What gets rewarded gets repeated!

A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. – B.F. Skinner, Psychologist

The idea of “what gets measured gets done” is only partially correct.  It would be more correct to say, “what gets rewarded gets repeated.”  One of the most thoroughly accepted notions in psychology is the principle that behavior eventually extinguishes if it is not followed by reward.

I was on an airplane and in front of me was a father and his young daughter (she was about 3 years old).  When it came time to take off the father worked and forced his daughter to sit down in her seat with her safety belt fastened.  The child screamed and yelled.  The child wanted out of her seat. As an outside observer, I understood if he let his child out of her seat, the child would learn that the way to get out of her seat is by yelling and screaming.  The father gave in and let the child out of her seat and stand up.  The flight attendant had other ideas and told the father his child had to be seated.

Let’s look at the behavior and the reward.  The father’s behavior of allowing his child to stand in her seat was immediately squelched, and he was forced to follow the rules.   Can you imagine what happened the second time the father tried to fasten his child in the seat?  The child was more resistant and screamed even louder.  The father made the situation worse by giving into the behavior the first time.  In other words, the father rewarded the behavior of screaming and yelling.

Non-negotiable estimates
I was working with a manager, and I watched him interact with his client (an internal client). The manager estimated it would take 600 hours to complete a project.  His client pushed and challenged him, so the manager reduced the project by 100 hours.  This is a 20% reduction in time.  Then his client pushed a bit more and got the estimate reduced another 50 hours down to 450 hours.  This is a 25% reduction!  Whoa!  What behavior did the manager exhibit and reward?

Estimates need to be non-negotiable.   An estimate should be created using a quantified method.  That means there is some method to creating estimates.  Put some data into a formula and derive the result.  The only thing you should be willing to budge on is the inputs.   There are several inputs with an estimate including size of the project, deadlines, staff, so on and so forth.  Hence, if the estimate is too high, then one of the inputs needs to be changed.
Unfortunately, what traditionally happens is that an estimate is nothing more than a guess.  The estimate has no substance at all; in other words, it is not based upon historical performance or statistical modeling.  Often when working on a contract I ask the question, “How did you come up with your estimate?” More often than not the person actually admits it was a guess.   Another common answer begins, “based upon my vast experience as a software professional.”  In other words, questioning the estimate is the same as questioning their integrity.    It is important for an estimator to be able to quantitatively explain how they derived their estimate.
Unfortunately software development is full of bad behaviors that get rewarded and get repeated.
Read more at Reboot! Rethinking and Restarting Software Development
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