I was going to have another Blog post that talked about Agile estimating, but I think a Blog about estimates versus targets should be done first. In short, I think the confusion and mingling of the terms have led to many ‘perceived’ project failures. As usual, let’s start at the start. 🙂
Estimate – An opinion and educated guess as to the amount of work, people, and ultimately duration. An estimate can only considered an estimate if practitioners have created it. Ideally, an estimate is only an estimate if the project team has created it. But it the consulting world, this is sometimes impossible. The most I can hope for is that skilled and competent technical resources have created the estimate, even if they are not going to be on the project team.
Target – A opinion and uneducated guess as to the amount of work, people, and ultimately duration. A target is different from an estimate in that it is usually created by non-Practitioners. The target is usually created to put a stake in the ground to reflect an Enterprise objective or goal, Regulatory requirements or the criteria required so that a business case holds.
The problem that I have seen over and over again in the Information Technology industry is the inter-mingling of targets and estimates. Many times we ourselves are the problem. In an effort to be non-confrontational we accept targets as now the project estimate. Subsequently, the corporation wonders why our Software Development projects never meet estimates. In my experience, Software Development teams meet estimates pretty well, where we struggle is meeting targets. Is this any surprise? I’m sure if I created a target for the annual budgeting process for a large corporation I also would be way off because I can’t appreciate all the processes and factors that need to be considered. (Hey, an analogy I can use!) 🙂
I have usually found that even if a project team acquiesces to a target provided/imposed, the project itself usually comes in at about the estimate the project team created. Typically, the project team can estimate accurately unless the project is in a totally new technology or domain.
But what If I am not given a choice?
This is a situation that probably occurs more often that not. I would estimate that most of the times project teams adopt a target as an estimate, they do so because of direction from Senior Management. So what can we do?
I would recommend the following approach:
- Education – Start diligent and professional educational communications with Senior Management. Ensure they become aware of the differences between targets and estimates.
- Language – Use the language and terminology in all discussions and documentation. This is part of the education plan to communicate the difference between the two terms.
- Track both – Even if the project is executing according to an imposed target, track the project actuals against both the target and estimate. Evaluate after the project is complete and build up data from multiple projects. Don’t use this data to support an unprofessional ‘I told you so’ communication. This is very bad form. But this data will be interesting to present in a professional way. Executives don’t like surprises and being called out on the carpet when their initiatives always exceed the plan. Presenting these figures in a professional and respectful manner may convince executives to accept estimates rather than targets. (when possible)
- Use estimates internally – Even if targets have been imposed on your team, I would recommend to still create estimates and then use these estimates to track progress with your team. Tracking with targets is unfair to the team. It will create an atmosphere of mistrust and unhappiness. The team will feel that they are constantly failing. The team wants to feel they are doing a good job. Tracking by estimates gives the best opportunity to do that and to measure progress. Ideally create these estimates with Planning Poker and manage in an Agile way, but that is a topic for another Blog.
These are strategies to move the company and Senior Management in the right direction to have successful projects. It is not a short-term strategy will take multiple projects. If Senior Management chooses to not listen after you have been able to gather the information and present your case, every individual has to decide if the culture of the company is right for them.
But I believe that unless we go through the process to inform Senior Management, we are also part of the problem. The worst thing we can do is just to accept the targets as estimates.