Data is, and always will be, the best teacher

Charles Seybold | March 17, 2010

Compress 3
left Image

Getting things done suffers from poor data visualization, that’s why we spend lots of time thinking about how to go beyond Gantt charts and get to more realistic project management visualizations.

How many times have you watched people argue until they were blue in the face and then somebody introduced actual data into the debate and it’s all over in 5 minutes?  It’s funny how the right data can have that magical effect on perception.

Some people have to learn the hard way…

And by “some people”, I mean me.

I do much of the user experience design on LP and as such, my work is part of the plan. I estimate and I track my time.  These UX tasks are always at the front of the project life-cycle because we build from the customer experience outward. This work is a “creative process”. That’s a fancy way of saying “there is a boatload of uncertainty and I don’t know how frick’in long it will take”.

But is that true? Maybe I do know how long it will take. I just reviewed my estimation history (i.e. the data) for my UX design work on our current hot project, Access Controls and saw something remarkable:

Compress 1

Last June, when we first sketched out the project, I estimated my contribution as 40h – 120h (or 1 to 3 weeks of solid effort).  It turns out this was a darn good estimate since the final total was 100h all in.  But what happened between that first estimate and marking the task done?

Optimistic compression is what happened; it’s a trap and here is how it works.

My first estimate was made just as we were wrapping up the last project; it was a great estimate based on the design work of my last project.  An analogy would be that feeling you might have when you just ended things with your last roommate, girlfriend, company, or ____________. Your mind is very clear on that day (well… if not clear, at least realistic).

However, the new project sat backlogged for a while (long enough for me to forget the previous project). When I picked it up again and started scratching the surface of the design; it didn’t look too hard.  I got excited about the project and with a little bit of knowledge (as in a little knowledge can be dangerous), I irrationally reduced my estimate.

The green mountain of logged time in the graph above and the rising estimate lines clearly shows my “recovery process”, as does the history table below.

Compress 2

It’s a good thing I’m not critical around here

While my task may have been important, it’s a good thing I was not on the critical path. An estimation miss like this can send a project spinning sideways.

Lucky for us the LiquidPlanner development team does not make these kind of mistakes. Their performance trend on this current sprint is great. Consistent, efficient, focused performance; see for yourself:

Compress 3

Self-management for the win

When you make project data available to all team members in an honest way, good things happen. You are supporting a project team’s desire to be autonomous while not sacrificing accountability. In our case, the LP team doing this work is almost completely self-managed, yet there is huge transparency into the work. If you’re a manager, let that one sink in a for a minute.  Your job will be easier if your project collaboration tools are comprehensive, open, and help people learn from trustworthy data.

I like easy and having a team that is self-managed means I have more time to design new features (like critical path highlighting coming in the next release). Maybe I can even use the extra time to work on improving my estimation; I mean really, the least I could do as manager is learn to keep up with the team.

End Notes

  • All the pictures are screenshots from the real LiquidPlanner workspace we use to manage our work. The red text and arrows on the charts were added for illustration only.
  • You’ve probably not seen three lines for estimates before (low, high, expected). LiquidPlanner captures and manages uncertainty with ranged estimates and presents schedule data in unique ways; read more about our online project scheduling software.  If you really want to geek out, go read about the cone of uncertainty.