• rm@rmbastien.com

Estimation Deficit Disorder

Estimation Deficit Disorder

Estimation is not clairvoyance; it has to be based on a solid understanding of what has to be done.  But corporate IT is severely handicapped in its ability to understand and estimate what has to be done owing to five foundational issues:

  1. Organizational memory.  When a digital system or one of its engineered components was not documented adequately by past projects, it creates uncertainties about the components involved in the new business solution.
  2. Standardization. The absence of adopted standards creates additional variability and unknowns about the systems affected by changes.
  3. Quality control. Conformance to standards is a form of control on the quality of what is created.  When some aspects of quality — be it standards compliance or any other good practice — are not systematically controlled when building IT solutions, it creates uncertainty about what’s out there and how to deal with it.
  4. Asset management.  Because a whole portion of corporate IT creations is not managed as assets, no one owns them and there is little historical data available. There is no data on how much previous work on that system ended up costing.   Again, this creates uncertainties about how much work will be required.
  5. The last and most important challenge is the difficulty experienced by digital teams in understanding what the requirements are. If one doesn’t know in sufficient detail what the business solution to be built has to do, how can they estimate correctly? This is a real obstacle to estimation and has been a driver for the development of several development methods. You should exercise caution before declaring that difficulty a show stopper on an estimation practice and first read further on this subject here.

All these uncertainties either hamper organizational ability to estimate or create surprises later on that make estimations go astray.

Using the above impediments to explain why estimations are so often off-mark is one thing.  Using these hurdles as an excuse to not get better at estimating is another. 

IT projects are very good at counting how much something actually costs and comparing it to how much was budgeted.  But no one in IT has any interest in comparing actual costs with what was estimated in order to get better estimations the next time. 

Delivery or Estimation, Which Comes First?

Organizations that deliver digital solutions are notoriously bad at achieving according to plans. For the last 30 years, damning reports on the subject have become both common and repetitive in their conclusion. The reports have become so habitual that it seems that nobody cares anymore despite the billions of dollars spent each year.

One way to look at the problem is to see it as a delivery issue: “Those geeks can’t deliver.” But that’s not fair, because I know for a fact that they work hard at what they do strive to improve.

There’s an alternate way to look at the problem: an issue about devising beforehand what has to be done. If the estimates were more accurate, the schedule would be respected because what has to be done would be accounted for. So the alternate verdict about the delivery issue is: “Those geeks can’t estimate“. And I can safely say that in this case, that’s fair.

How can such a serious weakness, with considerable consequences, not be the driver of a relentless quest for improvement?  The answer is simple: there are no incentives to do so.

No Good Enough Reasons To Fix the Problem

This flabbiness in executing what should be a continuous and relentless quest for improvement in the exercise of estimating is rooted in a very simple reality: corporate IT is the only one serving your needs, providing to your organization with everything under the IT sun. 

In the infrastructure side of IT, competition has been around and aggressively trying to offer similar services to your business as alternatives to your in-house function. The other portion of corporate IT — the one driving change endeavors and managing your application systems — operates in a dream business model: one locked-in customer that pays for all expenses, wages, and bonuses. And the client pays by the hour!  When wrong estimates neither make you lose your shirt nor any future business opportunity, the effort for issuing better ones can safely be put elsewhere, where the risks are more imminent.


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