only to see if something works, but also to see if the product is in compliance with business needs. Developers, Architects and the database team also need to weigh in. Too many times an estimate does not include a full set of voices and results in inaccurate estimates and mediocre functionality.

In my opinion, too many people take the facilitator role for granted. I think there are some jobs that are too important to perform any less than perfectly. Facilitation is one of them. A poor facilitator can break the spirit of a super talented team while a great facilitator can lead a good team to surprise itself on what it is capable of.

Get the whole picture by checking out the other 3 parts of this series –

Part 1 –  Part Business Analyst. Part Orchestra Conductor. Part Psychologist – Do you think of yourself as an effective facilitator but unsure how others perceive you? Maybe you’ve been at a meeting recently where the facilitator is doing a fantastic job but you just can’t figure out exactly she is doing differently. The differences are subtle.  This series is about those subtleties that separate the great facilitators from the mediocre ones.

Part 2 – Check in and the Chair:  Why can some facilitators effortlessly lead their team to achieve brilliant clarity and enthusiastic alignment? This article includes some basic practices great facilitators use to manage a room and deliver impressive results.

Part 3 – Commitment Based Estimation: In order for an estimate to have teeth, the team must feel ownership of the process and genuinely believe the estimates are achievable. This article includes exercises to facilitate estimates that are realistic and manageable. 

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.