Commitment Based Estimation
I want to tie together two concepts I have blogged about in the past few months. 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. As a quick review, Commitment Based Estimation is an estimation approach that helps a team:
- Develop estimates they genuinely believe are achievable
- Feel ownership for their estimates
- Treat these estimates as commitments and therefore honor them by managing to their plan
You can find my previous posts on this topic here:
Experiencing 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 2-part estimation exercise in person and always with a group of people. Important: If 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.
I’d like you to 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, but requires 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 personally estimate 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 the estimate above. They each get about 90 seconds to come up with their answers.
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 they wrote down. 60 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 says a very short time. From my office, they might say 30 minutes.
- A few folks who 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 could win a real iPad if you create an estimate that 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 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.
- (This baffles me.) There’s always someone that will take their estimate and actually lower it. They may go from 80 minutes down to 70.
- And every once in a while someone “pads” their estimate and says “one full day”.
Seriously – the Lessons We Can Learn …
This seems like a hokey exercise. Yes – I am a hokey person 🙂 . But let’s look at the real takeaways:
- When we did our first estimate, we didn’t take it seriously. The goal of the entire activity is to realize that if we have something at stake, we will actually estimate differently, and try to 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 around? Are they saying “You want an estimate? 53 minutes.” Or do they understand there is something at stake? They should re-think and verify that they can deliver on their estimate. Do they understand there is much more than an iPad at stake?
- 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 to!
- When I do this in group, everyone wants to ask questions. Is there construction? What time of day are they going? Do they know what 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 still ask them for estimates that we can plan and execute against.
Commitment Based Estimating
Commitment Based Estimating is about helping a team deal with all three of these challenges. In my next post, I will talk about how proper facilitation can help a team deal with these challenges and deliver a Commitment Based Estimate that everyone believes in and the team can manage to.
Can you think of any situations where it would have been worthwhile to try this exercise before delivering an estimate?