Have You Earned the Right to do Away With Estimates?

Trust is the crucial precondition for healthy cooperation between IT and the business. I’ve been discussing #NoEstimates quite a bit with various people since my post yesterday, and everywhere this approach works, there is high trust. This is something that IT builds over the years by delivering as promised. When you have that trust, you can spend less time on estimates.

A Hollywood instructor managed to create quite advanced and artful movies inside one of the major commercial studios. He was asked how he got away with it when every other instructor at that studio was grinding out bland standard fare. He explained that his secret was to start shooting at 8 am sharp every morning. When the producer showed up mid-morning, he could see that the first two scenes were already done and dusted, so he left the instructor alone to do his thing.

The origin story of #NoEstimates on Woody Zuill’s blog is very similar: The team started by proving they could provide the most desired value quickly, thus creating a seed of trust. But unfortunately, in many organizations, IT has a track record of over-promising and under-delivering, built up over many years. That’s why the business demands detailed estimates.

To do away with estimates, you first need to build trust.

Pick the Right Place for Each Task

Peak employee effectiveness and wellbeing depends on finding the optimal balance between working alone and working with others. Microsoft does big studies of their many thousand employees. They found that disengaged employees complained about too little collaboration. Overworked employees complained about too much collaboration.

Now that both office and home are valid work locations, it is a leadership responsibility to make the most of each of them. Collaboration needs to be in the office. We survived two years of Zoom meetings, but at the cost of massive Zoom fatigue. Focused work should happen at home where the employee is in full control of their time. Leaders need to set the rules and clearly delineate what happens where.

You Need On-Site Time

You can work from home as long as you also put in 40 hours at the office. That’s official policy at Tesla, where Elon Musk has thrown down the gauntlet at his executives. The factory workers put in 40+ hours and their managers should, too.

There are some jobs that lend themselves well to remote working, and some that don’t. Elon has a point that managing people involves being visible, and much leadership happens outside official meetings. Nobody has figured out a way to simulate the informal encounters of the workplace in Zoom. That is why some on-site time is necessary for everyone inside the organization. We are seeing that fully remote workers never assimilate the culture of the organization, don’t feel a sense of belonging, and quit much faster than people who still have an in-person connection to the organization. People who are 100% remote should be contractors, not employees.

Imprecise Language

Elon Musk understands the danger of imprecise language. He builds spacecraft, and that is an unforgiving business. NASA does not use precise language, causing them to crash the $125 million Mars Climate Orbiter. SpaceX does use precise language.

Twitter uses imprecise language. You used to get banned for wishing violence on anyone. After the war started, they decided to make an exception for people who wish death on Russians. And then they had to clarify that you were still not allowed to wish death on good Russians, only bad Russians. And Twitter will be the arbiter of who is good and who is bad.

Elon Musk is so unhappy about Twitter’s imprecise language that he is willing to spend 45 billion dollars to buy the whole thing and fix it. His proposed fix: A short, clear list of banned conduct.

Whenever I am called in to do a post-mortem on a failed IT project, the root cause is always imprecise language. The specification calls for something vague like “easy to use.” But it does not provide the precise detail to evaluate if the system meets its goals. Systems must also be “fast,” “mobile-friendly,” and be “visually attractive.” Vagueness allows different people to get different messages from the same document. In diplomacy, agreements are sometimes worded so both sides can read it as a victory for them. That doesn’t work in IT systems. Are you using imprecise language in your communication?

Google Just Challenged You

Google just challenged your IT organization. They created a free version of their Workspace plan where users get collaboration spaces, chat, video conferencing, and the usual Google programs Sheets, Slides, and Docs.

This dramatically increases the risk that people in your organization will create a free Google Workspace Essentials account and run their projects from there. That means all your data is under the control of Google instead of you. If the person who set up the Workspace forgets to appoint another administrator and leaves the company, your data is stuck on Google servers with no option to apply the corporate data governance.

To face this challenge, you need a stick and a carrot. The stick is an official policy prohibiting unauthorized collaboration spaces on third-party servers. The carrot is officially approved collaboration software with great usability. It’s easy to create the stick, but it doesn’t work without the carrot. Do you have the carrot?