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The Biggest Management Lie You’ll Ever Hear: “I Won’t Hold You To It”

Wont-Hold-You-To-ItI have to be honest on this one.  Not only have I been on the receiving end of this, but I am guilty of saying these words as well:

“I need a high-level estimate.  I won’t hold you to it. I know you typically need more time to create an estimate, but I am looking for an order-of-magnitude estimate. Can you get me something by tomorrow? Again, I won’t hold you to it. I know you need to do a full estimation process to give me the real number. I’m just looking for a swag.”

And then, at some point  in the future, management gets the  real estimate. It is almost always higher (sometimes double) and management (myself included) can’t understand how it got that way.   How can you go from $100k to $125 or $150k?   Or from two months to almost four months?

And, inevitably,  the creator of the swag estimate is asked,  “So what would it take to get down to the original estimate?”

So What is Management Really Thinking?

When you are the recipient of the line: “I won’t hold you to it”, the  first question you have to ask yourself is:  What was management thinking?  When management asks us to provide a high-level estimate, what do they really need that number for? It seems they were saying, don’t worry about being inaccurate or way off … I won’t hold it against you! But this isn’t rational.

Management is Trying to Make a Business Decision!

They are going to use that number for decisions. Decisions at their level! Decisions that may determine:

  • Go/no-go on a project, or
  • Do I need to plan for more budget and if so, what kind of dollars are we thinking of, or
  • Do I need to request more staffing or can I give away resources, etc.

These are typically higher-level decisions.  That means the estimates they are asking for are actually as important as any other combination of estimates we provide.

The next question: Does Management really mean it when they say “We won’t hold you to it”?

The truth is, they will hold you accountable for the number they receive.  No one in leadership is going to say: Pull a number out of the air, and wink-wink, we know it’s way off. But no worries, I know you threw a dart at a board of numbers and just gave me the result squared.

What they are really saying is that they need an estimate without going through the typical rigor of process that may take days or weeks.  I am not looking for a plan with milestones and staffing requirements.  I am looking for an overall high-level plan without that detail information. So don’t try and cover yourself on this. I won’t create pain for you.  Just give me the high-level estimate.

They may not understand, that getting them the high-level estimate requires us to build the details.  Only then will the high-level numbers have enough validity so they can make business decisions based on them.

A Best Practice: Communicate Your Concerns! Call Them Out on It

The next time management says I need an estimate but I won’t hold you to it, call them out on it! Ask them what they need the estimate for and what decisions will it be used for.  Are they looking to free up resources?  Are they putting in a budget request? Ask how painful it will be if the estimate is off by x%?   Odds are they may pad the estimate (their budgets) for planning purposes.

Start having a conversation so you can truly help management as best you can, and as a partner.

One thing is for sure, if they are asking you for an estimate, they are using it for business reasons. And, bottom line, you will be the owner of that estimate!

Estimating is a Minefield!

Estimating can be a minefield. Everyone asks for estimates. We ask a child how long a chore will take, or when they’ll be home from a party. We ask a boss when our review will be done.  Marketing has been asking me when will I have this blog article complete? (By the way, they clearly tell me they will hold me to it!)

We need a consistent language around estimating and more importantly, we need consistent expectations around how we estimate and what we “can” and what we “can’t” estimate, repeatedly and predictably.

So the next few articles are going to focus on common obstacles that cause a team estimate to either be order-of-magnitudes incorrect or simply an estimate that does not command everyone’s confidence.

We’ll start next post with about padding estimates and why we should NEVER do it.  I will present you a better alternative.

So, how many times has management asked you for an estimate that you won’t be held to?

Photo Credit: Denise Chan

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Category: Defining Success, For Decisionmakers, For Practitioners, Team Performance

  • Cathy Brunsting

    Interesting way to look at the estimating process. I know I am always very frustrated when pressured for estimates early in a project before we know what the real business needs are. However, thinking about “why” the number is being asked for and “how” it is going to be used makes the request make sense.

    In my past I worked at a company that had built into its process *four* separate estimates. The first estimate was assumed to be +/- 100% (so really, how valuable was it!!). Even with that assumption, management would invariably ask the team “why was the estimate so far off?” even when the next estimate was within the variance.

    I think that when making an estimate, even when it is deemed to be an order of magnitude estimate, the estimator needs to clearly state what is and is not currently known about the project and the assumptions that are being made to get the estimate. This will help provide the basis of information needed to understand why the estimate is different at the next stage – as more infomation is known and assumption change. You can clearly show what factors cause the estimate to vary and, perhaps, even see what could be changed to bring the project back closer to the original estimate.