The best response when providing estimates

fullsizerender
Time to Read: 3 mins
 
Early on in my career, I was asked to give an estimate on how long it would take to implement a new feature.
 
Now this was my first ‘real’ job out of university and to be honest I really had no idea on how to estimate.  In an attempt to assuage my discomfort (and try to get some sort of a useful response out of me) my manager added:
 
“What is an estimate really? Its just a guess, it could be right, it could be wrong.  It’s really just a guesstimate.”
 
As I progressed further on into my work career, the term ‘guesstimate’ was something that never really sat well with me.  I recently read The Pragmatic Programmer by Andrew Hunt, in which a small chapter was dedicated on how to best handle estimations.
 
 
Estimates as guesstimates
A guesstimate implies that there is very little science, process or calculation around making an estimate. And although a guesstimate is sometimes analogous with estimates, providing a guesstimate is not the most appropriate response in all circumstances.
 
 
Context 
A guesstimate may be appropriate when someone asks ‘when will you be free for lunch’.  In this scenario the worst case is that you end up having lunch by yourself or maybe reschedule for another day.
 
But if you are working on something a little more serious then a guesstimate may be ill-suited.  Let’s say you were on the Waymo project and developing self driving cars. My assumption is that they are not working off guesstimates.  Mis-interpreting distance, moving objects or road signs would have dire consequences.  In this scenario accuracy is paramount therefore a rigorous estimation approach would be more appropriate.
 
The point is: How much effort is taken should be dependent on the context.  The more important the context, then the more time and you should be with your estimates.
 
 
Implying a higher degree of accuracy

How you describe your estimates is important.  The units that you use can imply a certain level of accuracy.

 
Going back to my opening example, if I gave an estimate of around 6 months to implement the new feature.  That sounds fine, right?
But if I gave my answer in days i.e. 120 days, which estimate sounds more accurate: 6 months or 120 days?
 
Using days assumes a more accurate estimation than months, but in some cases you don’t want to be accurate. If I was one month off the original estimate, it still doesn’t sound as bad as being 20 working days off.
 
Below is a general guide of giving out estimates and which units to use:
> 4 hours =  use days.
> 15 days = use weeks.
> 8 weeks = use months.
> 6 months =  take some more time to think.
 
 
Where the best estimates come from
The best estimates come from work that has already been done before.  If someone has completed the same or a similiar job in the past, a real world example would be the best guide in giving an accurate estimation.  If this is not available then there are other strategies that you can adopt to give a more confident and accurate estimation.
 
 
Functional Decomposition
Breaking down a task into smaller components will truly give you a better understanding on what needs to be done. This process is often referred to as functional decomposition. Once you have decomposed a larger task into smaller components, you can then estimate on each component and sum the value of every component giving you a final number.
 
Functional decomposition will allow you to identify any dependencies between tasks that might cause your estimates to creep up.  Another benefit is that it enables you to pin point exactly where your estimates went over or under.  Having the ability to communicate that kind of information gives stakeholders a level of transparency that goes a long way to demonstrate your analysis skills.
 
 
Historical records
For some professionals estimating is a regular and vital part of their job.  If this is the case try to keep a historical record on your original estimates versus the actual. Doing this over time will increase the accuracy of your estimates.  You will be able to recognise patterns and add the right contingency and tune your estimation process.
 
 
The best answer…
The next time you are asked for an estimate, consider the context and if it deserves something better that a guesstimate,  maybe the best response you can give is: “I’ll get back to you on that” 
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Hidden benefits of root cause analysis

Rebecca Hall

Time to read: 3 minutes

 
I recently watched the Movie ‘Christine’ starring Rebecca Hall (illustrated above).  Based on a true story, the movie deals with issues of being a misfit, living up to the expectations that we put on ourselves and coping with it all.
 
 
There are few scenes where we are able to gain an insight into the mind of the protagonist (Christine) as she tries to solve the problems and  dilemmas of life.
 
 
If you plan to watch the movie for yourself I would advise against googling ‘Christine Chubbick’ to avoid any spoilers.
 
