Just Enough Estimates


Big estimates and commitments are not safe-to-fail, but having no estimates or commitments is unworkable.

When I made my breakfast this morning, I estimated (based on my experience) that two slices of bread and a glass of orange juice would be enough. I’m glad that nobody asks me to do a #bigestimate and prepare my total food intake for the whole year of 2014. That would be silly. But #noestimate, or walking back and forth to the kitchen or hotel buffet for each individual bite, doesn’t sound very practical to me. I prefer to estimate just enough to fill one plate, with a good chance of not having to walk back but also not leaving anything uneaten.

In a moment I will be packing my bags for a 2-day trip to Poland. It means I have to estimate the amount of clothes to bring with me, based on the latest weather forecast. Fortunately, nobody requires that I pack for a whole year (#bigestimate). But I have experience not checking the weather forecast (#noestimate) and then suffering nasty rain in London or chilly snow in Helsinki, and I’ve learned that merely adapting is undesirable. I prefer not to struggle with extra suitcases, but a pneumonia is not on my bucket list. That’s why I try to pack just enough.

Later today I will be traveling to the airport. Based on my experience I estimate that I should leave my house roughly 2.5 hours before departure. I don’t like leaving too early because my home is much more comfortable than Brussels airport if I want to be productive. But leaving too late is not an option. In three years I’ve missed a flight only once or twice, and I want to keep it that way. Also I’m not yet applying a #bigestimate to my travel plans for next year’s trips, but neither do I leave today’s trip in the hands of the God of Chance and #noestimates.

Big estimates and commitments are not safe-to-fail, but having no estimates or commitments is unworkable.

“The human brain is an anticipation device. This is how we cheat nature.”

I believe Daniel Dennett should be credited with this quote. We love anticipating (and estimating) things. We usually anticipate (and estimate) far too often. But it’s best to do this in small increments. #justenoughestimates. However, not anticipating, and not estimating, is no option. It would mean we’d be no different than the rest of the natural world, merely adapting to whatever is thrown in our direction. We would stop being human.

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  • Roberto Bera

    “In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. ” Dwight D. Eisenhower
    Someone attributes this quote also to Von Moltke.

  • Gerardo Barcia

    it’s important distinguish between estimates, targets, and commitments. Especially when dealing with other people’s money

  • galleman

    In the end, “right sizing” the estimates just like “right sizing” the deliverables is a risk reduction process. The variability of statistical processes – the variances of the estimate – can be reduced by reducing the “size.” That is the scalar amount of “at risk funding” they model.

    Having no estimate is blatantly ignoring fundamental business accounting principles. Which for some reason that I can’t understand this appears to be the approach of #NE.

    Without knowing the cost of things, it is not possible to assign a value or calculate a “return on investment”

  • http://mathiasverraes.com Mathias Verraes

    Eating and traveling to the airport, are both repeatable tasks, and easy to quantify with metrics like weight or time or distance.

    In the software industry, people are often expected to estimate how long it would take to estimate a task they’ve never done before, without knowing all the details. On top of that, the task would require significant research and creative problem solving — learning is the bottleneck.
    “Just give me a ballpark guesstimate!” But as soon as a number is given, it is treated by stakeholders as data. It becomes a deadline. There’s usually pressure to give the lowest possible estimate, and humans consistently underestimate tasks anyway.

    The estimate-turned-deadline is looming, so shortcuts are taken and quality is sacrificed. The deadline is met, so the business, unaware of the growing technical debt, assumes all tasks can be done in such a short time. The cycle repeats.

    Is #NoEstimates the answer? Probably not, and as far as I can tell, the movement does not make any definitive claims. But it has inspired me to question our use of estimates, and to experiment. My team still estimates, using story points (= time x risk x complexity), but after the planning meeting, the estimates are completely hidden from the team. This greatly reduces the impact of the estimates on the quality of the work. It even increased the amount of work done, because as you know, ” work expands to fill the available time”. Take away the concept of available time, and the work takes only the time that is needed.
    IMHO, #NoEstimates is a powerful and important idea. It’s young, but to dismiss it so soon, would be a mistake.

  • https://techblog.betclicgroup.com/ Maxime

    Two blog posts you might find interesting to read:

    First one begins with: “The #NoEstimates topic is a bit “infected” and my theory is that it’s all about the hashtag” 😉 The second article talks also about “the extreme tone of the word No” and talks about the similarity with NoSql (where No rather means Not-Only)

    • https://techblog.betclicgroup.com/ Maxime

      Links are there but appears in white! Sorry for that.

      • jurgenappelo

        Hm, that’s strange. We must look into the design template. Thanks for the link.

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