Listen to Experts but Trust Your Team Members

Back when I was working in a project as a team leader, on a cloudy Thursday an expert took me aside to talk about the time reporting of one of my team members. He pointed out that the team member in question spent about 6 hours doing a certain task which he - the expert - could have done in 15 minutes. He insisted that I called her to account for the time spent on this task. It was an awkward situation, because I knew that she had worked hard all day - I sat with the team and I knew that she hadn’t spent more than 5 minutes away from the task -, but still I was unable to explain the huge difference. Practically, that task consisted of two sub-tasks and unfortunately I had no experience with either of them.

Instead of talking to her immediately, I chose a different option: I decided to gain some experience on the matter and see how much time it really took to finish that task. I needed to choose this way, because if I had confronted her with the feedback from the expert, I would have only been able to tell her what he told me, that is that the task should have taken only 15 minutes to complete. Instead, I wanted to understand the situation and be able to help her to be more effective next time - provided that the expert was right and her time had indeed not been well spent in this case. Additionally, I wanted to leave the expert out of the discussion, because he wasn’t part of the team, and I felt that these discussions had to be done face-to-face: no need for a third person, an outsider to be there.

I scheduled our discussion for the next Monday, and I spent the preceding Sunday afternoon with the task at home. I needed 2.5 hours to complete the first sub-task, but I felt that I had already gained the necessary technical experience in order to have a constructive discussion on Monday. I assumed that the second sub-task was an easy one considering her technical level, so I estimated half an hour for it, adding up to a total of 3 hours to complete the whole task.

On Monday, we talked for about half an hour about the topic, going through the whole situation.

You might be interested in how to start such a discussion. This not a situation where you start with a “how are you today?” or “is everything alright?”. Such questions take the focus away from the topic, make your partner talk about irrelevant things and also make her uncomfortable: she is probably not stupid she knows that something is going on, and the smalltalk will just make her anxious. Also, it has no use: this is a serious discussion and your attitude should show the same. You as a team leader should start the discussion by honestly explaining the situation, telling her about the feedback you heard from the expert and the estimation based on your experience, and then you can ask her to tell you her side of the story.

It turned out that even though she had experience with the first sub-task, the second one was so complicated that she had to spend all day reading forums such as stackoverflow about how to solve the problem. Every single hour was accounted for, the only thing we identified as a future improvement is to involve the expert sooner.

This may sound like a success story, but unfortunately it is far from it. I made a mistake when I acted upon the expert’s opinion in this case, even though I promised myself a long time ago that** I would never ever trust an expert when the topic is related to time** (estimation, reporting etc), and I’ll always listen to my team members and not an outsider.

I have to emphasize that I have absolutely no problem with the experts - actually I do, with some of them, but that’s a different story. The problem is that management listens to experts when it comes to resource estimation and not team leaders or the teams. If an expert says that the feature requires 100 hours of effort, then even if everybody else says that it will be at least 300 hours, it will not matter. Management expects the delivery after 100 hours and when it doesn’t happen, they blame the team (slowness, lack of technical skills etc).

Based on my experience, experts cannot estimate the time properly. There can be several reasons for this, but I was only able to collect the following ones:

  • multitasking distorts his sense of time

  • he still lives in an old project

  • he thinks that everybody works with the same speed

  • he has no idea about the development process

  • the mentioned time is his expectation rather than his estimation

It is very common that experts are involved in several projects at the same time, and they switch very frequently between them. For example, I was working with an expert who had no idea how much time he spent with a task, because he started something, worked on it for 20 minutes, got an interrupt, did something else and then came back to the first task. When he was finished, he said that he had finished the task in 20 minutes, because the interruption not only interrupted his work, but distorted his sense of time as well. Imagine the estimation of an expert who gets more than 10 interruptions a day.

In my next example, the expert based all his estimations on an old project. Every time we had a planning meetinghe compared the actual project to the old one. Imagine that you have to follow the time-related comments of a person who only did php projects and now oversees a ruby-based project.

There are also experts who think that their working speed is the standard and everybody should work as effectively and as fast they did in the past or do in the present. I used to work with a guy who always lectured us during planning meetings and cut our estimated hours into half. But the team wasn’t as fast as him so we had a constant fight over the spent time.

In another project we worked with an expert who was a nice guy actually, but had no idea how we worked. In my favorite discussion with him he argued that he could do a certain project in one day (the team estimated 400 hours). It turned out that he never wrote a single test case, considered only the best case scenario, and didn’t think about deployment and system test. Imagine the project meeting where he mentioned the 8 hours and I mentioned the 400 hours.

I left the worst kind to the end.** There are people who won’t elaborate on their estimation or on the reported time, only state their expectation*. Once an *expert said that if the team could not finish a certain task in 2 hours then they are incompetent and shouldn’t report the difference between his 2 hours and their actual hours. And he was serious, I couldn’t believe it.

If you are an expert and you read this post, please leave the estimation and reporting to those who will do the actual work. We are more than happy to work with you because we need your expertise… in the technology and methodology, but it is us who have to explain the state of the project to management, and we cannot do it if they follow your ideas on estimation and reported time. Thank you!

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