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I Dunno

Pkrfc I'm on a new project now. Well, actually the project isn't new... I'm just the new kid on the block.

So far so good.  I haven't dropped a ball, and my project leads and sponsor are all still talking to me, and everybody smiles when they see me coming (and not one of those oh-crud-here-he-comes-I'd-better-paste-a-smile-on smiles either... so there).

We're in the planning phase of the project, which is normally a good thing... except...

Many of our requirements are being driven externally.  Whenever this occurs (in ANY organization or ANY industry or ANY project), you run the risk of some information not being available when you need it.  Such is the case here.  There are some things we just don't know.  It makes it hard to estimate tasks when you don't know what you're doing.

With some project managers, that can grind things to a halt.  I'm lucky enough to have a pretty smart team who can connect the dots and make some educated guesses.  We've had some discussions about not knowing all the specifics, yet being able to estimate for requirements and scope that do not yet exist.

It's not quite so daunting as it may sound.  Martin Harris of Transient Technology wrote a great piece last month about estimates.  As he says, they are not the same as commitments.  Figuring them out is as "simple" as comparing against other similar experiences.  This is exactly what I've done with my team.  I asked them what they'd accomplished.  Then we talked through how to use this experience as a baseline.  As Harris pointed out in his article, there is a bit of a poker metaphor to this technique.  Figuring out what size or complexity "beats your hand" is important in making logical estimates.

Example:

Task 1 took four days and 10 effort hours to complete.  The only thing you know about Task 2 at this point (pending receiving your scope requirements) is that it is probably twice as complex as Task 1.  Hence, the logical thing to do is give it eight days and 20 effort hours.  However, you also know you are time-boxed and only have a week to complete it; therefore, the duration shrinks to five days while the effort hours stay constant.  But because you know the requirements are uncertain, and there may be some office politics involved in finalizing them, you may want to bump it up to 30 effort hours due to additional meetings and phone calls.

Granted, that's a very simplified example, but the reality is the creation of estimates is simply narrating the path from the known into the unknown.  The other thing I've been telling my team about estimates is they are learning opportunities.  I don't use missed estimates for witch hunts; I use them for learning opportunities.  The caveat for this is to ask them to document any known assumptions used for building their estimates.

So "I Dunno" is an acceptable answer for requirements.  That lack of knowledge should not be a road block to creating estimates.

Carpe Factum!

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