Fixed deadlines, flexed scopes

In the recent episode of The Rework Podcast titled Your Estimates Suck, David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried, the co-founders of 37signals, discussed an exciting technique that allows their company to be productive. 37signals is a software development company, so the discussion was related to that topic, but I think you can use this approach in many other areas in general.

So the premise is that people are terrible at estimating how long it takes to complete a particular task if it includes any novelty. If you make something cookie-cutter for the tenth time, you might be somewhat decent in your estimations but still not perfect. And if the process includes any form of creativity, making something new that you haven’t done before, then your estimates surely suck, as the podcast episode title suggests. And that’s okay; it’s just how our brains naturally work.

In practice, in many companies, it works like that. Let’s say someone wants to make a website. Some person, a project manager or a developer, usually gives their estimate: “It will take us six weeks to build it”, for example. By the 4th week, the team realised they hadn’t done even a half because certain features took them longer than expected. So after negotiating with the client, which took another week, they decided to postpone the launch for a month to give the team more time. Then the same happens again and again, and eventually, the demoralised team built a product that no longer reflects the client’s needs. On top of that, the company or the client had to pay for this much more than initially estimated because time is money.

I had experience working as a project manager in software development, so I know for a fact that my made-up example above is a pretty accurate illustration of what often happens in the industry.

So how is David’s and Jason’s approach different? First, it starts with acknowledging that estimates are no better than guessing, and guesses are not a reliable source for planning weeks, months, and especially years ahead. Second, they fix the timeframe and the deadline and never change them. And third, they ship the product on time no matter what, even when the resulting product isn’t quite what was planned. Instead of delivering a set-in-stone product that would take an unknown amount of time to make, they set the deadline in stone and ship what they believe is the best version of that product possible to make during that timeframe. With this approach, they basically say, “let’s spend an X amount of time to solve this problem, and once X is passed, we are done”.

Sounds controversial, right?

The key here is that you cannot sacrifice quality. Things you deliver must be good. What you can discuss and possibly cut, though, is the scope. Going back to that website example, using this approach, they would ship it after six weeks, but probably with fewer features. And having fewer features is not necessarily a bad thing. What’s important is that the company or the client would have an actual, good working product exactly when they wanted, even though the product might be slightly different. And that alone sometimes is enough to start generating profit or making decisions on further iterations based on real-life user interaction with your product rather than theorycrafting for months while your product is stuck in a never-ending “work in progress”.

I believe that this mindset of fixed deadline rather than the scope might be helpful outside of software development in things like marketing, personal projects, or even music production.

I’ve been hosting my monthly music podcast for more than a decade, and you know how often I would like to have just a little bit more time to find some new tracks to include in the show? Every time, pretty much! Luckily, I have a fixed deadline, so I keep delivering new episodes every month, even though each episode usually isn’t as ideal as I would like it to be. I’m sure I wouldn’t make nearly as many episodes if I’d kept polishing each one until perfection.

I think this paradigm of “fixed deadlines but flexed scopes” might be especially useful and act as a self-protective mechanism for creative work where it’s so tempting to keep working until a so-called “perfection” (which sometimes means infinite). And as they say, done is better than perfect.

© Daniel Sokolovskiy, 2024
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