It still shocks me to see how many projects start with, if not impossible, an estimate that has not been agreed by Business and Engineering all together. Even more surprising is that the expectation versus estimation difference may easily go over 50%.
I repeatedly see how the executive team presents a deadline the Engineering team has to hit no matter what, then the engineering team states that the feasibility to accomplish the goal are slim to none, but to my surprise the company decides to move forward with the deadline and the “impossible” strategy.
Don’t misunderstand me, I know that prosperous companies have based their success on approaching and delivering projects that appeared to be impossible at first look. My point is that those companies most likely invested a big part of the effort on finding a smarter and creative new approach to solve the problem more than just putting pressure on their team on an initial non feasible plan.
This post relates to those companies that move ahead before finding the alternative strategy just based on the fact that estimates are estimates and if we are lucky reality will be better than planned. While almost all of us would agree that this is a bizarre scenario, if many companies keep following this path, there must be a “compelling” reason; I can think on five of them:
- Deadline: The feasibility of the company relies on the deadline being reached on time, for example an application that would be associated with a unique point in time event like a concert, sport contest or voting process.
- Time to Market: The company ability to release the product is critical, either because there is a competitor releasing a similar offer in the market or because the product is needed to start generating revenue.
- Prove of Value: The Company has to prove its value in front of investors or shareholders. The system to be developed has been offered as a prove of the company assets value or as a prove of the team productivity.
- Profitability: In commercial agreements, when the price has been agreed with a customer, some Executives are tempted to push the team to complete the project with a minimum time investment in order to reduce the cost and maximize the Profitability.
- Performance Motivator: As a pressure mechanism to increase teams’ performance.
I have been confronted with the five scenarios and I have a strong personal opinion for them all.
First I have to say that I’m not comfortable with any of them. I will always stand-up against moving forward for one of those reasons unless I can’t build a new strategy that makes the plan feasible. I’m not saying that Deadlines, Time to Market, Prove of Value, Profitability and Performance Motivators are not top business driving factors; indeed THEY ARE! But it is because I have each one of them in such a high esteem that I can’t accept a strategy that will maximize the chances to fail (if no additional mitigation actions are taken).
Let me comment what would I try to do when faced with any of those scenarios:
When approaching a project with a sharp deadline, make sure to have enough funds to change your approach from the beginning. Clearly explain to your investors that the plan is not feasible as it has been initially conceived and make clear that any corrective action taken down the road when the deadline is getting closer will be less efficient, therefore more expensive, than taking it upfront.
This sounds like an obvious advice if you trust the team that came up with the initial estimate, but when not, you may be tempted to just move ahead with any new team willing to take the challenge and promise whatever you wish. If you had one estimate telling you that the deadline was not feasible, either get a really, really trusted estimation from a champion team or “distrust” from any new provider that could accept your bet without solid justification.
If you don’t have funds to get additional resources, accept your situation, try to cut your scope from the beginning and only develop non critical functionality if you have time left at the end and strongly work on your contingency plan. In any case, the chances the project will fail are big and real, only take the chance if you can afford failing.. reality tends to be stubborn.
Time to Market:
This situation is very similar to the Deadline one, in this case, my only comment based on my experience is that situations where the Time to Market seems to be a death or live situation are hardly never as severe as they look. If the business idea is good and is executed with mastery, there are few occasions where your competitor will be so ahead of you that will steal your market and few investors that will doubt on re-funding your budget if needed. Indeed, all markets have competitors and if new players deliver after you, they may learn from your offering and may hit the market with competitive knowledge advantage. So keep calm and execute well.
Prove of Value:
Stressing your engineering team to prove your value to investors is always a bad idea. First, the chances you will fail and prove your investors that you don’t know how to manage are high, second even in the case you succeed, other than ethical considerations, you will end up with a burned engineering team and you would have set up false expectations for the future in front of the investors. Basically you are setting up for failure.
Pushing the team to hit a lower estimate in order to increase your profitability is a short view strategy. The growth of a company is based on its sustained profitability, pushing the productivity will not increase your long term business value but would potentially burn your top engineers and therefore lower your real objective long term productivity. If you want to really improve your profitability, improve your teams skills by investing in training and obtaining a sustained increase on their Productivity.
I’m sure that this is a managerial style, but definitely not one I would bet on.
If you have a team that you really trust on, their estimate should be taken as the right one. Since they will work as good as they can, asking them to deliver earlier than estimated will translate in either a decrease in Quality (if they accept delivering with the new deadline and the same daily work hours) or a decrease in employee satisfaction (if they accept to work harder – longer hours – to achieve the deadline with the target quality). Nobody wants to lower the quality of their product and nobody should risk losing a team they trust trying to increase their performance by decreasing the estimates; Talent is hard to find!
If you still haven’t built trust in your team, it would be a very unfair act on the manager side to lower the estimate to push the team. If they under deliver, it will be hard to know if the reason was due to their lack of skills or due to an impossible deadline. In addition, if the team is trying to get your confidence, they will be more hesitant to recognize any delay/difficulty until it would be too late to take mitigation actions. So you may miss the opportunity to detect a good team and you may have unexpected headaches towards the end of the project, that is the worst moment.
Should I add to this opinion my believe that indeed the first action a team can do to increase its performance is to expand their estimates and dedicate every time left to learn how to work better and smarter. I know that this tactic doesn’t apply to passive, non motivated teams… but very few strategies work when working with those teams.
Last, let me share my experience about what happen when the company is reaching the impossible deadline and the inevitable truth is popping up; companies start thinking on desperate measures like outsourcing work to offshore companies (they are a good resource, but not to be used in desperate situations), bringing on board engineers that supposedly “walk on water”, yelling to the team,… but 99% of the cases… it happens what you knew the very first day.
So, as a main rule, try to accept working with the estimates of your team. Plan your business tempo with them and if you have objective reasons to believe that they should be lower, train or change the team, look for a new approach to your problem, but avoid moving ahead with imposed estimates. If it is hard to make things happen when they look feasible… impossible projects succeed only one in a full moon.