Much of software development planning is done through estimates. You give me a description of the feature, I give you a best guess on how long it’s going to take. This model has been broken since the dawn of computer programming, yet we keep thinking it’s going to work. That’s one definition of insanity.
What I’ve found to be a more useful model is simply to state what something is worth. If a feature is worth 5 weeks of development, for example, that’s the budget. Such a budget might well be informed by an estimate of whether some version of that feature can be possibly built in 5 weeks, but it’s not driven by it.
Because most features have scales of implementation that are world’s apart. One version of the feature might take 2 weeks, another might take 6 months. It’s all in where you draw the line, how comprehensive you want to be, and what you’re going to do about all those inevitable edge cases.
The standard response to the estimation approach is to propose a 100% implementation that’s going to take 100% of the effort to build. Some times that’s what you need. Nothing less than having everything is going to be good enough. I find that’s a rare case.
A more common case is that you can get 80% of the feature for 20% of the effort. Which in turn means that you can get five 80% features, improvements, or fixes for the price of one 100% implementation. When you look at it like that, it’s often clear that you’d rather get more done, even if it isn’t as polished.
This is particularly true if you don’t have all the money and all the people in the world. When you’re trying to make progress on a constrained budget, you have to pinch your development pennies. If you splurge on gold-plating for every feature, there’s not going to be anything left over to actually ship the damn thing.
That’s what proposing a budget based on worth helps you with. It focuses the mind on what assumptions we can challenge or even ignore. If we only have 5 weeks to do something, it’s just not going to work to go through the swamp to get there. We have to find a well-paved road.
In the moment, though, it can be frustrating. If we just had a little more time, we could do so much better! So much better for whom? Your developer pride? Or the customer? Will the latter actually care about all the spit and grit you poured into these particular corners? Don’t be so sure.
In the end, accepting a budget is about accepting constraints. Here are the borders of scope for our wild dreams and crazy colors. Much of invention lies in the fight within those constraints. Embrace that.