Monthly Archives: November 2014

Ravings on #NoEstimates

In this probably too long post I will try to expose my thoughts on #NoEstimates as I see it. I will also try to give some pieces of answer to the most recurring questions and critics exposed by #NoEstimates opposition.


#NoEstimates is by essence a twitter thing… and this is a plague, really. I’ve been reading many, and participating in some, #NoEstimates twitter conversations, and what really hit me is how much it is difficult to have a built conversation within 140 characters. It especially is with #NoEstimates because of an obvious vocabulary issue in the very definition of what an estimate is, and how much it differs from a forecast for example. I am convinced that many arguments about estimates would not have occurred if people would have first worked on a kind of “mutual understanding”.

So, for the record, and in order to make future conversations with me easier, I consider estimating as very different from forecasting in the sense that forecasting uses data to predict the future, usually with statistics and probabilities, while estimation is more based on experience and is more “vague”… but that’s only my definition and you may very well disagree. We just need to know what we are talking about before we start fighting.

Not doing estimates existed way before #NoEstimates

The first story I heard (read) of was the one of Dragos Dumitriu, as described by David J. Anderson in “Kanban : Successful Evolutionary Change for Your Technology Business”. This story dates back to 2004. There are of course many other “old” stories like this one, including from people in the anti-#NoEstimates side (I’m thinking of Trevor K. Nelson here).

What is important is that although the hashtag is rather new, the question is pretty old. This also means that Woody Zuill’s point of view (he initiated #NoEstimates as a hashtag for those who don’t know) has nothing to do with a dogma or anything of this kind. I find it’s a shame to read sometimes things like “zealotry” or “evangelical” when talking about #NoEstimates. People who wants to talk about not/less using estimates in software development can use this hashtag. Period. Woody Zuill has his own view, others have other views, no “absolute” here. #NoEstimates is neither a movement nor a religion.

Common sense

I am paraphrasing Peter Kretzman here, but I genuinely think that trying to get rid of estimates is pure common sense and I will try to explain this as much as possible.


The first thing that comes to mind is that estimates do not produce concrete value. That makes them a waste in the sense of Lean. It seems logical, if you follow this paradigm, to try to get rid of them when possible.

only a tool

“[Estimates are] a tool, not an outcome” (Peter Kretzman, The case against #NoEstimates, part 3: NoEstimates arguments and their weaknesses). I agree with that. One of the main critics anti- have against #NoEstimates is “Don’t blame the tool because you don’t know how to use it”, and this argument is a bit flawed in my opinion : let’s abstract away “estimates” one moment and talk about a random tool instead. So let’s say we have a tool. This tool have proved useful many times but it appears that many people fail to use it correctly. This tool is intrinsically dangerous when not correctly used. Often it is so much misused that it can jeopardize the whole project, or the whole company. Facing with this situation in his company one can either

  • Make the tool easier to use, which means change the tool, so that people can use it correctly
  • Train people in the tool, so that they eventually manage to use it correctly. The “don’t blame the tool” critic live here.
  • Find another tool that would do the same, or better, and would be easier to use
  • See if we could completely get rid of the tool, maybe by changing the very problem the tool is designed to tackle

#NoEstimates is about the last two points, or a combination of both :

  • some of the #NoEstimates advocates seek to find ways to remove estimates as much as possible and replace them when needed by forecasting based on actual data and statistics. A very common practice in the Lean/Kanban world.
  • others – or the same actually – believe that by changing the business relationship we could completely remove the need of providing any kind of future prediction. Hence no estimates at all. Some relationships are more difficult to change than others though, and of course internal software development with fixed time and budget (“own money”) would be easier to do with no estimates than a fixed- scoped public-procurement based projects…

obvious in certain situations

There are domains where estimations are often not used at all, in nowadays’ software business. Unsorted : very urgent operations, fixed-budget fixed-time research and development, fixed-time options testing (UI design testing with prototypes for examples). You can figure some more situations I am sure.

We all agree !

Maybe the main thought I have about #NoEstimates, and it will be my conclusion, is that most of the #NoEstimates folk agree with most anti-#NoEstimates people. Unfortunately some barriers exist and it is our duty to try and break them so that the discussion go a step further. That is the goal of my Open letter to anti-#NoEstimates people.


Open letter to anti-#NoEstimates people

Dear Peter, Glen, Trevor…and friends,

As some of you might already know, I’ve been hanging around in the #NoEstimates hashtag for quite some time. Even before that, before I even noticed that there was a hashtag, I and my team had been practicing a less-no-better-fewer-leaner-estimates kind of software development.

