Steve Fenton

The NoEstimates philosophical divide

The key arguments on #NoEstimates reflect a split between social responsibility and corporate responsibility. They are not mutually exclusive.

What I mean is, there is a philosophical difference between the two main threads of argument when #NoEstimates comes up.

Let’s begin with a quick recap for anyone who hasn’t spotted the discussion. The #NoEstimates hash-tag is a discussion on whether we can work without estimates and if so, when. It is also a discussion on some of the dysfunctions that are intertwined with estimation, whether they estimates cause dysfunction or are caused by dysfunction or somehow linked to it (i.e. known to be in the same room at the time the crime was committed).

There are two main points of controversy. The first is that nobody can sensibly agree on what is an estimate, so the definition of the term is a constant rub-zone. Very often, someone claiming to be using #NoEstimates in real life must answer the counter-claim that the methods they use do actually contain some form of estimation. Perhaps there are forms of estimation that are problematic and others that are not (discuss!). The second area concerns whether it is professional to use a #NoEstimates approach and questions why someone should pay the wages of people who can’t tell them when something will be done.

Disclaimer: it is unlikely that I have done justice to the full breadth of the arguments in that paragraph, but trust me – the long version gets painful!

I am interested in the second of these two areas. The two opposing sides of this argument seem to me to represent Corporate Responsibility on the one hand (cost, profit, professionalism, etc) and Social Responsibility on the other (humane working, avoiding death-marches, etc). These two areas are not mutually exclusive. In many cases, social responsibility is a massive enabler for the goals of corporate responsibility. If you are working in a way that destroys the joy of work, crushes motivation, and causes high turn-over rates – that isn’t just socially destructive – it affects your corporate goals because everything will take longer and cost more. If you are using estimates in a destructive way, you can’t claim professionalism or corporate responsibility. (For clarity, the if is important here because I’m not claiming estimates are always destructive – you can’t be too careful when it comes to #NoEstimates, so I am making a rare exception in emphasising the emphasis).

So the crux of the issue, within your organisation, is that you need to:

  • Question any practice that undermines the social contract you have with employees
  • Question any artefact that you generate without thinking to see if it is really solving the problem

So for example, I question the practise of asking a software developer to tell me when a feature will be ready based on an assessment of how long they think it will take, but I feel more comfortable with a product owner projecting a range of dates based on past cycle times and knowledge of what other work will be in progress.

Hopefully I have managed to provide a fair representation in summary form. I do declare an interest in removing the practise of estimation – but my methods have been classified by my critics as being a form of estimation anyhow so I suppose I stand with a foot in each camp. If you think this all sounds crazy, it is entirely inspired by brilliant thinkers (and doers) like Drucker, McGregor, Seddon, Pink, Covey, Semler, Yourdon, Weinberg, Taleb, Brooks, Cohn, Beck, Martin, and many more – there is an underlying something in this wealth of work that resonates with me.

Written by Steve Fenton on