Saturday, 4 April 2015

"Estimates are waste"

I quite often hear "Estimates are waste" or "They aren't adding value" or "If estimates were valuable, why not do more of them? Why not only do them?" etc.
Quite often it's visualized on a linear "graph" like activities in a similar way:
The red areas are time spent doing non-value adding activities ("waste") and green areas are activities that bring value (e.g "doing the work", like writing code etc). It's quite common to put estimates in the red areas.

This might be all reasonable. Because sure, who would like to only do estimates all the time? And if not, aren't they by definition "waste"?

Is that so?

I don't see it that way. Or I misunderstand. I see it like this; Having some time to stop for a while. Pausing, reflecting. Try to see where we are. Try to see if there's somewhere (else) we should be going. That is: making (new) decisions based on the current situation. Is that waste? Of course, if we spend most of our time there, it's probably not that valuable. And keeping those periods as short as possible is of course an aim.

If we instead of a linear graph had a 2-dimensional graph. Even if we removed all "waste", how would we know we actually created value? It could just as well look like this:

(It could of course point upwards as well. But I'd claim it probably won't).

But if we pause and reflect (to make decisions), hopefully the graph might look like this:
Even if "the value" stalls for periods of time, in the long run it would probably point upwards.

This is all very simplified, I know. But it's aimed at making a point.

Sure, estimating might in the short term seem like waste of time because we're actually not doing any real work. And it doesn't guarantee value, it doesn't even really affect the outcome. That is true. But in the long run - it still brings value.

Take care of your teeth

This is metaphor. It might be a silly metaphor. But if one thinks about it, it's actually quite close. At least easy to relate to estimates (for me anyway).
I feel that taking care of my teeth is a quite boring activity. It's not value-adding at all to me. I'd rather do without actually. In short, it's waste of my time. You know; if it where valuable I would like to brush my teeth all day long, right?
But still. I realize that in the long run, it's highly valuable. Spending some time each day to take care of my teeth will bring me lots of value - even if I can't see it when actually doing it. I still wouldn't want to do it all day long, and it doesn't guarantee healthy teeth. But I'm very sure that not taking care of my teeth is a sure way to make them worse (in the end).

Could we find a way to have healthy teeth without taking care of them? In the future, who knows? That would be great! But this is where the metaphor falls apart. We need to make decisions once in a while (quite often actually). I think we all agree on that. And estimating is what we use when making decisions.
Let me quote the dictionary definition of deciding (Merriam Webster):
: to make a choice about (something) : to choose (something) after thinking about it

: to choose whether or not to believe (something) after thinking about it : to reach a conclusion about (something) because of evidence

: to cause (something) to end in a particular way : to determine what the result of (something) will be
To make a decision we weigh pros and cons. The pros might be real monetary value or just emotional value. The cons are most often the cost of doing something (and possibly when we could get it), or an emotion that we actually don't want to do it (not that common). Those pros and cons are nothing but: estimates.


  1. Suppose your mother taught you to clean your teeth by drinking vinegar. She raised you to have this deep belief in cleaning your teeth by drinking vinegar. So you clean your teeth by drinking vinegar. Now suppose you have a meeting every 2 weeks where everyone in your family argues about how much time you spend drinking vinegar. Also, when you drink vinegar, you find it unpleasant, even though you're getting used to it. After you drink vinegar, you spend 3 hours trying to get the sharp, acidic taste out of your mouth. Your teeth don't look any better than the average person's.

    This is much closer to what I see people trying to make accurate, task-level estimates (the kind of estimates whose value I doubt). They do it because someone told them that they have to do it. No-one really believes that those estimates help and everyone sees the pain and suffering in those meetings, but no-one thinks they're "allowed" to stop.

    1. Hi J.B!

      Thanks for comment! I agree with your points.

      My point is that I feel like NoEstimates is trying to question the basic idea of estimating, not the tool used to create it (like toothbrushing).
      I might be wrong, but that is the feeling I get.

      I'm all for changing the way we work and the tools we use. But the basic idea of having a general idea about the impacts of the choices we're deciding among (see definition in post) isn't something we can do away with.

      Just like a chainsaw and an ax is quite different - they still share the same purpose (to cut things down).