Chapter 60. On the Elusiveness of Time in Tracking Progress

Mathias Meyer

When I started my very first job out of university, I was assigned to a project that already had a predefined list of tasks and estimates. None of these I had been involved in setting.

At the end of every week I sent my manager a progress report, stating how many hours I had worked on a task from the project plan and how much longer I thought it would take to finish that task. Everything was okay as long as I sent back numbers that exactly aligned with the plan.

Engineers know from experience that estimates tend to be used as targets rather than guesses. They tend to be set in stone after they’re established. And yet we also know that things tend to take longer than we expect them to.

As humans we err toward optimistic estimates. Yet as managers, many of us tend to fall back to the same pattern. We look at time spent working or how long someone was in the office as our means of measuring progress.

Time is easy to reason about. Based on an estimate and time spent on a project so far, we can come up with a specific number of how much time we’re going to spend until it’s finished. The assumption then holds that when the time was used up, the project or task will be done.

This is a mistake that I’m seeing many managers make, especially when they’re new to management. Another mistake they tend to make is ...

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