To sum it up, my story is basically that, in a context of co-called “Agile” software development, I was not comfortable with how estimates were done (the whole poker planning thing). Instead of trying to improve our estimation process, to make it more accurate and reliable, which is a path I respect, I, in a Lean-minded attempt, tried to remove estimates as much as possible and use historical data instead. I know that there is a recurring discussion out there about the very definition of what an “estimate” is and the difference there is between “estimate” and “forecast”. Honestly, although this discussion drives – consumes – a big part of the whole #NoEstimates thing, I don’t care much.

Ever since I began to read things about #NoEstimates, on twitter or elsewhere, I keep asking myself the same question. I might already have tried here and there to talk about it. Maybe I sometimes was a bit too vehement (euphemism), which may or may not explain why I still haven’t found The Answer. That is why I’m writing this open letter.

So my question to you is very simple :

Why do you even care about #NoEstimates ?

#NoEstimates is a hashtag where people who want to try to do software development business without estimates gather and talk together. To be precise I should write “do their software development business”. What I am meaning here is “I am a software editor, and I run the company without estimates because I do blah blah” : good for you! On the other hand “Estimates are a very useful tool for me and I can’t possibly imagine why I should not use them in the context of this US DoD public procurement I’m interested in.” : good for you too! That’s OK if you use estimates successfully. I once asked if anybody had ever heard of a no-estimate-like story in the context of public tendering. The answer was “no“. That’s not a big deal either.

So why do you all fight #NoEstimates like it was some kind of a threat ? Does anyone of you think that he is going lose his job if #NoEstimates proves usable in some domain ? Would it somehow jeopardize your business ? Please ! Please tell me why this permanent, impassioned rant about #NoEstimates !

P.S. : I know, because I’ve seen it already, that some of you will accuse me to try to avoid having a discussion : not at all! On the contrary I am really, genuinely eager to understand the very Why of all this.

P.P.S. : This open letter can be read as a follow-up to #NoOthers and #NoEstimates

Definitions are harmful

Yesterday I attended an amazing talk by Stéphanie Walter at DevFest Nantes. In this talk she presented a series of very “lean” tips and tricks about web design and how to organize the whole process from wireframing to development “the hard way”.  I don’t usually write about webdesign…and this is not going to happen today neither, but something in her talk caught my attention.

At a moment near the end of the talk, Stéphanie described an iterative, incremental process where quick feedback loops allow quick reactions, avoid big re-works, induce a better collaboration and a better communication between everybody and allow creating better design, better user experience, … in opposition to the usual process implemented at her company. After the talk, someone asked “Would Agile help you?” and she answered something like “We tried once but it failed. We designed and developed each part of the site one after the other, but the developer missed some opportunities to make more common CSS and had to rework many things after the fact, etc.” I must say I was very surprised because

  1. what Stéphanie described sounded totally Agile to me. She talked about incrementally creating the design, about very Lean-like ways to avoid wasting time, about better collaboration, etc. So the question was very bizarre to me because she was definitely there already.
  2. She answered no!

Actually this is not the first time I hear or read something like “Agile won’t work for us : what we do is [some kind of definition of Agile]” and I really don’t know what to do about it. I’m not even sure that we should do anything about, apart from being aware of the phenomenon. This is just a funny fact : applying our “Agile” definition failed, let’s drop it completely and go back to our Agile practice.

This whole thing reminds me of a question a colleague asked me some time ago. The team I work in used to practice Scrum, but we improved a couple of things, making us get away from theoretical Scrum and move to a more “kanbanish” process. Since I am supposed to be the Kanban guy, my teammate asked me if we were “doing Kanban now“? I said “Why do you care? Do you really need a new religion?!” Maybe that was a bit a condescending answer, but my point was that we did not need a definition of what our way of working had become. I really wanted to avoid inhibiting improvement initiatives by saying “we are doing method FooBar now”

I think that as long as people feel free to make improvements, as long as they think they are inventing something, then they will keep on improving. But if they happen to reach a point where they recognize something that has already been described, something that has a definition, a concept, they will stick to it and stop inventing. People tend to stop “thinking”, they tend to stop trying things when they “hit” a known, comfortable word.

That is why definitions are harmful : they are very static, very…defined. On the contrary improvement, changing things, is not defined, it’s moving.