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IT as Great Facilitators Part 4

What Great Facilitators Know About Estimating

IT-Great-Facilitator-4Last post, I shared an exercise that helped 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 be effective at 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 can 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 constantly optimize an estimate, 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

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 is 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 Good Facilitators Can 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 in a past blog 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.

Have you ever been in an estimation session where the facilitator was more of a hindrance than a help?

I hope you have enjoyed my 4-part series on facilitation. If you missed them, here are the links:
IT as Great Facilitators Part 1
IT as Great Facilitators Part 2
IT as Great Facilitators Part 3

In my opinion, there are way too many people who 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.

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Category: Business-IT Alignment, For Practitioners, Requirements Definition, Team Dynamics

  • Bridget Bellett

    Bob —

    Thanks for the great information on facilitation and estimating! We all in the technology area can utilize many of the points you’ve made on these topics.

    One question I have is do you have a good strategy to handle stakeholders who announce a duration requirement? There have been (too) many times where the delivery team has been given a deadline without consultation, and it has such a negative effect on tech team dynamics. Are there any additional tips that would work with such stakeholders?

    • @Bridget…

      It is “very” common for the business to impose a critical completion date. They may need a solution completed by a given date for “marketing event” or to be competitive, or to simply honor a regulatory rule.

      Here is the key. If you are telling your team (as a facilitator) that the date is required, then

      a) make sure you share “why” so they understand and can own the problem

      b) allow them to share “what they need” to make the date happen. Do they need additional resources? Special development environments, extra tools?

      c) allow them to share “what functionality can they deliver in that time frame”. They may say they can deliver 75% of desired functionality. This becomes a negotiation with the business.

      But if they business says they must have it by “xx/yy/zz”, and it must contain ALL functionality, then the team may believe this is not possible – and you should not ignore the team saying this.

      Whether they are right or wrong, the team doesn’t believe they can pull this off and that means that it is very likely to fail.

      I hope this helps. Please let me know if you had another follow up.

      Bob

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