Sunday, September 16, 2012

Turning Estimates into Commitments

Guest Blog by Timm J. Esque
The Language of Planning
Think for a moment about the types of statements that get made during the planning of an upcoming project:

-        This project will need more resources than the last one
-        That task will probably take 4 people about 5 weeks to complete
-        We should be able to get that done by the end of the month
-        Meeting that goal is going to be a stretch

These are all examples of a certain type of statement called an assertion.  Assertions extrapolate from our past experience.  We make assertions because we learn from the past, and those learnings are valuable for planning the future.  But those learnings can also hold us back. 
Assertions are an important part of the planning process, but they are only the beginning.  If the conversation of assertions and estimates becomes our schedule, we remain chained to the past throughout the project.  In our modern project environment, full of uncertainty, lots of things don’t go as planned.  And when they don’t we want to revisit and rationalize our assertions - “We said we could do it in 5 weeks because based on what happened last time we expected…”  So our progress reviews tend to get mired in “what ifs” and “shoulda’s” and blame. 

What we really should be talking about in our regular project meetings is the future we are going to create.  This requires a different type of statement called commitments.  At a certain point in the planning process, we need to shift the conversation from assertions to commitments.  Commitments are not tied to the past; they are only and always a declaration about what is going to happen in the future.  When we use commitment language on projects, we are not basing our statements on possibilities, we are declaring that something will get done by a certain time.   Further, when we make commitments, we are putting our personal reputation on the line.  These language distinctions derive from “Speech Act Theory” as posited by John Austin, his student John Searle and his student Fernando Flores.

Commitment, Trust and Reputation
Putting our reputations on the line (operating from commitments) greatly increases the chances that we will create the future we have declared.  It brings the whole issue of trust to the fore.  But it is not as scary as it sounds.  Trust is not black and white, all or nothing.  You can miss a commitment and still build trust with your team mates.  This is a concept we call “early warning”.  When someone realizes a commitment they made is in jeopardy, they need to speak up immediately.  Often times another teammate can help, or the commitment can be re-negotiated so that the team remains on track (maybe the whole committed outcome wasn’t needed to stay on track and the key parts of the deliverables get clarified).  On teams, personal commitments are made in the context of a shared goal, so the issue at hand is not did someone miss a commitment, but what commitments will keep us on track now.  There is no faster or more effective way for teams to build trust than to make , manage and meet commitments to each other on a regular basis.

Where Do We Start?
When my company Ensemble works with teams, we begin the whole planning process with a technique called map day that sets the stage for managing the network of commitments between team members.  But a great place to begin experimenting is with your most immediate team.  Follow these steps:

1.     Using your existing plan/schedule pull off the tasks representing roughly next 6-8 weeks of work
2.     With your small team, identify the outcomes (deliverables) from those schedule items.
3.     Have some discussion about how you’d know each deliverable was complete and done well.
4.     Now have each team member identify their individual deliverables for the next several weeks (we often have team members write their items on post notes and put them on a timeline).
5.     Scrub this plan for dependencies and take into account vacations, etc.
6.     Now moving from left to right on the plan, for each deliverable, ask the owner if they can commit to deliver that deliverable on that day. (Making this a deliberate step is key)

For Agile teams operating from a backlog of stories, simply identify the personal commitments required to support each story.  It is important to remind people at step 6 that these are not estimates, you are asking for their personal commitment.  Most likely, before you get through the 6-8 week horizon, people will start balking – there is too much uncertainty.  That is no problem.  Start tracking the commitments you have together as a team each week.  Every week, you can see if team members can turn some of those future deliverables into commitments.  Over time, when done right, teams will build “commitment muscle”, meaning individuals will be willing to commit further into the future, in spite of uncertainty. 

For 17 years now we’ve been helping teams large and small operate from commitments.  We recommend teams track team performance against commitment with a simple tool we call a PAC chart.  Not only does the chart predict which teams will meet their commits in the future, but productivity measurably increases almost immediately. What is stopping your team from operating from commitments?

Timm Esque is author of No Surprises Project Management (1999, ACT Publishing) and Co-founder of Ensemble Management Consulting.  He has been cited in the Wall Street Journal as an expert on performance under pressure.  If you’d like some help turn estimates into commitments (and maybe to learn the map day technique), consider coming to an Ensemble Commitment-Based PM Workshop.  All workshops include follow-up coaching.  We also offer a performance-based CBPM Certification.  The next workshop is in Silicon Valley on November 7&8.  Click here for more information. For an additional 10% off the Early Registration price for The Complete CBPM Workshop enter promo code "fromzenpm" at the workshop registration page.