Does Your Organisation suffer from the Rambo affect?

Estimation.

Estimation of effort, of activity, of cost, of duration, of complexity.

We do it all the time, in all fields.

Sometimes it is based on empirical data, sometimes bitter experience, sometimes reasonable documentation of previous efforts. Sometimes a combination of “all the above.”

Yet projects rarely come in on time, budgets are often exceeded (usually wildly so) and frustration reigns supreme. In the IT world, this is often evidenced by the “Death March” for software developers.

Many solutions to this problem have been postulated, and I am certainly a huge advocate for Agile frameworks such as Scrum and the like to help provide more realism and clarity in estimation - not to mention the “secret sauce” of smaller batch sizes!

But there is an oft-overlooked key issue that takes place all too often in estimation processes. This is termed the “Rambo Affect”. I was introduced to this many years ago - in my distant memory I think it was a military history documentary, but my recollection is unclear.

The key point made is that when you send someone else to perform a task, your estimation of the difficulty of that task is far lower, and how long it would take is far shorter than if you were doing it yourself.

…when you send someone else to perform a task, your estimation of the difficulty of that task is far lower, and how long it would take is far shorter than if you were doing it yourself.

Let’s use the military mission scenario as an example. The analysts planning the mission might say (in between sips of coffee in their comfy office) “OK, so the assault team will hike onto target 30Ks over mountainous terrain, in sub zero cold, then assault the position outnumbered 10 to 1 and then return to base on foot. Total time for mission: 8 hours”.

This sounds fine to the person not having to perform the mission, after all, Rambo can do anything right?

The Warfighter actually performing the mission will certainly have a vastly different suggestion for both the plan and the duration!

In business, and the interaction of business with IT projects, I see this happen all the time. A senior person will mandate an arbitrary timeframe or budget, based on apparent pressures - and expect “Rambo” to get it done!

Often we try, often we fail.

The solution?

Three simple tests:

  1. How long would this take and how much resource/budget would I need if I actually did it? (assuming I have actually done this before!).
  2. In the absence of #1, let me speak to someone I trust who has done the task before and knows what it will take.
  3. If I use #1 as my measure - will the people actually performing the task have the same skill level as me when I make the estimate (no room for modesty on this one - they could be better, they could be worse - it matters).

Put yourself “down in the mud” with “Rambo” and things will look very different! Timeframes, budgets and resources will suddenly demand that they become realistic - and goals will be met with reassuring regularity!