Tag Archives: project estimation

6 Books To Make You a Better Project Manager

As 2010 draws to a close, the need for predictions about what will happen in 2011 about.? I have even offered my own guesses and plans here, here, and here.

For this year-end post however, I offer some tools of skepticism to you, dear reader.? When it comes to predicting the future, we are all terrible at it.? Worse yet, confidence in our predictions and the accuracy of those predictions are inversely correlated.? The more confident we are, the more wrong we are.

“I do not pretend to start with precise questions.? I do not think you can start with anything precise.? You have to achieve such precision as you can, as you go along.”

– Bertrand Russell

Out of the thirty or forty books I read in 2010, several focused on the topics of decision making, estimation, and expert opinion. These are some of the books I’ve come across that have helped change my own thinking about expert opinion, our inability to predict the future, and the pitfalls we all fall prey to in our decision making process. I won’t give an in-depth review, but encourage you to check these books out and read the summaries and customer reviews for yourself.

Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan

I like Nassim Nicholas Taleb. He cuts right to the chase and backs up what he says, and has a rebellious nature that I identify with and enjoy. I tend to think that if ‘everyone is doing it’ it’s probably wrong. Taleb can come off as a bit arrogant if you are not prepared for his tone, but if you appreciate brutal honesty I think you will enjoy his works.

In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb discusses probability and how it is misunderstood and illustrates points via thought experiments and short stories. I find some of his views on the role of randomness to be a bit over the top, but very insightful nonetheless. Misunderstanding statistics is something we are very good at as human beings, and this book illustrates the point well.

The Black Swan focuses on predicting the future, and how bad we are at it. A main focus are the large-scale outlier events we can not predict and usually forget to even attempt to include in forecasts. The lesson I drew from the book was to be humble about my ability to predict the future in any way.

How We Decide

In How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer cited many interesting psychological and neuroscience studies demonstrating that we don’t always make decisions in the manner we think we do. I wrote a bit about anchoring in project estimation as a result.? He also demonstrated that for some types of decisions and situations, intuitive decision making is better suited while in others it can lead us astray. I must say I was more interested in the cited studies and follow on research I did based on this book than the book itself, but it was still a pleasant read.

Sleights of Mind

I bought Sleights of Mind primarily because of my fascination with how human psychology works and the ways in which we can be fooled. If you like magic and science, this is definitely a book for you. In terms of managing projects, this book offered me some additional insight into how people can be fooled. Although the focus here is sensory, the aspects of self-delusion and justification are extremely pertinent when considering how decisions are made in the real world. It shows how we can remember X happening even though Y actually happened, which is a good thing to know when trying to plan projects using past experience.

Future Babble and Expert Political Judgment

These I haven’t read yet but plan to in 2011, but I have done some independent looking into Tetlock’s research on ‘expert opinion’ and it is absolutely astounding.? The bottom line is that human beings and in particular experts are really bad at predicting the future.? Gardner draws upon Tetlock’s research and I think I will probably go after Future Babble as a summary of this question, and hold off on getting Tetlock’s book unless I feel I need to go that route.? From the reviews it seems that Expert Political Judgement is rather dry, more of an academic book.

In general, most experts do worse than random chance at predicting the future and even the ones who are slightly better than chance aren’t better by much.? Additionally, looking at groups of people, one who is better than random chance and the other who is worse, there is one correlate.? Those who used a single tool or approach when generating estimates were more confident in their predictions and less comfortable with uncertainty.? They also were the “worse than random chance” group.? The other group was more comfortable with uncertainty, more tentative about their own predictions, and used an array of tools and approaches rather than relying on one ‘ultimate’ tool.

Project Estimation: Mapping Size and Complexity

Complexity in project estimation is important, and yet many if not most project managers seem to ignore it from what I’ve seen.

I have been thinking and reading up quite a bit on relative methods for eliciting estimates for projects.

I’ve enjoyed Planning Poker mostly as a means to get a team working more as a cohesive whole, thinking about the project in it’s entirety and how their own work relates to the big picture.? The process has been able to spark many “ah ha!” moments for my team members when someone who was new to a particular component or area of work became exposed to it.? Sometimes a fresh set of eyes can be very illuminating.

My first steps with teams who are new to these processes are to focus on pseudo-relative (meaning mainly absolute) sizing estimates since that is what they are accustomed to being asked for.? The next step is? talking in relative terms about complexity and size in a way we can calibrate and that makes sense to the teams.

I am going to try something new and see how it goes.

First, Planning Poker

First we? will conduct planning poker, looking at relative complexity of the stories we are estimating.? A story that everyone is familiar with will be selected and discussed as the starting point for our discussions, around which other stories will be judged in relative terms.

If you are new to planning poker, there are many great resources available to learn more about it.

Next, Relative Effort Mapping

Normal planning poker sessions result in a story point estimate you stick with.? What I would like to do here is extend and validate relative mappings with a visual tool used in a collaborative way with the team.

What’s this fancy tool?

A whiteboard and some post-it notes.? Sophisticated, I know…? just like how I do Kanban.

Each of the stories will be indicated on a post-it note.? Use the same colors to avoid any unconscious grouping tendencies.? On the whiteboard draw a 2-axis graph with complexity on the X-axis and size on the Y-axis.? Starting with the calibration story in the center, review each story quickly and have the primary story owner (who will be working/lead on it) place it where they think it belongs on the matrix after having already done the planning poker session.

Pretty simple.? Unnecessary?? Perhaps.

I’d like to experiment with it and see if it yields any new insights or strengthens the understanding of the work to be done within the minds of the team.? My hope is to discover interesting discrepancies between the results of planning poker and the relative size and complexity of the same stories on the matrix.? When experimenting, discrepancies always lead to new insights and questions to be tested further.? If I find no significant or systematic discrepancies over time I will likely abandon the practice, as that would indicate a lack of efficacy.