Paul Glen: Truth and project time estimates

Geeks are devoted to Truth, with a capital T. The question 'When will it be done?' feels like an invitation to lie.

"When will this be done?"

Geeks hate this question. It's nearly impossible to answer. Our experience has shown us that no one can really know when a project will be done until it's done.

But non-geeks need to know. They have to plan for everything from revenue to hiring to marketing to production, and the timing of the availability of the technology is a critical constraint.

Here's how these things usually go: In a meeting, a business partner asks, "When will this be done?" You know that the real and true answer, "That's impossible to say," isn't going to fly. So you describe a detailed series of scenarios, each with a different delivery date. Each represents a different resolution of one of the major external risks identified for the project. For example, you might say, "Well, if we can get the vendor contract signed by the end of the month, then it should be done by the end of July."

As you work your way through the variables, you can't help but feel rather virtuous. Having been asked a question with an unknowable answer, you've provided the best information you have. The business partner now knows almost as much as you do about the likely trajectory of this project.

But does she see it that way? She does not. To her, you're either evasive or incompetent. She has asked you what she considers to be a simple question about a matter of vital importance, and you've responded with one "if-then" statement after another. She's thinking either that you know the answer and won't give it, because you don't want to be held accountable, or that you just don't know the answer, and therefore you must not be very good at your job.

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