#NoEstimates – Questions, Answers, and Credibility

This is questioning?

A recent episode of Thomas Cagley’s SPAMCast featured Woody Zuill discussing #NoEstimates. During the episode, Woody talked about his doubts about the usefulness of estimating and the value of questioning processes rather than accepting them blindly.

I’m definitely a fan of pragmatism. Rather than relying on dogma, I believe we should be constantly evaluating our practices and improving those found wanting. That being said, to effectively evaluate our practices, we need to be able to frame the evaluation. It’s not enough to pronounce something is useful or not, we have to be able to say who is involved, what they are seeking, what the impact is on them, and to what extent the outcome matches up with what they are seeking. Additionally, being able to reason about why a particular practice tends to generate a particular outcome is critical to determining what corrective action will work. In short, if we don’t know what the destination looks like, we will have a hard time steering toward it.

In his blog post “Why do we need estimates?”, Woody (rightly, in my opinion) identifies estimates as a tool used for decision-making. He also lists a number of decisions that estimates can be used to make:

  • To decide if we can do a project affordably enough to make a profit.
  • To decide what work we think we can do during “a Sprint”. (A decision about amount)
  • To decide what work we should try to do during “a Sprint”. (A decision about priority or importance)
  • To decide which is more valuable to us: this story or that story.
  • To decide what project we should do: Project A or Project B.
  • To decide how many developers/people to hire and how fast to “ramp up”.
  • To decide how much money we’ll need to staff a team for a year.
  • To give a price, or an approximate cost so a customer can decide to hire us to do their project.
  • So we can determine the team’s velocity.
  • So marketing can do whatever it is they do that requires they know 6 months in advance exactly what will be in our product.
  • Someone told me to make an estimate, I don’t use them for anything.

What is missing, however, is an alternate way to make these decisions. It’s also missing from the follow up post “My Customers Need Estimates, What Do I do?”. If the customer has a need, does it seem wise to ask them to abandon (not amend, but abandon) a technique without proposing something else? Even “let’s try x instead of y” is insufficient if we can’t logically explain why we expect “x” to work better than “y”. The issue is one of credibility, a matter of trust.

In her post “What Creates Trust in Your Organization?”, Johanna Rothman related her technique for creating trust:

Since then, I asked my managers, “When do you want to know my project is in trouble? As soon as it I think I’m not going to meet my date; after I do some experiments; or the last possible moment?” I create trust when I ask that question because it shows I’m taking their concerns seriously.

After that project, here is what I did to create trust:

  1. Created a first draft estimate.
  2. Tracked my work so I could show visible progress and what didn’t work.
  3. Delivered often. That is why I like inch-pebbles. Yes, after that project, I often had one- or two-day deliverables.
  4. If I thought I wasn’t going to make it, use the questions above to decide when to say, “I’m in trouble.”
  5. Delivered a working product.

While I can’t say that Johanna’s technique is the optimal one for all situations, I can at least explain why I can put some faith in it. In my experience, transparency, collaboration, and a respect for my stakeholders’ needs tends to work well. Questions without answers? Not so much.

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9 thoughts on “#NoEstimates – Questions, Answers, and Credibility

  1. Woody’s examples are many times simple and sometimes simple minded.

    – To decide if we can do a project affordably enough to make a profit – yes the need to assess the roi for the project, or form most anything. Which means ROI = (Value-Cost)/Cost. Since both value and cost are random variables over a time period of performance, estimates are needed.

    – To decide what work we think we can do during “a Sprint”. (A decision about amount) – this is straight forward. While estimates may be needed, the work should be decomposed enough to partition the durations with ease.

    – To decide what work we should try to do during “a Sprint”. (A decision about priority or importance) – estimates not likely needed for prioritizing things if we have some sense of cost, duration and value.

    – To decide which is more valuable to us: this story or that story – this seems way down in the weeds.

    – To decide what project we should do: Project A or Project B – this is a portfolio process. Economic Frontier, real Options, MicroEcon Opportunity cost can be used and requires estimates.

    – To decide how many developers/people to hire and how fast to “ramp up” – this can be a back of the envelope process.

    – To decide how much money we’ll need to staff a team for a year. – count head multiple by burdened cost. This is not a very difficult estimating process.

    – To give a price, or an approximate cost so a customer can decide to hire us to do their project – yes estimating is needed.

    – So we can determine the team’s velocity – no this is measured, not estimated.

    – So marketing can do whatever it is they do that requires they know 6 months in advance exactly what will be in our product – possibly, but still way to simple a reason.

    – Someone told me to make an estimate, I don’t use them for anything it’s not for you Woody, it’s for those who’s money your spending.

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    • The idea that we can go with value without respect to cost is definitely something I have a problem with – a feature that brings in $500 developed for the cost of $100 is worth more than one that brings in a million dollars developed for the cost of $999,999

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your hat needs to be tied on tighter. W’s conjecture is we can make decisions in the presence of uncertainty about future outcomes without making estimates. That violates Microeconomics of business decision making – opportunity costs are the basis of choice. Those are in the future and need to be estimated.
    Without tangible evidence – which he has never provided – I know of no way to make those decision about those future probabilistic outcomes without estimating cost, schedule, and technical attributes of things we need to have show up in the future.
    If he had the mechanism to do that, it could then be tested against the principles of MicroEcon and “analytical decision making processes.”

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    • A tighter hat – good one. If people want to follow good ole Woody’s schtick, then they’ll get what they deserve. Part of his appeal is his soft-spoken, grandfatherly manner. Perfect traits for a consultant.

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