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Meaningful versus mundane

 We all deal with project management. Leads and program managers (PMs) deal with it constantly. There are meetings, status reports, charts, and dashboards. Project management beats project chaos, but how much of it really matters? What’s meaningful versus mundane?

You can tell the new or incompetent leads and PMs from the capable ones by the things they care about most. The naïve and nitwits care most about estimates, time at work, and status reports—things that are useful, but not meaningful. The savvy and successful care most about priorities, completed work, and quality measures.

Effective teams provide estimates as needed, spend time at work together for easier collaboration, and send out status reports as desired. But no one confuses these things with what really matters: having the right priorities, getting work done, and maintaining quality at all times (low technical debt). Disagree? You’re deluded. Need convincing? Read on.

Judge a man by his questions

Why do inept leads and PMs ask for weekly status reports, track every hour you’re working, and not urinate without an estimate? Because they’ve confused correlation with causation—such an old mistake that there’s Latin for it: cum hoc ergo propter hoc (“with this, therefore because of this”).

It’s true that estimates are correlated with how long things take to get done, working is correlated with completing work, and reporting status is correlated with driving work completion and quality. However, you can have estimates, work long hours, and provide plenty of status updates without completing a thing of value.

Instead, competent leads and PMs focus directly on completed work. Since the work isn’t actually complete until it meets the quality bar, competent leads and PMs watch quality like hawks watch prey. Since value can’t be delivered to customers until the essential features are complete, regardless of how long it takes, competent leads and PMs pay far more attention to priority order than they do to estimates.

I like the mundane

The nitwits will say, “Yeah, but how can you ensure on-time delivery without estimates?” I’d say, “How can you ensure on-time delivery with estimates?” Truth be told, you can’t.

However, as I mentioned earlier, estimates are useful. They can help you lay out a plan of work and commit to certain deliverables with some level of confidence (see I would estimate). Likewise, being at work and collaborating in person with your co-workers and partners makes a big difference (see Collaboration cache—colocation). Status reports build trust across your organization and partners, provide a handy project history, and help keep everyone aligned on a big project (see Coordinated agility).

But don’t get confused—being useful doesn’t make something essential. You can run a successful project with no estimates, no regular work hours, and no status reports. You can’t run a successful project without priorities, completed work, and acceptable quality.

Minding your matters

The naïve will say, “But managing a successful project without estimates, regular work hours, and status reports is impossible!” Actually, it’s easy; just follow these five simple steps:

  1. Make a list of all the work you need to do for the project. You can add to the list dynamically as needed. Many folks call this list the backlog.
  2. Put all the absolutely essential work items first; followed by the items that seem essential at first glance, but really aren’t; followed by all the other stuff you’d like to get done. (Read You can’t have it all for further details.)
  3. Track completed work, with the caveat that the work isn’t really complete unless it meets the quality bar. Ideally, you are constantly sharing completed user scenarios and stories with customers, getting their feedback, and ensuring end-to-end quality.
  4. Calculate when the project will be “ready” by multiplying the number of absolutely essential work items by the rate at which you complete work items. The “ready” date for every project I’ve ever worked on in 20 years at Microsoft has always been well before the committed delivery date. Projects slip due to poor quality or deferring essential work, not because there’s insufficient time.
  5. Stop adding new work once you’re past the ready date and close to the desired delivery date. Then do some final validation and deliver your results.

Note that these five steps assume you are regularly completing work with acceptable quality. If, instead, you build up incomplete work and wait until the end of the project to finish it and meet the quality bar, then the horror that is your life is well-deserved. Read The evils of inventoryto become enlightened.

And yes, I understand that if everyone flew to Hawaii and didn’t do any work, the project wouldn’t get completed on time. It’s also true that an asteroid could destroy mankind tomorrow. Neither event is likely. Remember, you’re tracking completed work and driving end-to-end quality—everyone is accountable.

Eric Aside

Admittedly, I’ve provided a highly simplified set of steps. I fail to discuss dependencies (see You can depend on me) and a host of other nuances. However, the high-level five steps are basically the same for every project.

Also, experienced project managers might point out that the large variance in work item size makes my “ready” date computation suspect. With a large collection of work items, that variance evens out. If you’re desperate for higher confidence, read I would estimate. If you also want to account for the rate that new work items are being added, read my chapter on “Hitting deadlines” in Agile Project Management with Kanban.

What’s the harm?

Okay, so estimates, regular work hours, and status reports aren’t essential. What’s the harm in demanding them anyway? There isn’t any harm as long as you keep some perspective and stay flexible about these nonessential activities.

However, when leaders care as much or more about nonessential work as they do about essential work, they send three bad messages to their teams:

  • The leaders are inept. Leaders are inept when they demonstrate a lack of understanding about what’s important.
  • The leaders don’t trust the team members. Leaders that micromanage details that aren’t essential, rather than sticking to the high-level deliverables that are, show that they don’t trust their people to work properly.
  • The leaders are uncaring and inflexible. People are busy enough without unnecessary tasks, and they should be allowed to work flexible hours. Leaders that ignore these facts are stiff and uncaring.

In other words, ask for estimates, work hours, and status reports if you must, but don’t get carried away, and don’t push for work that isn’t really useful.

A new hope

There’s no need for you to be naïve or a nitwit. Focus on what matters. Relentlessly prioritize work. Trust work that is completed and meets the quality bar, not a status report that says the work is “almost finished.” Base your decisions and direction on real data from real progress, not on hope and estimates (unless that’s really all you have).

When you focus on what matters, you deliver with confidence and gain the respect and trust of your partners and co-workers. You can afford to be flexible about everything else, which makes you admired and appreciated. I know it sounds simple. That’s because the best things in life are.

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One Comment

  1. Mohan Bulusu Mohan Bulusu

    Invaluable article! I love your columns 🙂 As someone about to return to a management role after 15 years, I am warming up by (re-)reading some of them. Thank you, Eric.

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