Estimating Is an Incredible “Mind Game” (Part 2)
by Adele Sommers
In Part 1 of this series, we explored some of the fascinating things that can occur when we’re faced with a new set of activities to estimate. Even when we have only a few simple tasks to perform, our predictions of the amount of time it should take to complete them can vary significantly from one person to the next.
One explanation is that estimating seems to involve at least four influential factors:
- Formulaic aspects
- Psychological aspects
- Social influences
- Organizational politics
Part 1 of the series discussed the first two of these factors. This article, Part 2, covers the remaining two factors, below.
Social influences affect the degree to which we tend to look to others for a sense of whether our estimates are correct. Depending on what our clients, peers, colleagues, or team members say, we might end up deferring to their values and judgments rather than to verifiable evidence from our own historical timekeeping records.
Has this ever happened to you? Perhaps you’ve put forward your best guesstimate regarding the amount of time a particular project should take. Then someone responds with, “Oh, come on — how could it possibly take that long? I can’t imagine why it should take you even half that amount of time.”
Any type of overt — or even subtle — peer pressure can stop us dead in our tracks, even when we know that our estimates are usually accurate. Although the affront can be somewhat intimidating, and leave us wondering how to respond, that reaction itself often arises from a lack of understanding of what’s required to do the work.
For these situations, I recommend an empowering “guerrilla technique” that helps me calmly stand my ground rather than immediately back down if someone challenges my numbers. In a strong but diplomatic rebuttal, I explain what the tasks and steps of that job really are. I then discuss how long those steps normally take to do, based on my historical data.
Once the questioner understands why the work requires all of the actions I’ve spelled out, and the amount of time each step typically takes, the concerns usually dissipate.
But if the effort is still perceived as too great, my next strategy would be to suggest reducing the scope of work. For example, this could involve limiting the features, scaling down the complexity, and/or decreasing the amount of output — any of which could lessen the effort required.
In these flexible ways, I can thereby emphasize that while I stand firmly behind my original estimate, I’m very open to realistic ideas for reducing the time and cost by adjusting the key parameters. I won’t, however, be pressured into someone else’s assessment of what the job should take if I’m pretty certain about my calculations.
Organizational politics include the assorted forms of power and persuasion that people in authoritative roles invoke in certain situations. The organizational culture can thereby influence the way in which people approach estimating. So, when the stakes are high and business anxieties abound, consider the following:
- Does the company always expect people to do more for less?
- Does management often insist on or agree to unworkable schedules?
- Are team members urged to take on more than they can reasonably handle?
If so, these are signs that the organization may have a “must-win-at-all-costs” or a “do-or-die” view of its projects.
In those situations, some of the same issues and solutions from the “Social Influences” section above may apply. But the quandary may be broader than when colleagues occasionally question the validity of estimates. The entire culture might be routinely pushing back against realistic estimating. In those cases, the reason is more likely to be larger-scale politics.
In your organization, when you are bidding on or budgeting a “must-have,” “must-do,” or “must-win” engagement, do project sponsors, managers, or team leaders consistently urge people to overstate their capabilities and/or underestimate their time? If this does sound familiar, it’s important for everyone to take a step back and consider the implications.
Especially if you feel that you’re the lone voice of reason, try this guerrilla technique, which you can propose even from the sidelines.
Challenge the group to compare the risks and rewards of pursuing that dicey endeavor (sometimes called a “stretch project”) against the risks and rewards of:
- pursuing a lesser version of it
- pursuing a less-risky alternative to it, or
- not pursuing it at all
If there is a truly compelling reason to move forward with the original proposal, the next step is to determine exactly how to reduce or eliminate the risks. The worst thing to do is to sweep the risks under the rug and pretend that they don’t even exist. As Murphy’s law continues to teach us, those big, untamed risks are likely to come back to bite, haunt, and baffle who blithely ignored them.
So, If Everyone Concurs, Does that Mean an Estimate Is Accurate?
Not necessarily. The absence of overt social or political pressure in an organization doesn’t guarantee that estimators will produce perfect predictions, as we’ve been discovering. The exercise I described at the beginning of this series helps illustrate the extent to which people might agree or disagree on task completion times — but does not prove whether any particular estimate is accurate.
Verifying the accuracy would require each person to actually complete each task to determine whether his or her assumptions about the methods, tools, skills, and conditions are realistic.
It might turn out that Person A’s estimate of one hour to do a task is just as “accurate” as Person B’s estimate of 12 hours to do that very same task, depending on who performs it, how it’s performed, and under what conditions and circumstances.
Note that these projections don’t account for the unanticipated delays, technical glitches, or other snafus that, despite everyone’s best efforts, could throw off an estimate. These might consist of any number of project “unknowns” that could materialize.
That’s why it’s so important to carefully delineate the scope of the project, including the types of features to include; the level of quality to be achieved; and the tools, methods, and skill sets to be used. It’s also vital to carefully and explicitly constrain the circumstances under which the work will occur. In so doing, it will be clear to everyone that the scope is not open-ended!
So, here’s another potent guerrilla technique. I usually include this type of language under a special section in my contract documents called, “Caveats, Constraints, and Assumptions.” For example, this section might state that:
- “Subject matter experts will be readily available to answer questions and review documents and prototypes when I circulate them for comments.
- “A maximum of two review passes will be required to collect all comments and implement all desired changes.
- “All reviewer comments will be reconciled into one clean set of markups before returning them to me for implementation.” [That way, I won’t end up spending precious time as an outside contributor settling internal disputes between disagreeing reviewers!]
These types of boundaries help me preserve the accuracy of my initial estimates as much as possible. If any of the stated caveats, constraints, and assumptions does not comport with reality, I can quickly notify the sponsor that the process is moving out of scope, and that some remedial action will be necessary.
In conclusion, we have just examined four factors that can affect the accuracy of, and other people’s ability to concur with, the estimates that we produce: Formulaic aspects, psychological aspects, social influences, and organizational politics. With careful attention to the pitfalls and possibilities that each factor represents, we can greatly improve our project prognostications!
Copyright 2020 Adele Sommers