Why do software development projects fail? According to The Codest, 55% of them are doomed by time constraints, which often result in missed deadlines and botched releases.
Every time a project fails to deliver in time, developers become the most obvious scapegoat. And yet, they’re almost never the real reason why the project failed in the first place.
Estimation is the bread and butter of project management. Whenever you’re starting a project, stakeholders ask you for a breakdown of the deliverables and their attached deadlines. But if your estimation process isn’t good enough, you’re setting your team up for failure from the start.
So, how do you get better at estimating development time? The answer is two things: strategization and data. Let’s discuss what you can do to improve on both.
Why You’re Estimating Development Time All Wrong
When trying to measure development time for software teams, product managers often make a critical mistake: they try to estimate every item on the product roadmap individually. Then, they simply compound the results of that estimation to find out how long a project will take. Here’s a few reasons why this approach almost never works:
Firstly, development time is all about how all the items on the backlog work together to create a cohesive product. Some items may have dependencies that need to be addressed first, and that can impact development time for other items on the roadmap.
Secondly, development time is influenced by a wide range of factors that aren’t always visible on a product roadmap. For example, unexpected bugs or technical difficulties may arise during development that can slow down progress.
Thirdly, software development is inherently uncertain. It can be difficult to estimate how long it will take to complete a given feature or functionality on the roadmap as a team, because it requires an impossibly detailed understanding of individual workflows and team dynamics.
All of this results in each story estimate being a little wrong, which in turn adds up to make a huge difference to the larger iteration. Ultimately, you end up with a series of unrealistic deadlines and cost estimations that can lead to your entire project being a failure.
A Few Reasons Why Your Time Estimates Never Add Up
Unknowns in the software development life cycle are the main reason why time estimates don’t add up. Here are a few things that go unaccounted for when creating software estimates, leading to unnecessary frustration for the entire team:
Underestimating the complexity of a story point, leading to technical challenges during the development process.
Changes in requirements or scope creep, which can add additional work that wasn’t originally planned for in the scope of work.
Delays caused by third-party dependencies or external factors beyond the team’s control.
Poor communication or collaboration between team members, which can lead to misunderstandings or miscommunications about timelines and expectations.
Unplanned work, such as bug fixes or urgent issues that require immediate attention and take time away from planned development work.
Development team members being pulled away to work on other projects or tasks, which can disrupt the planned time frame and project schedule.
Lack of clarity around priorities and project goals, which can cause confusion and inefficiencies in the software development process.
Inadequate testing or quality assurance processes, which can lead to delays and additional work to fix issues that arise later in the development cycle.
Creating a Data-Driven Strategy for Estimating Development Time
When you’re developing estimates for your product development, the roadmap may look very different in your head from how it ends up actually playing out. That’s why it’s so important to rely on real-world performance data to gauge your project time. Here’s a simple step-by-step framework that you can use to do just that and come back with way more accurate estimates for your team and your stakeholders, especially for those that follow the agile methodology:
Step 1: Gather Performance Data
The first step is to gather historical data on your team’s performance. This includes data on past projects, such as the time it took to complete each user story, the number of team members involved, and any challenges or roadblocks that were encountered during the project.
Step 2: Analyze the Dataset
Once you have gathered the historical data, the next step is to analyze it. Look for patterns and trends in the data that can help you estimate development time for future projects. For example, if you notice that projects involving certain team members or technologies tend to take longer to complete, you can factor that into your estimates.
Step 3: Develop a Baseline
Using the historical data, develop a baseline estimate for development time. This baseline estimate should take into account the average time it takes for your team to complete a project, as well as any factors that may impact development time, such as the complexity of the project, the number of team members involved, and the technologies being used.
Step 4: Adjust for Risks
No project is without risks and uncertainties, so it’s important to factor these into your estimate. Consider potential roadblocks or challenges that may arise during the project, such as unexpected bugs or delays in receiving feedback, and adjust your estimate accordingly.
Step 5: Refine Your Estimate
After factoring in risks and uncertainties, refine your estimate to ensure that it is as accurate as possible by adding the necessary risk buffers. This may involve adjusting the estimate up or down based on the level of risk involved or the impact of unforeseen events.
Step 6: Communicate With Stakeholders
Once you have developed an estimate, it’s important to communicate it to stakeholders, including your team members, senior leadership, and clients or customers. Be transparent about the factors that went into your estimate and any risks or uncertainties that may impact development time.
Step 7: Monitor Team Progress
Finally, monitor progress throughout the project to ensure that it is on track and that any risks or challenges are being addressed. Adjust your estimate as necessary based on the progress of the project and any new information that comes to light.
Note: This is a continuous process. As your team keeps working through different types of projects, you’ll have access to a wider dataset to further refine and improve your project estimation techniques.
Development Time Is a Forecasting Tool, Not a KPI
Are you using development time from individual features as a key metric for evaluating your team’s performance? It’s time to rethink your approach. Here are a few reasons why development time prevents you from seeing the big picture on team productivity:
Development time can be influenced by factors outside of the team’s control, such as changes in the project scope, unforeseen technical challenges, or external factors like changes in market conditions.
Focusing solely on the amount of time as a KPI can encourage teams to prioritize speed over quality, which can lead to technical debt. This can lead to unfinished and buggy product releases.
Measuring development time as a KPI can create a culture of blame and finger-pointing when projects run over schedule. This can be demotivating for team members and can make it harder to collaborate effectively.
Instead of using development time as a KPI, use it as a tool for planning and forecasting to create better project scopes for your stakeholders. That will help you get better at managing product owner expectations and help keep the entire team on track.
How to Use Time-Tracking Data to Empower Your Team Instead
Time-tracking data can be a powerful tool for empowering your team and improving project estimates. However, it is vital to use this data in a way that supports your team’s work rather than getting in the way of it. Here are some tips for using time-tracking data effectively:
By looking at how long previous projects have taken, you can make more accurate predictions about how long new projects will take. This can help you set more realistic deadlines or milestones and avoid overpromising to stakeholders.
Rather than focusing on individual team members or tasks, look for broader patterns in the data. For example, you might notice that certain types of tasks consistently take longer than expected, or that certain team members are consistently overworked.
When using time-tracking data to make project estimates, it’s important to involve your team in the process. Ask for their input on how long certain tasks typically take, and use their feedback to refine your estimates.
Avoid using time-tracking data to micromanage your team. Instead, use it as a tool to support their work. For example, you can use the data to identify areas where your team may need additional support or resources, such as training or additional team members.
It’s also important to communicate to your team that time-tracking is not about micromanaging or monitoring their every move. Instead, it’s about gathering data that can be used to make better project estimates and identify areas for improvement.
7pace: A Developer-Friendly Time Tracker for Empowering Your Product Team
7pace is an integrated time-tracking extension for Azure DevOps and GitHub, that offers real-time insights and analytics that can be used to empower the team. Here are a few reasons why it should be a key part of your product management tech stack:
By providing data on how much time is being spent on each task, 7pace can help identify areas where improvements can be made, such as streamlining processes, adding more resources, or providing additional training to team members.
By allowing software engineers to plan, estimate, enter, and track time on work items, 7pace provides a more accurate picture of how much time each task takes. This allows for better planning and decision-making, ensuring that projects are completed on time and within budget.
By fitting seamlessly into your development environment, 7pace can help you ensure transparency in the time-tracking process so that all your team members have access to their performance data and can see how it fits into the larger picture.
Want to see 7pace in action? Find out how it’s helping to create a more transparent and empowering narrative around time-tracking for product teams, as well as how it can benefit your team directly, by signing up for a free trial!