Rough estimates can be useful—they can help us understand whether or not it’s worth undertaking a piece of work, or whether it’s worth digging deeper. But there’s a well-known danger, too: they can be misremembered as promises. “About three months” can easily become “But you said three months”.
The problem is often that although the “About three months” comes with lots of caveats, those caveats get detached pretty quickly once the conversation carries from person to person, from meeting to water cooler to corridor catch-up. Our careful explanation gets left behind, and just the number remains. We have lost control of the message.
What can we do?
Well, there are people who are very practised in this area: politicians and their spin doctors. Perhaps we can take a leaf out of their books.
In 2011 Labour leader Ed Miliband was ridiculed on YouTube for repeating the same phrase again and again and again in an interview. The journalist heard the answer the first time and asked for more detail, and yet however he asked he kept getting the same answer. It’s painful to watch.
The reason for the Speak-and-Spell tactic is obvious: in all three cases (Miliband, Osborne, Darling) the PR handler responsible must have figured that since the interview would be whittled down to one 10-second soundbite for that evening’s news bulletins, and since they didn’t want to risk their man saying anything ill-advised or vaguely interesting, they might as well merely ignore all the questions and impersonate an iPod with just one track on it.
The politicians have the same problem as us: they might have a nuanced message, but they don’t expect it to be retained. They know it will be reduced to just a couple of words.
And so their solution is a tactic we might take and adapt: create a soundbite. For our purposes we want something that is sufficiently uncommon and intriguing that it will be the bit that’s repeated, and that people will want to engage with it.
That’s why a senior manager and I alighted on the idea of the coffee estimate. He had asked a couple of lead developers only casually for a rough estimate for a piece of work. It was better then him guessing himself, but not as good as someone diving into the code to find out more detail, which would take a lot more time. He was concerned that the rough estimate would be be reduced to just the number. But instead he said, “Three months—but that’s just a coffee estimate.”
The coffee estimate conveys the idea that it was something just worked up over a coffee. Only casual, not too serious, but at least somewhat considered. Unlike “high level estimate” or “rough estimate” it’s a phrase that’s just outside people’s usual terminology that they’re more likely to repeat it verbatim, and there’s less risk of them reinterpreting it in their own words.
Spin can be useful to tech people, too.