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25 August 2009

Knowing when to start finishing

By Andrew Clifford

To meet deadlines, we focus on accurate estimation and tracking. We often overlook the important skill of knowing when to start finishing.

How long does it take to do something?

In simple cases, like shovelling a heap of sand, there is a direct relationship between the size of the task, the number of people, and the time it will take. If one man can shovel a ton of sand in an hour, then two men can do it in half and hour, and six men could shovel twelve tons of sand in two hours. Managing this sort of task is easy - just size up the task, divide by the number of resources, and make sure they keep going.

We use this effort-driven model a lot, but it is often inappropriate. It only works when we know the size of the job, when the task has a definite point of completion, when we can determine a rate for the job, and when the only thing required to get the job done is suitably skilled resources.

Most tasks are not simply effort-driven.

Discovery tasks, like finding a bug in a program, are almost impossible to estimate. It might take 10 minutes, or 2 days, or 3 months. You might be able to define an average, but tracking individual tasks against this average is meaningless. If things are running late, it might be worth getting someone else involved, or maybe postponing the task until later.

Open-ended tasks, like report writing, are probably the most common. How long does it take to write a management report? You could write a two line summary in five minutes, or a one-pager in a day. In a week you could talk to a few people and perhaps produce a few sides. An in-depth report could take four weeks. You could take years to analyse the situation in detail.

I have often been asked to finish reports and design documents that other people have struggled to complete. Those originally responsible were failing because they did not know when to start finishing.

Consider a project architecture document. The document is not meant to be a definitive account of everything, but enough of what is known and key decisions to guide the detailed design as much as possible. The temptation is to keep investigating, keep looking for detail, until you are sure, and never to commit what you have to paper and never to finish the task.

To finish an open-ended task on time you need know when to start finishing. If you have to write a report, you have to know when to stop investigating and commit what you know to paper. If you have a week to write a report, spend three days finding out what you can and spend the morning of the fourth day writing this up. That gives you a day and half to find out the most important parts that you have missed, and to make the document as presentable as you can.

Instead of estimating open-ended tasks, you just need to set a reasonable budget of time, and stick to it. There is no need for contingency, and no excuse for late delivery. You just need to know when to start finishing.

Next: The culture of dishonesty

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