Stop people making bad commitments and poor estimates

Imagine the scenario. The all-day team workshop went so well. You just stopped short of a group hug. You finished off by agreeing the actions. Everyone was so pumped up and committed. Fast forward 2 weeks and all the actions are forgotten - just words on a page somewhere! Sounds familiar? What went wrong and how do you stop it next time?

This is going to end badly...

In most organisations people make commitments casually.

In many places the culture is that you always say "YES" when asked and you always offer big bold commitments ......but you don't actually have to deliver them. The place is like a mad house anyway and you can always say that something more important came in. Sure that's what your boss does and she seems to get away with it every time.

Back to the workshop.

Here's something you can do before you agreeing the actions - show people just how shockingly bad they are at making commitments BEFORE they commit (and make some more bad ones).

I discovered the concept of "90% Confidence Interval" in the book How to Measure Anything by Douglas W. Hubbard.

Let's take a simple example.

If I am 90% confident my team will score at least 1 goal and not more than 6 goals at their next game then my 90% confidence interval for this question is 1-6.

Sounds simple!

However research shows that almost everyone systematically over-estimates or under-estimates their confidence levels unless they are "calibrated". In fact my experience is that most significantly over-estimate their ability to deliver - commitment optimists!

So how do you start "calibrating" your team - it's not as painful as it sounds!

First you need to become aware of the problem.

All you need is a little 5-minute quiz with just ten questions each of which requires them to estimate 90% Confidence Intervals.

For example, one question could be "what is your 90% confidence level for when England won their only soccer world cup?" Your team mates guess the lower and upper boundaries (e.g. 1946 and 1996 respectively) and if the right answer (1966) is inside these boundaries then they get a tick for being correct. If not they get an X for being wrong.

At the end of the quiz everyone calculates their scores - they should be all getting around 90%, because you asked for their 90% Confidence Interval!

However surprise surprise - 50% (5 questions right or less) is usually much closer to the average team result.

You can build the questionnaire in advance or even on the fly by taking 2 minutes to have everybody contribute a question with a numeric answer which they know the exact answer to and which the other team members would not know exactly but should be able to make a good guess at.

People sometimes say their poor score it's not a reflection on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about their estimates and commitments but really just that they did not know the answer to those specific questions.

This is a common fallacy. Think about it.

If you have little idea of the answer then you should just make your 90% confidence interval really wide.

Note don't let people choose absurdly wide intervals as these are not 90% confidence intervals - rather 100% confidence intervals!

Now that you have shown your colleagues their natural tendencies to over-commit (or in some cases under-commit) then you can go straight into agreeing the actions and use the space you have created for everyone to challenge each other when they smell a bad commitment coming on!

If you want to take this further then there are a number of techniques in the book for improving "calibration".

One of the best ones is to get everyone to think about making bets on their commitments and those of their team mates. Again research shows (and the whole business of prediction markets are based on this) when you make a bet your estimates or commitments are significantly improved!

So if you use this very simple technique you can seriously improve the quality of your teams commitments by showing your team mates whether they are natural optimists or pessimists as far as delivering on their commitments is concerned.

This technique can of course also be used in sessions where the team need to agree on sensible numbers or estimates for plans or measurement programmes. For more on these kinds of techniques see Free team collective intelligence tool: Delphi.

About Ken Thompson

Ken Thompson delivers keynote conference speeches, workshop facilitation and in-house consultancy in four key business areas:

  1. Creating High Performing Teams in enterprises including Virtual and Mobile Teams (based on the Bioteams Book)
  2. Establishing effective Collaborative Business Networks enabling companies to co-operate effectively in areas such as sales and product development (based on the book - The Networked Enterprise)
  3. How to use the latest social media technologies including blogging and online communities to promote enterprises, brand, organisation or event
  4. Development of graphical on-line interactive Business Dashboards and What-if Simulators for organisations to support Performance Improvement, Strategy Development and Executive Team Development.

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