Providing Commitment Dates To Customers

November 18, 2010

My customers mostly were very reasonable, they would ask to provide a commitment date for a deliverable right away but would also be ok if we postponed the date later, as long as we communicated the change of plans to them early enough. Their own plans depended on our commitment dates and they wanted to be sure we were not forgetting about our agreements (I am only talking about bugs and enhancement requests here). Sounds like it should be quite easy to satisfy your customer, file all these customer requests in your internal request/bug tracking system and keep the customer informed on the progress. And yet it was really difficult to keep up with this seemingly simple process of providing commitment dates and timely updates.

The first problem was getting a date from R&D. Most R&D organizations are not driven by due dates, they are driven by release plans (where promises to customers don’t always win strategic marketing targets and other priorities). So, you can get commitment dates for the requests scheduled for the next release (1,2,3-6 months from now, depending on the methodology used) but only once the release planning has happened, which means  you get the opportunity to find out  ETAs of your customer requests only once per 1,2,3-6 months. Well, customer is already not very happy, has to wait for so long just to get the commitment. This vendor release based scheduling does not go along with the customer request/commitment based scheduling. Plus, you have waited for 1,2,3-6 months for the release planning to happen just to find out that only 1 or 2 of your 10 customer requests have been scheduled for the release. Well, I am quite disappointed also, I don’t have the commitment date for 9 out of 10 requests and my customer was hoping to find out the dates for all 10.

You could say your R&D needs to use a SCRUM/agile methodology, run 2weeks to 1month sprints/iterations and then they will be able to provide commitment dates more often (every 2weeks to 1month). Agreed, but, how many iterations ahead can you plan without defeating the purpose of the “agile”? Probably not more than 2 or 3, so again the chances are I will still be only getting a commitment for 1 of my 10 requests per 1,2,3-6 months.

So this is the reality, you only know more or less what features you will deliver in your next product release (iteration, if you use agile). As 37signals say “planning is guessing” and your next release is probably your best guess. Beyond that, who knows how requests will be prioritized?

But how do you reconcile this with the customer’s desire to see commitment dates for all its requests even if some dates are meaningless and will be re-negotiated in the future? The customer basically wants our best guess date for all its requests, including those that do not get into the next release. That is a challenge, don’t you think? One may say, “then give them arbitrary date” for those ‘beyond the release’ requests. And may be that is what we should do. Not giving any date is an option too I guess. But I am thinking, can we do anything better for our customer?

So the idea is the following, may sound quite crazy, but I still want to throw it out there. Usually once a request is filed in a request/bug-tracker it is assigned to a developer right away, in most cases to the right developer who will actually be working on it once the time comes and either “blocker” urgency or the release plan says, “go”.  At the moment planning is a prerogative of a few chosen product/marketing managers who plan for the whole team and it may become quite complex, so they can’t deal with more than a bunch of most important requests. But how about empowering everyone on the team to plan? Lets say we give everyone a powerful work-hours calendar (that predicts time-off, meetings, maybe additional statistically derived unavailable time) to plan his/her own tasks. Come on, the requests are all already assigned to the developers, don’t you think they would not be able to stack them up in this smart calendar with their best guess time estimate for each to come up with a reasonable ETA for all the assigned requests? The chosen ones can help the developers with priorities (they know the business goals better) but,  in theory, all requests (and I mean all that you find in your bug-tracker or better all that have ever been asked to be scheduled, not just the subset selected for the next release) can be scheduled easily as long as you de-centralize the planning and let everyone schedule his/her own work. And the ETAs will be more accurate this way, I am pretty sure, because everyone knows their own stuff better.

Now, consolidate all these individual schedules, and pick the top N requests that you want in your release, see where your release deadline draws the line. The best thing is that any request “beyond the release” has been scheduled also and has the best guess ETA. I would really be happy to relay that to my customer, that is the best guess he was asking for all along. What is even better, every time there is a new request in the system it trickles down into developer’s personal work-hours calendar where he/she plans it right away (may be reshuffles a few other tasks to accommodate changed priorities). We have all requests re-estimated and re-planned, we have our best guess for all of them, and the commitment date can probably be shared right away with the customer. Actually the scheduling developer sees right away which commitments he breaks when adding a new task to his calendar. At this point maybe we can re-negotiate the priorities with our customer? That is the power of de-centralization!

I would call this “continuous re-estimation” or “continuous re-planning”. You don’t wait until the next release planning session, developers re-plan their tasks as soon as priorities have changed or new tasks got assigned. May be you don’t even need release planning with such a model, because you always have your best guess schedules ready and up to date.

What do you think?

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