"Ideal time" estimates invite bad assumptions

15 Sep, 2004

When developing using XP, the development team estimates the work using some arbitrary unit of time, which is then mapped to real time using a measured velocity factor.

Often, the unit of estimation is something like an "ideal day" or perhaps an "ideal hour", or an "ideal week", depending on your level of extremity). An "ideal day" is about the amount of work a developer feels s/he could get through in a day if fully fed and watered, well-rested, un-interrupted, and so on. Estimating this way makes sense from a developer's point of view, as we typically know what a day's worth of work "feels" like.

But, in addition to the fact that interruptions etc are inevitable, we're usually somewhat optimistic (read: utterly delusional) in imagining how much work we can get done. Often, by the time I've clarified requirements, written tests, etc, it takes me two to three real, elapsed working days to complete a task that my gut told me would take one "ideal day". (That's me; I'm a consistent under-estimator ... though I think a factor of 2-3 is fairly typical.)

If everyone involved understands this, and can interpret estimates through the lens of an appropriate (preferrably measured) velocity factor, you might get away with it.

But when you include a word like "day" in the name of your unit-of-estimation, people (non-agilists) can be forgiven for making the assumption that they map roughly to real, elapsed days. They'll probably give a little, but when you try to explain that it might take several days to complete an "ideal day" of work, it's often a hard sell. If the people who don't "get it" include your customer, or project manager, then you have a problem!

In future, I'm going to estimate in something like StoryPoints, in an attempt to avoid the mis-interpretation. To further discourage bad assumptions, I'll probably take my internal "ideal day" estimate and slap a zero on the end. I figure that:

This week, I completed 20 story-points.

will be less likely to invite argument, panic and retribution than:

This week, I did 2 (ideal) days worth of work.

Wish me luck.