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Peter Schuh coaches project teams and conducts trainings in the adoption and improvement of agile practices and techniques. He excels in both agile and traditional development environments (such as waterfall, heavy process and fixed cost). Peter is also the author of "Integrating Agile Development in the Real World," a field guild for software development professionals who aim to deliver useful and usable software in a timely manner. Peter is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 19 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

Stop the Insanity. Don’t Track Actuals.

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Most project managers want to track actual effort and dollars toward the completion of their projects and deliverables. The goal is obvious and laudable. By knowing the actual cost of something we can provide more precise estimates the next time around.

However, I don’t find actuals useful. I have little faith in the quality of the data that gets collected. Low-quality data is, at best, not useful. At worst, it will lead you to wrong conclusions and bad decisions.

Four issues seriously degrade the reliability of actuals.

  1. We, as individuals, remember pain. And we are much more inclined to remember when we took 100 percent longer to complete a one-day task than when we went 50 percent under on a two day task.
  2. Professionals prefer producing results over pushing paperwork. Sometimes we don’t put any mental cycles to tracking and remembering our effort against discrete activities. When the time come to push out the paperwork we can do no more than look back at our estimates.
  3. Sometimes we don’t work in sequence. Tasks get entangled. Priorities shift. We deviate from our plan to help other team members. The work gets done, but there’s no accounting for where the effort went. Again, our only fallback is our estimates.
  4. There is an expectation that each of us contribute a minimum number of hours per week, regardless of whether one is an employee, consultant or contractor. Will there be a problem if my actuals don’t add up to 40 hours (or more) a week? What about meetings, email, chores and helping other teams — where do those things go? No matter what reassurances you provide, too many of us will ensure that our weekly actuals total to the company work week, regardless of our actual effort toward shippable product.

Is it really worth spending your team’s limited resources on this?

Published at DZone with permission of Peter Schuh, author and DZone MVB. (source)

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)



Brian Shannon replied on Thu, 2010/12/23 - 11:25pm

One reason I've found it useful to track actuals was when a team was experiencing a high amount of overhead and we needed to narrow down why. It also helps as you begin to estimate to see where those estimates are, and as an agile coach gives you a sense of the team and how each individual estimates. The list you provide seems to do more with the culture that has been created: 1. If you create a culture that encourages accomplishing things quicker, this doesn't happen at all. Yes the pain is still remembered, but those that dont want to log that something took shorter than expected is not someone you want on your team anyway as they are not being as productive as they can be. 2. It takes all of two minutes to do this... I know... I've timed it. :). This is a far cray from two hour status meetings and a lot of after the fact guessing. 3. If you record your time on a daily basis, it's not all that hard to remember what time you actually spent. And you also build slack into what you plan to accomplish so that those engineers that need help and emails that need answering can be done out of sequence. 4. Again, this is completely the culture and expectations you set for the team. And again if an employee is doing this, they may not be the right person for the job anyway. The above seems to point to a culture that fears accountability and visibility. All that said, recording actuals aren't as important as knowing what is left to do, but they do have their uses.

Peter Schuh replied on Mon, 2010/12/27 - 1:42pm in response to: Brian Shannon

Thanks for the comment, Brian!

I'm certainly concerned about culture. In many environments I haven't liked the impact that tracking actuals has on the culture. Of course, that's only my experience. The other concern for me - both the point of my post and based on experience - is that the data obtained by collecting actuals just isn't very reliable.

That's not to say I'm against actual tracking in every case. If a team chooses to do it because they find it valuable, sure - but it needs to be a TEAM decision. If individuals track actuals individually because they find it helpful, then of course they should do it. Some limited use of actual-tracking to identify overhead - as you propose - could be interesting. All these cases are very different than the project manager simply choosing to collect actuals.

And I agree, both as a coach and a PM, we need to focus on improving estimation. I use well-defined commitments, short iterations, and velocity to acheive this.


Jeff Vera replied on Fri, 2010/12/31 - 8:43pm

All four of your reasons kowtow to lowest-common-denominator behavior in employees. Actuals are the purest form of data you can get: it's how long a task really took by your team and then by each individual on your team. Face the possible issues instead of using them as excuses:

1. Remembering pain helps us learn and avoid similar pain points in the future.
2. If someone is working "too hard" on a task and doesn't remember what they did, their task was too large and their work most probably unfocused and inefficient.
3. Someone who isn't a manager who isn't working in sequence to the point that they don't or can't remember what they worked on from day to day is being mismanaged.
4. If you are getting paid for 40 hours of work, then the employer better be getting 40 hours of work or something is up. A picture of efficiency or lack thereof will surface when actuals (yes, actuals) are compared to estimates over time.

Always track actuals. Always remember your actuals. Always remember where you came from so you can better predict where you'll end up going.

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