 
 
Sock puppets 
Christine regularly visits a children’s hospital, and performs a sock puppet show.  She sometimes finds herself talking through her own problems via the sock puppets.  These are great scenes and its amazing to see how externalising problems helps in clarifying what’s bothering Christine.
 
 
 
The “Yes, but..” exercise
Another scene is where Christine is unknowingly coerced into an TA (Transaction Analysis) meeting. She partners up with a stranger and participates in a “Yes, but..” exercise.
 
You start by stating a problem: ‘My husband won’t paint the house’
 
The person listening would suggest a solution: What if you hired a painter’
If the suggestions isn’t appropriate then you have a chance to object: Yes, but i can’t afford a painter’
Another solution is suggestedWhat if you painted the house’
 
 
The format is repeated until you arrive at a solution that is suitable.  In most* cases solving the problem is completely within your control; we can make a decision or change our attitude without waiting for others to change.
*This statement is not always applicable;  as an example the character Christine suffered from a mental illness.
 
 
 
Root cause analysis
In business the equivalent tool we have is the 5 why’s.  The 5 why’s was developed within Toyota by Sakichi Toyoda.  It was used to advance their manufacturing process.  An example that may come straight out of Toyota:
 
The car wont start.
 
  1. Why =The battery is dead
  2. Why = The interior lights were left on for several days
  3. Why = The door sensor stopped working
  4. etc..
  5. etc..
 
 
 
Ancillary benefits
Further to finding the root cause of a problem or failure there are ancillary benefits of using an iterative process when solving a problem.  We are also able to easily identify and question Assumption and Logical Traps
 
 
Assumptions is something that we are all familiar with, but to use our earlier example,  when Christine used the sock puppets. it helped her to identify and question her own assumptions; the same can be said of the ‘Yes, but..’ exercise.
 
 
On the other hand logical traps are shortcuts that our brains uses in order to make decisions faster.  We do this by identifying patterns, making estimations and trying to make connections all in an effort to reduce the amount of effort that is needed to think.  Logic Traps are very useful and at the same time they can be misleading and inaccurate (hence why we use the 5 why’s)
 
 
 
Other points 
If you are using root cause analysis with a work setting, you may need to go through more than five iterations in order to find the root cause.  Furthermore you may find that there is more than one point of failure.
 
 
 
Conclusion
Self examination is a good exercise to go through and a great to skill to have.  It does take some level of courage to critic yourself and a level of self belief to know that in the end, you will be better for it.  In business prudence is shown when you decide to be proactive and not waiting for the next ‘major incident’ to initiate root cause analysis.
 
 
In both cases problems are easier to handle and solve when they are small and not screaming out at you.

Information vs Affirmation (& how to distinguish between the two)

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Time to Read: 3 mins
 
A cognitive bias describes a pattern of thinking that deviates from logical and sound reasoning.
 
While completing my degree in 2014, I still remember spending an entire class (3hrs) looking at the cognitive biases and how they effect organisations, management and decision making. It was the first time I had ever come across cognitive biases and I found the topic to be fascinating.  I started to reflect on my past decisions and wondered how much of my thinking was influenced by cognitive biases.
 
 
 
Examples
Cognitive biases was popularised by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman; they dispelled the belief that in business, humans made decisions based on evidence and logic. For their works they Kahneman (illustrated above) was awarded a Nobel prize in 2002.
 
Here are just two of the example to keep in mind as you continue to read:
 
  • Confirmation Bias:  The tendency to find information that only supports or confirms our point of view. And
  • Ingroup Bias: The tendency to to favour those that are in the same group as us.
 
 
 
The dangers of biases
By its very nature cognitive biases are unavoidable; in that, when they occur we are unaware that they are occurring. As we can’t  consciously control cognitive biases from happening, the only thing that we can do is be aware that they exist, and the situation where they are most likely to occur.
 
Having biases within ourselves is one thing.  But having biases in the technology that we use is something that we rarely think about.  Just as human bias is not immediately detectable, neither are the biases that exist it the technology that we use. To make sense of this topic I want to separate technology into two categories:
 
  1. Technology that we control and
  2. those the we don’t.
 
 
 
Technology that we can control 
This category describes technology that we know is accurate and true, in essence it’s technology without any biases.  As an example when we use a tool such as a calculator, a excel worksheet or even a map to get directions on our phones.  

