Software Project Negotiation: Interests, not Positions

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 27, 2012 under 100 Words, Business Analysis and Requirements, Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

Just keeping Targets, Estimates, and Commitments (TEC) separate can go a long way towards setting software projects up for success. But getting from Estimate to Commitment is still tough. Sponsor(s) and Developers have to agree on what to do and how to do it.

(Briefly, Sponsors are those who pay for software development and are responsible to their organization for its benefits. Developers are those who make the computers do something new on the Sponsor’s behalf).

Especially when it comes to scope, schedule, and budget, this has the feel of Negotiation. When Sponsor and Development organizations are different, especially if they are different business entities, the Estimate-to-Commitment conversation is most definitely a Negotiation.

Principled Negotiation

Guidelines for successful negotiations are well established, originally in Fisher and Ury’s long-running business best-seller, Getting to Yes.

  • Separate people from issues
  • Focus on interests, not positions
  • Invent options for mutual gain
  • Insist on using objective criteria

In this series of posts, we’ll look at each principle as an aid to get from Target through Estimate to a Commitment that, at the very least, is achievable—that will deliver working software every time.

What’s Success?

A lot of problems can be avoided if both parties admit two things, from the heart:

  1. Failure may not be an option, but history shows it’s always a possibility, and
  2. Except in the most toxic of political environments, a software project that fails to produce any software at all is not an outcome either Sponsor or Developers would choose.

Ask most people what success means and they’ll say, “Promised scope delivered, on time and on budget.” So that’s where most software project set-up negotiations focus—Scope, Schedule, and Budget. But according to Principled Negotiation, that’s a Position. What if we instead focused on Interests?

  • The Sponsor wants software and an accompanying organizational change that’s worth more than it costs,
  • The Developers want the opportunity to do quality work, improve their skills, and still have a “life” if they so choose.

That’s a bigger target. There are typically many Positions—combinations of Scope, Schedule, and Budget—that will satisfy both parties’ Interests. A solid, transparent estimation process will tell you, even with all of the uncertainty on both the cost and benefit side, the region where they are found. At least at the start, aim for the low-risk middle of that sweet spot, and only start optimizing when actual progress shows that at least small-s success—an outcome that satisfies both Sponsor’s and Developers’ interests—is in the bag.

Aren’t I Just Taking the Developers’ Side?

I’m guessing that the Sponsors among my readers are thinking, “You’re a Developer, and it shows. You’re taking the Developers’ side!” You’re right, and I am, directly. But indirectly, I’m taking your side, too. Dear Sponsor, how would you feel if you could:

  • Take the possibility of big-F Failure off the table, and
  • Be certain of at least a minimal return on your investment?

“But if I don’t negotiate maximum functionality, aren’t I essentially leaving money on the table?” Maybe, but only if:

  • Your projects consistently bullseye the Negotiated Scope, Schedule, and Budget, and
  • You never say, or hear, “Now that it’s in production, I wish it could do X, instead of this Y feature we never use.”

If those two things are true, forget whatever I have to say and get back to work. (And, would you be willing to meet with me and let me in on the secret?)

But chances are, you will be better off if you (and the Developers) focus on Interests instead of Positions when setting up software projects, and choose a way of working that lets you optimize as you go.

Targets, Estimates, and Commitments, Part 4 of 4

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 20, 2012 under 100 Words, Estimation, Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

In TEC project set-up, a Commitment is accepted accountability for an outcome. The Estimate, like “25% probability of adding Shop-With-A-Friend by fall peak,” supports (or doesn’t) the Commitment decision.

Commitments should follow Covey’s “Win/Win or No Deal” rule. Pressure to do otherwise is based on mistaken beliefs or is self-serving, and is not in your organization’s best interest.

When Estimation shows the proposed Commitment—a Target—has a low probability of being met, the Win/Win approach is to modify the proposed Commitment to increase the probability.

I suggest “Maximum Value, subject to Schedule and Budget,” instead of fixed scope.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

On 9/7/2012, Esther Derby reminded me of something when she wrote, “Focus on ‘commitment’ is a poor proxy for focus on results.”

The Commitment I’m talking about is an achievable Commitment to deliver a result, not Trying Really Hard.


Targets, Estimates, and Commitments, Part 3 of 4

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 13, 2012 under 100 Words, Estimation, Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

In Target-Estimate-Commitment (TEC) project set-up, an Estimate is the probability of an outcome—Scope, Schedule, Resources. “The probability of adding Shop-With-A-Friend by fall peak with the three people available is about 25%.”

An Estimate is not a Commitment. An Estimate is decision support. Numbers without probabilities aren’t Estimates.

But if you answer, “Give me an estimate!” with a probability, brace yourself! You might not be playing their game. If they’re negotiating for themselves and not deciding for the organization, and you commit at 25%, they win and you lose either way. The organization only wins 1/4 of the time.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Delight AND Do-Right

Posted by Robert Merrill on August 4, 2012 under uFunctional Values | Be the First to Comment

My extroverted, optimistic friend Katie Hill just wrote 10 Reasons You MUST delight your customers. Reading it hurt, because I don’t think I’ve delighted my customers over the past year, and I’m not sure what to do about it.

A Delightful Reaction

What’s more, my initial reaction was, “I’m a consultant, not a consumer-goods peddler. It’s not my job to ‘delight’ them. It’s my job to help them solve their problems, and especially at the beginning, that’s about as delightful as a colonoscopy.” (Hey, Katie, how do you like the new brand idea I’ve got started here!) Like Gloria Steinem said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will p*** you off!” That’s what I deal in—TRUTH, not pink sunshine like you marketing types, Katie. Pink sunshine that doers like me spent our whole days trying to live up to and always falling short. We weren’t popular in high school like you probably were, Katie. Do you have any idea what that’s like, Katie? Did I go to college for nine years only to find myself back in the middle of another popularity contest? Did I, Katie? Did I?

Mr. Merrill, set the keyboard down slowly, raise your hands slowly, and take two steps back. You’re in enough trouble already, Mr. Merrill. Don’t make it harder on yourself. Read more of this article »

Targets, Estimates, and Commitments, Part 2 of 4

Posted by Robert Merrill on under 100 Words, Estimation, Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

Green Human Eye with Gleam Highlight“Let’s add a shop-with-a-friend feature by fall peak!” says the executive. The doers panic. Their PTSD from projects managed to unrealistic expectations just got triggered. But one word—Target—can stem the panic. And a wise executive wants that, because without clear thinking the actual outcome won’t be anything they would have picked.

A Target’s not a Commitment—it’s just a good idea. It includes What (with implied benefits) and ideas about By When and How Much. Achievable? That’s what Estimate will tell us.  If not achievable, better to know now. Besides, we might find Target’s achievable friend.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Targets, Estimates, and Commitments, Part 1 of 4

Posted by Robert Merrill on under 100 Words, Estimation, Project Set-Up | Be the First to Comment

My second career was as a programmer. Tired of the deadlines we were handed, I started up-river in search of the madness. That search, combined with my prior experience as a would-be hurricane forecaster, led me to an ongoing passion—software project estimation.

Most people will tell you they need to get better at estimation. I’m here to tell you that you can’t get enough better at estimation to make the estimation problem go away. You need to think bigger.

A good start is teaching your organization the difference between a Target, an Estimate, and a Commitment. I’ll help you.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4