#NoEstimates is neither the destination nor the journey

Being one of the early contributors to the #NoEstimates (NE) hashtag, and a regular blogger on the topic, I am understandably regarded as a “#NoEstimates advocate”. When I get introduced to folks at meetups and conferences, a typical exclamation is “Hey, you’re the #NoEstimates guy!”

Another consequence of my reputation as a pioneer of the “movement” is that I will often get asked questions that, when answered, are deemed to represent the views of all NE advocates or, more bizarrely, NE itself. It’s as if NE is a thing that can have an opinion, or is a single method/approach. “What does NE say about X?” or “Here’s what the NE’ers think“.

What some don’t realise is that there are wide and varied disagreements between so-called NE advocates. It’s similar to the variety of viewpoints that you would get within, say, a political party. The party represents a set of values and principles, but there will rarely be a situation where all the members agree with every policy proposed or pushed through in the party’s name. I guess the same could be said of Agile too.

Folks are naturally interested in the practicalities of what a #NoEstimates approach might look like. This is fantastic, and I welcome questions and discussion on this. I engage in such conversations often. But I do want to make a point about an underlying presumption behind most of the questions I receive. Here are some of the most typical ones:

“How do you prioritise at the portfolio level without estimates?”
“How can you make decisions in the presence of uncertainty without estimates?”
“How do you convince senior management to implement #NoEstimates?”
“How can we minimise the number of things we need to estimate?”

What these questions have in common is that “not estimating” at all levels of work is where we want to head. That the goal is to reduce our estimates across the portfolio, with zero estimates as utopia. That the premise of #NoEstimates is the less we estimate, the more effective we will be.

For me, DOING NO ESTIMATES, or even LESS ESTIMATES, has never been a destination from my point of view.

My focus has always been on improving the way we work such that estimating becomes redundant.

This means understanding our business better. Becoming more stable and predictable in our method of working. Building relationships based on high levels of trust and respect. Reducing dependencies between teams. And so on.

People ask “So, Neil, how do we get started with #NoEstimates? Should we simply stop estimating and see what happens?”

The answer to this is a categorical “NO“, at least from where I sit. There are a set of minimum conditions (or “barriers to entry”) before you can get anywhere near being in an environment where you do not need to estimate. Other NE’ers might not answer in the same way, but that has always been my stance. Read my earlier #NoEstimates posts if you don’t believe me!

My views have certainly evolved on the topic, and some of my early work might take a slightly more extreme stance. But I would never advise people to stop doing anything without knowing anything about their context. Even if I did know their context, I would be suggesting small experiments rather than simply stopping doing something that may be of value to that team and/or wider organisation.

Some people see #NoEstimates as meaning “NO ESTIMATES”, and can’t see beyond that.

To me, I see it more along the lines of:

#NoEstimatesAreImmutable
#HowMightDoingNoEstimatesAffectTheWayWeWorkAndTheOutcomes?
#NoEstimatesShouldBeDeterministic,TheyShouldBeProbabilistic
#NoEstimatesShouldBeOnesWhereTeamsAreAskedToEstimateBeyondTheNext2-4WeeksButInsteadShouldBeEstimatesBasedOnEmpiricalData
#NoEstimatesAreToBlame,ButGivenTheOngoingProblemsWithSoftwareEstimationWeMightWantToExploreAlternatives
#AreSomeDecisionsBetterMadeWithNoEstimates?
#NoEstimatesAreCommitments
#NoEstimatesAreAReplacementForAuthenticAdultConversationsAboutProgressAndDecisionsAboutWhatWe’reBuilding

If anyone wants to start tweeting to these hashtags, go ahead! I prefer to tweet to where the conversation actually is (and shorter hashtags :)), and trust that the reader does their own research and understands the nuances of the debate. You need to scratch well beneath the surface to find where the “NE’ers” agree and disagree.

The destination, in our jobs as software professionals, is becoming more effective at building great software for our customers. The journey is one of continuous improvement via experimentation. We can use Agile, Lean and Kanban principles to help us with that. We can use Scrum, XP, Kanban Method, SaFE, LeSS and other methods to help us with concrete implementations of the principles.

#NoEstimates started as just another Twitter hashtag. It has since become an enduring symbol of an industry that is unhappy with the prevailing way estimation is done, and the effect that has on what we’re trying to achieve professionally and personally. Some critics have cited “poor management” as the root cause of the dysfunctions we see around estimation. If that’s true, and estimates aren’t to blame, what next? How do we address a widespread problem with poor management?

Simply telling people how to do better estimations won’t do the trick. #ShouldWeDoNoEstimates? Perhaps, perhaps not. Either way, let’s at least have a bloody good debate about how we go about things in the workplace. Let’s put our heads together and “uncover better ways of working”.

Behind the NE hashtag is a world of opinion, ideas, principles and approaches that may be worth exploring and experimenting with on your journey to becoming more effective at software development. Many have done so. Many continue to do so.

I hope you do too 🙂

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