 

When using these types of technologies we are confident that the information is real and that because information is in plain sight; you can identify street names and recognise building on a map.  You can see and understand the logic behind a calculator and control the formulas on a excel spreadsheet.

 
 
 
And technology that we don’t
Then we have technology that we don’t control.  Some examples of these technologies are large social media sites, search engines and intelligence assistance like Siri or Alexa.
 
At times (more often than we think) these technology will try to make decision on our behalf, they predict want we want to see and hide what we don’t.  Behind an attractive, simple and user friendly UI is an enormous amount of complexity which is hidden away from us.  Hidden, in the same way as our own cognitive biases.
 
 
 
A design problem?
Cognitive biases is something that we can’t control, but with regards to technology, this is something that we can control. The problem doesn’t lie so much with the technology, but in it’s design and design is something we have conscious control of.
 
Whether we are designers or not, at a minimum we should all be aware that biases do exist in some of the technology that we use and how they could be influencing our thinking and understanding.
 
 
 
Information vs Affirmation
Take some time to think about the two cognitive biases that were mentioned earlier…
 
When we are using tools that we control (i.e. that have no bias) we can be sure that the we are getting Information.
 
When we are using technology where biases exist, we are more likely to be receiving information that confirms our points of view and from sources that reflect a similiar opinions that we hold.  Whether our views are right or wrong, what we are getting is Affirmation.
 
I just think it’s important that we can distinguish between the two…

Understanding Idle Time

Harvey Firestone

Time to read: 3 mins

Some of the hardest goals that we set for ourselves are those that are long term.  Long term goals require consistent action, over an extended period of time.  With long term goals the element of time is unavoidable.  In these scenarios time can be used to learn, grow and mature.

In other circumstances time is avoidable, when you are clear on what you want to achieve and the steps that need to be followed; there is no need to wait or procrastinate.

So what can you do with your idle time while you are:

a. Growing, maturing and learning and
b. Waiting and procrastinating
 
 

Learn, grow and mature
As I mentioned earlier learning, growing and maturing as a person are associated with long term goals. You might be completing a degree or saving for your first home or training for a marathon. Seeing the end is hard, especially when it is so far away. Imagining what it means to achieve your goals may give you enough motivation and momentum to keep yourself going and stay focused. If you have a long term goal in mind, take some time to think about how:

The small steps you take are leading to-> The lifelong habits  you are developing-> How these habit are needed to  ->  Reach long term goals.

 
 
Waiting and procrastination

If we are in the latter (b.) we most likely don’t have clarity on what we have to do (i.e. the next action) and there is a deeper reason why we haven’t taken action (usually around fear), but it hasn’t surfaced.   A combination of the two is used to make up excuses.

The definition of an excuse is: A justification for not doing something; but it’s not a reason, it’s more of a revision of the facts that you use to make yourself feel better.  It’s an alteration of reality.

I recently read The 10x Rule by Grant Cardone and one of my favorite chapters was on excuses.  Everybody has excuses and we all have a few that we employ over and over again.  So rather than ignore them it’s better that you confront right now.

 
 
c. Creativity

There is a third way we spend idle time that hasn’t been mentioned up until now.

We need idle time for our mind to be creative, inventive and find solutions to existing problems.

For most of us, when the words ‘solution’, ‘problem’ and even ‘invention’ is mentioned we naturally try to return to a model, or process that exists within our domain. This is not what I am talking about here. In fact, anytime where we are repeating something that we already know; this is not creative.

In its purest form, creative work has no purpose and no outcome; idle time is used to allow your mind to be silent and do nothing. We just need the time and space to let out minds moodle.  Now, few of us have this luxury, because we live in an environment where results, productivity and outcomes are king.  But think about this…

Who has the greatest value on any organisation? The answer is the person with the ideas.
 
Capital isn’t so important in business, experience isn’t so important, you can get both these things.  What is important is ideas, if you have ideas you have the main assets that you need and there isn’t any limit to what you can do with your business and your life – Harvey Firestone

Understanding how our idle time is spent helps us to identify where our time is being used and what to do. When we are learning, growing and maturing; reflecting upon your goals will help to keep you motivated and focused.

