On estimates, commitments and guarantees….

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself having the same conversation with three different client companies: ‘How do we get our teams to commit?’ There is usually a back story of frustration accompanying this question – the teams are not delivering what was ‘promised’, theres a perception they could do better if they tried harder, etc.

Of course, the basic tenet of agile is that we can’t predict the future – its too uncertain and therefore we need to keep our eyes open and work in a way that we can respond to unfolding realities as we move forward (that is, we need to be ‘agile’). So with that in mind, I differentiate between the following three terms:

Estimate: This is a guess, based on the information available at the time, of how long something will take to do (or how ‘big’ it is).

Commitment: This is where an individual or team commits to an endeavour – they will do their best to accomplish a certain goal or carry out a certain task.

Guarantee: This is a warranty – a promise that the goal will be achieved, the task completed by a certain time, come ‘hell or high water’. The word guarantee implicitly means 100% certainty. 90% certain is not a guarantee.

The trouble is, all too often these terms are conflated – they are interpreted by some as being one and the same. If you give me an estimate, it may be taken as a guarantee. Or if you do not deliver on time, you were not committed to the task. But these terms mean entirely different things. In the uncertain world of software development, an estimate cannot be taken as a guarantee. And regardless of how committed a team is to achieving an objective, there is still no guarantee they will succeed. If they don’t succeed, its not necessarily that they didn’t give it their best shot!

Think of a rugby team going out onto the pitch for an important game. Their form and that of the opposing team may indicate they are likely to win by 10 points or more (the estimate). The team are fully focused on winning – they will throw their bodies into the fray with unrelenting vigor and determination (the commitment). But theres still no guarantee they’ll win!

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