Monday, April 22, 2013

How big is the breadbox?

A highly critical aspect of your leadership job is being able to make predictions. Sometimes, the most difficult of these can be in making project estimations. Your ability to intelligently provide an overall estimate that comes close to reality will do much to solidify or liquify your management career. There are so many different aspects to consider, so many different variables in play, and so much pressure from above to do an absolute maximum performance with a minimum of expense and time, that these experiences will leave you wondering what you ever thought was enticing about a management job in the first place.

If you are working in an industry that can take advantage of an AGILE process, you can avoid many of the problems involved with estimating huge projects. But, for now, let’s assume that’s not the case. Over the years, I’ve found that there are really a few key principles to keep in mind that can help make the job much easier, and help you deal with the pressure that always comes to “do more with less.”

We’ll start by covering the cardinal rule of guesstimating… overestimate, and overdeliver. That means, give an estimate that you can beat (by just a little bit), and bring in a product that rocks!

The first important aspect here is leaving plenty of room for your team to adequately get the work done. It can be very tempting to give estimates that make it look like your team can perform at super-human levels, and maybe they can from time to time. But, doing that too often will lead either to failure or mutiny by your team as they grow to resent the never-ending pressure you’re placing on them. They might step up to the plate for you in an emergency situation, or at some time when the company might have a major opportunity, but eventually they’ll think you’re a loser for constantly making them work 80-hour work weeks so you can come off as some kind of hero.

Even if you think you’ve left sufficient time in your estimate to allow the team to accomplish the goal without absolutely killing themselves, you probably still need to provide an even bigger safety margin. Everything takes at least double the time you think it will anyway.

The best technique for estimating the time it will take your team to accomplish a task is for you not to estimate it at all. Let the team give you the estimates. Start with the front-line folks who will actually need to do the work, and ask them for their best estimates. They’re the ones with the most intimate knowledge of what they’re being asked to do anyway. It is also usually true that workers will give themselves tougher goals to achieve than you would assign for them. Whether based out of ego, a desire to over-deliver, or maybe they know how to do something better than you do (hard to believe, I know), whatever they come up with is something they feel comfortable with.

At this point, that guy (or team) owns the estimate. As long as you don’t go mess with the assignment, he should be absolutely committed to coming through for you – no excuses. If that means he needs to work a little extra time, okay. Keep your eyes on the progress, and make sure to refresh his memory if needed. There is absolutely no excuse for someone making his own estimate that a job can be completed in 10 days, and then having it take 10.5 days. If, at the end of that 10th day, you see that guy heading for his car at 5pm, you should congratulate him on having the job done on time. If he says, “Actually, I just have a few more hours to do and should be all done by lunch tomorrow,” you have every right to turn him around back to his desk. He couldn’t find an extra few minutes a day to get it done? Not acceptable. Major project slippages don’t happen all at once. They are the result of many little slips all piling up on each other. Mind the little things.

In the next installment, Scotty comes through for Captain Kirk again...

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