When our time is being wasted on procrastination, identify the next action and drop the excuses to be more productive.

Finally (although it is less understood) allowing our minds the space and silence provides us with an opportunity to generate original ideas and thinking. This act may have greatest value and impact not only in our own lives but the lives of those around us.

Distraction, Clutter and Lions (yes, lions)

Kobe

Time to read: 2 mins

A few months ago I had an idea of writing a blog post on the topic of clutter and distraction. But then I got distracted…

 

I also had another thought; those that are able to spend more of their time in direct reflection and purposely choosing what to absorb, are more focused and driven towards their goals.

 

With each passing moment, they are able to decide what’s most important to them and stay focus on its pursuit.

 

 

Distraction and Clutter

Distraction is defined as a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something. Clutter, on the other hand is to cover or fill something (like your mind) with an untidy collection of things.

Sometimes you can have so much clutter that it becomes a distraction from what you are trying to focus on.  I then started to think about what it means to have focus;  is focus just a matter of removing all of the clutter so that we don’t have any distractions?

 

Kobe Bryant

I  remember reading an article after Kobe Bryant’s last game in Boston. As much as I dislike Mr.Bryant (being a Celtics fan), interviews with his team mates, coaches and his opponents have reveal a common theme.

 

When it comes to winning, this guy is really really focused.  At times (ironic as it sound) it has even come at the detriment of his own team mates.  He has been known to walk out of team practices because other weren’t trying hard enough.  He has called out his own team mates, asking them to ‘put your big-boy pants on‘ .  All in the name winning.  If players are not willing to come along on the journey, then he is dragging you along with him.

 

Nothing conveys his mindset better than a conversation he had with an opposing player, Isaiah Thomas where he shared a rare piece of advice.

 

 

Be a Lion.

From Isaiah perspective, this is how the conversation went:

 

He told me this story about how a lion seeks food, whatever he’s gonna kill and eat.
You know how many bugs are on the lion’s eyes and gnats on his body?
He’s so locked in on that zebra that he doesn’t get distracted by anything else”
If you get distracted by little things, then you’re not as locked in as you think you are.
He said for me to be a lion, and that’s gonna stick with me the rest of my life.

 

To put this into context, it helps to understand what Kobe had achieved and where Isaiah was in his career.

 

Kobe Bryant (age 38) Isaiah Thomas (age 27)
 NBA champion 5 0
 NBA Finals MVP 2 0
 NBA Most Valuable Player 1  0
 NBA All-Star 18  1
 All-NBA First Team 11  0
 NBA All-Defensive Team  9  0
 NBA scoring Champion  2  0
 NBA Slam Dunk Champion  1  0

 

Conquering Both 

Clutter can be controlled, we just need to be a little wiser with what we absorb and when.  Distractions are sometime unavoidable because they can come from an external source, but a lion can conquer both.

Assuming that you have determined what your focus is (i.e. the zebra) and if the focus has enough significance and importance to you. Isn’t it time you ignore the distractions (i.e. the gnats) and looked pass all of the clutter (i.e. the bugs).

 

Lock in. Go for the kill. Be a Lion.

When leading gets risky.. (and why it’s a good thing)

Cynthia Carrol

Time to read: 2 mins

I have been building on the habit of writing daily. Not only to write, but to write with risk.

 

It’s easy enough to first learn about a topic and then write about it, but there is very little risk in that. You know that it won’t fail, because the ideas that you are presenting have worked before (for the previous author). When you are regurgitating ideas that are not your own, chances are no one will say that you are wrong.

 

What’s harder to do is to think and reflect and come up with your own idea, link that to other ideas, examine the reality of the world and then challenge them.

 

To come up with your own conclusions and not look for something that has already been done and proven is a risk… In essence, this is what it means to lead.

 

When we do anything to stand out and introduce something that is different from the norm, we stray from the herd and become vulnerable and an easy target. This is not only true of writing but for any other endeavours that we choose to follow.

