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What is a 'Commitment' Anyway?

I hate giving promises for things I can’t control. I can promise that I will attend a party or that I will set aside time to help you with your problem. I cannot promise that the party will be fun or that your problem will be solved. Giving promises on effort is honest, giving promises on outcomes is dishonest.

A team that commits to an estimate is promising something they cannot control. A team that is blamed for giving an estimate that is too low can easily avoid that particular mistake next time around. And given the law that work expands to fill available time, the estimate will never be too high. The result is cost spiraling up.

What if we assumed that estimates would never be particularly reliable. And if we assumed that forcing a team to commit to an estimate is unreasonable behavior? How would we act in a world where that’s true?

Let’s imagine we live in a world where the product owner cannot ask for an estimate. What can the product owner do instead?

The product owner can say “stop working on this story if you’ve spend more than 40 hours. Or if you think you will end up spending more than 40 hours.”

Such a limit can be viewed as a budget.

The product owner can make a bet on how many user stories the team will complete by looking at what they have done before. If the consequence of the betting wrong are severe, the product owner can be cautious about the number of user stories. (Bonus question: Is the team is a better or worse position to know the consequences of betting wrong?)

Such a bet can be viewed as a forecast.

The team, on the other hand can commit to working according to the agreed-upon rules. They can commit to do things in the order set by the product owner. They can commit to doing the best job they can within the time budget the product owner has allocated.

We commit to effort, not to outcomes.

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