Defining Estimation

Several people will ignore this blog because they don’t think that estimating applies to them. When it comes to software engineers, contractors, and mechanics, we all understand how it is vital to their day-to-day livelihoods. However, I am going to show you why everyone needs to master estimation. We make estimations everyday, and failure to recognize this creates negative consequences that impacts you, your job, and family.

We’ll tackle this subject in three parts:

Part 1: Defining Estimation

Part 2: How to get better at estimating

Part 3: Estimation — Pulling it all together

Online Meetings

Let’s start with the definition of estimation because most people have a wrong understanding of it.  Everyone has had to take some kind of guess how long something will take and most of the time they are wrong. Why is that?

The standard definition: “A rough calculation of the value, number, quantity, or extent of something”

Estimation in the business world: “How long is “X” going to take?”

The contrast between these two definitions is super important. Essentially, what we are asking people to do is predict the future, and then we hold that person accountable to the prediction. I have 10+ years’ experience working with software teams, and I would say that estimates were right about 10% of the time. We need to move away from trying to predict the future and move back to the real definition of estimation. The first way to approach this is by changing the language. If we continue to use the word estimation then each person brings baggage to the table that can negatively impact the team. I want to talk about three key terms:

First, let’s start with the word Time box.

A definition of time box is a time period a person or team sets to work towards the completion of a goal. The important distinction is acknowledging that we are setting a time limit to the work and not trying to guess on how long it will take. By time boxing, you provide a good stopping point if things start to get out of hand.

Next, let’s discuss Evaluation.

The definition of evaluation is a judgment about an amount, number, or value of something. Sounds a lot like estimating! This is critical when working on complex tasks — especially when they are over 8 hours.  While you are working, you need to monitor how you are progressing. The key is to quickly be able to determine if your pace of execution will meet the time box. This means that you need to be consistently evaluating at what point you are in your process in relationship to the time box.

Last word is Retrospective.

A definition of retrospective is to look back on or to deal with past events or situations in order to assess, learn and adjust. Many companies meet on a regular basis and discuss issues with work. However, they are weak when it comes to creating and prioritizing action items that will improve execution. The retrospective process needs to be lean and effective (also another blog!).

In the next installment, we’ll examine steps to get better at estimating … I mean time boxing!