 

 

Followers and leaders

When we follow, there is no fear of being rejected or being called a fraud and there is some comfort in that. Leaders, on the other hand, are constantly fighting off the lizard brain. They work along the edge and try to push the boundaries.

 

The boundaries are around what is perceived to be our ‘safety zone’ (i.e. what is good enough’) and our ‘comfort zone’ (what we are willing to do).  Think about that last sentence for a minute before reading on.

 

 

The amazing Cynthia Carroll

I recently finished reading Seth Godin’s book The Icarus Deception. In the appendix, Seth told the story of Cynthia Carroll, the first female CEO and the first non-South African to head the 100 year old company, Anglo American, a multibillion dollar major mining company that employs over 150,000 staff. As one of her first act as CEO, she visited the Rustenburg mine.

 

Cynthia found out about the dangerous work conditions (where on average 40 employees die a year) and opted to shut down the mine for 9 weeks; a mine that was the most profitable platinum mine in the world. After a multiyear battle with unions, government and other mining companies, a year later, fatalities dropped by half.

 

Cynthia (illustrated above) did something that no other CEO before her had ever done, she shared stats, provided options and made herself vulnerable.  She pushed the boundaries of what is good enough and what she and Anglo America were willing to do.

 

 

When to lead

It’s important to understand that we don’t need to be a leader in every aspect of our lives (nor should you try). But there are times and places when you should:

  • When you have the passion
  • When you have the expertise on a particular subject and
  • When it’s your duty to do so.

 

Leading is risky, it’s sometimes scary and can be painful, but as we have seen in Cynthia’s case, anything that is worthwhile, anything that will make a real difference and anything that creates a lasting change will involve some level of risk (most of the time, it’s on a personal level).

 

But when we have a noble enough cause, trying and failing is not such a big deal and the risks that were once seen as obstacles, after moving forward, are now viewed as trivial.

Parenting Success

 

Noah - Drawing 1
Time to read: 2 mins.

After spending the entire weekend alone with my son, I not only realised how much he has changed and grown but how adults are also in a constant state of change and growth.

The habits that a 4 year old adopts are no different to the habits that adults adopt, in that they both change our behaviour and who we are as people.

 

Our Children

As parents, we view children as our responsibility. It is our responsibility to set up the right routines, habits and instil morals that we believe are essential for them to succeed in life.

We sometimes battle with our children and diligently try to explain to them the importance of listening, cleaning up after themselves, going to bed on time and other important skills, tasks and rituals that can sometimes seem a little trivial (especially at the age of four).

 

Ourselves

In our minds, the same battles occur, only they are happening within ourselves. We try to explain why we need to look after our health, work out more often, eat better, complete a particular certification or qualification, get promoted and network more efficiently.

 

Our Parents

But what happened to our parents? Once we became adults, did they just concede and say ‘well we did all that we could’. Do they assume that we just won’t listen anymore and stop giving advice? Do they assume that we know the world better than they do?

Kids need parenting, once a kid becomes an adult, it is assumed that they can parent themselves and from that point, the parents are no longer responsible…

The question is, are we grown up enough to parent ourselves into being a better human being in the same way that we instruct our kids?

 

Parenting ourselves

Selecting the right words and techniques to motivate children is a skill. Even more a skill is knowing the right words and techniques to use on ourselves. After a while, it’s easy to see the patterns in behaviour in a child, but we fail to see them in ourselves.

Correcting patterns of behaviour that we see in our kids is sometimes difficult. We sometimes choose to defer taking any action and wait for them to ‘grow up’ so that they are more attentive, are able to concentrate, process more complex information and make better decisions.

Unfortunately, adults don’t have same luxury.

 

Measures of Success

When we see good or even great kids, a significant factor is parenting. The parents have mastered ‘the skill’ that we discussed earlier.

They have put in enough time with their kids and know the right words to say and which techniques to use. The measure of success is how their kids have turned out.

Correspondingly, when we see good or great success in other adults (or even ourselves), they too have mastered ‘the skill’. Adults who devote enough time to themselves know the right words to say and the technique to use to move them into action.

How they live their lives (all aspects of it) and the legacy they leave behind is a measure of their success.