Product Management Tactics — The “unknowns” and their impact on our timelines



When there are unknowns, that can create more bottlenecks down the line.  Singer and his team are aware of this, and therefore don’t pretend that they can accurately estimate the time that will be required to complete important tasks within a project.  It may not work for every team, but this self-awareness helps Basecamp avoid falling behind self-created, arbitrary timelines.


Basecamp is a company that is pretty open about the way that they do work.  From books like Rework, which its co-founders wrote, to its podcast with the same name… and countless essays, interviews, and more, the team at Basecamp is very public with the fact that they like to approach things much differently than most fast-growing tech companies.

In this video, Ryan Singer talks about one of the ways that Basecamp approaches things differently than most, which is how they like to estimate time of work.  Really… they don’t. While many agile teams might “cut cards” and assign points of work or t-shirt size the effort that goes into creating a feature… to ultimately estimate how much time will pass before a whole set of features will be completed… Basecamp doesn’t even bother.  


Well, according to Ryan, what’s the point?  We can all acknowledge that at the very beginning of a project, there are so many unknowns, that estimating the time it would take to complete might just be an exercise in futility.  So why set ourselves up for failure later on?

We at Product Collective have lived within environments where we were pressured to come up with timelines, though.  Whether it be our executives or the Board — there was always interest in knowing when we’d complete certain tasks. Answering, “When they’re finished” didn’t seem very acceptable.

But should it have been?

When we really think about it, it is absolutely true that there are so many unknowns at the very beginning of projects.  As we’re estimating work of a particular feature… and perhaps using those estimates to build out roadmaps… we absolutely will disappoint because we all know that those timelines we’re sharing are mere guesses.  

Of course, helping our organizations understand this may be easier said than done.  Executives and Boards… they still may want these answers. But, perhaps one step in the right direction is to open up dialogue with them now — before they start pressing us for answers on specific projects — to talk about why these timelines are actually important.  While Basecamp’s approach of timing out projects (or not doing so) works for Basecamp, perhaps each of our organizations can find some middle ground and eventually land on an approach that works for the executives just as well as it does for the product teams.