Monday, September 17, 2007

Estimates, Targets, and Commitments: Mix 'Em Up and You're on the Way to Pain

This post is the third (the first two are here and here) summarizing and commenting on elements from Steve McConnell's excellent Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art.

When doing a little searching to see who had written about this point before, I found a fabulous post that covered exactly what I wanted to cover. I also found that McConnell has put the first bit of his discussion about this topic online as a free excerpt. He comes back to these topics later in the book, but the key definitions are here [~ 1MB PDF].

Since these good folks have done the heavy lifting on my post for me, I'll proceed right to the controversial part:

One would think, given the clarity and common sense of these definitions, and the nonjudgmental approach which McConnell takes toward difficult business situations, that software companies would embrace this clarity and let the light shine in on their estimates, targets, and commitments.

But, in my experience, the opposite is true. Groups will actively obfuscate the distinctions here, or deny that one or another of the terms is distinct or relevant. I believe that the root causes of this practice are

  1. Diminished tolerance for ambiguity common in group settings and
  2. Fear of the potential reaction if it is conceded that, e.g., a target value and estimate value may be far apart

Covering up these distinctions does not affect reality, but only attempts to manage perceptions. And not everyone's perceptions will be successfully managed. Such behavior is rarely helpful and often harmful.

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