What are you going do when it's really important, then?

· June 3, 2018

I have a very particular set of memories from my childhood, that revolves around me falling, hitting or otherwise hurting myself. If it was just a bruise my father often said to me:

How bad is it? Is it worth crying for, like you do now?

(I was probably exaggerating quite a lot). Of course, it was!

Tell me, what are you going to do if it really hurts, then?

That was maybe not pedagogically correct for a child in pain but it at least got me thinking. Indeed… what comes after screaming and crying? Could I turn this up? Would it make a difference? Would I get … yes, what was it I wanted, really? Maybe just a hug or comfort. Could I get that by other means of communication that the display I was putting on now?

Of course, 7-year old Marcus didn’t reflect on his behaviour this deeply. Hey, 44-year old Marcus barely does that. But at some clients, that thought comes back to me from time to time. In the way deadlines are communicated.

Have you ever heard something like this, concerting something you are developing

This has to be done, by Tuesday!

You know you have. The important feature X. It just have to be done!

Sentences like begs so many questions. Here are a few:

  • Or else? What will happen (to us) if we don’t get it done? What is the punishment?
    • Is this the kind of management that we want to have around here? Do this, or else!
  • Can we do it in another way, than was originally intended, to reach the deadline?
    • Can we, for example, skip some parts?
  • If we can’t skip parts - who knew that Tuesday was even reasonable? Build this rocket-ship from chewing gum! I don't care how you do it, as long as it's done by Tuesday!
  • For who is this so important? What happens to that poor schmuck? (Does (s)he need a hug?) Can we help out some other way?
  • This is horrible stress and I don’t want it to happen again - are you willing to have a meeting, in retrospect - once all of this is over, to ensure that we do these things better the next time around?

But alas, people screaming speaking that kind of sentences seldom have the patience and time to listen to any of my questions and I’m left trying to do whatever I can to get it done. Often with stress, bad quality and bad feelings for the person and my job as a result.

Brrr… horrible. Let’s spins this a bit more positive, shall we? Because, in many instances that I’ve experienced have to really means I want to, so that the sentence, in nice-speak, becomes:

I would like this to be completed by Tuesday, if possible.

So now we have someone using the same trick as I tried to run on my father, as a 7-year old boy with scrapes on my knees. And you know what my father would have said:

If you say ‘have to’ when you really meant ‘I want to’, then what are you going to do if it really have to get done by a certain date?

Yeah, that’s worth thinking about. What would that be?

  • It is done!
  • You have no idea how much this have to be done…
  • DoneDone! and HasToHasTo

Kids have tried to solve this problem:

  • havetohavetohavetohavetohaveto…
  • have to, more than you can say
  • have to, this time I mean it

But that’s just silly (although I’ve actually heard that last time spoken by grown-up managers a few times).

Indeed silly.

Thinking of this we soon realize that the poor person telling us that it have to be done, probably just want to express, with emphasis, that this is important. But just as I reflected… let’s think about a better way to express this. One that, maybe, could take some of the drama out of it and be more objective and tangible.

Luckily for us, way smarter people than me have already thought long and hard about this. My favourite is a very mellow and goodhearted (in person), but super clear and a bit short (his own words) in writing Dr Donald Reinertsen.

In his seminal book Principles of Product Development Flow he defines the Cost of Delay function. There are pages on what it is but at its core, the idea is very simple;

What does it cost, per day (or something), to not have this thing done now.

Here’s how I explained it as a contrast to deadlines, a while back:

But you are much better of hearing what Dr Reinertsen says:

And then I would ask: “How much more money would you make if you made product development faster?” …

The answer I kept getting from people was: I have no idea.

And then he basically says that it’s an economic measurement he’s looking for: the nominator (above the line for the rest of us) is a financial measure and the denominator is a unit of time. For example; dollars per day, revenue per month or something like that.

What is a unit of time worth to us?

Now, this is great because this is an objective (well.. it’s a fair amount of guessing aka estimating in there, but still) measure for us. Come to think about it;

  • I don’t think any of the have to be done work I have worked on ever had an amount per days attached to them
  • I cannot remember a single time we knew why it had to be done before we dragged it out of people. Why, in everything holy, did we ever start to work on it?
  • I’ve done estimations of effort for many many (1000 to 1) more tasks than I’ve heard an estimate of value.


This post almost became a rant, but it’s actually not. Because I totally understand that for the people that really wants this to be done by Tuesday but says that it have to be done by Tuesday, have some pressure put on to them in the first place. Or at least perceived pressure.

So let’s help them and us to know the value of the work we do.

  • Why does this need to be done by Tuesday?
  • What happens after Tuesday, if we don't make it?
  • How many dollars of that will happen each day or week?
  • and finally: The other things on your list for us to do - can we quantify them in the same way?

Now, I would recommend not doing this in the heat of the moment. Some that just screamed at you and then walked out is not ready to go into a discussion. Just now.

But there are still options:

  • Maybe you could do it in retrospect, and hold a post-mortem meeting where we estimate (hey - in retrospect, we even know!) the value the feature generated

  • Or do it yourself and present it in hindsight. We calculated feature X to cost us $40/day, so getting that out earlier earned us $120. Do you agree?

  • Ask to have this for other things in the backlog: Hey feature X didn't feel great for us; we had no idea about why we were doing it, nor what it was worth to you. Could you give us an estimate of how much money each late day would cost us, for the next time? We can help if you want.

When people say have to they often mean I want to. Asking why it have to be done by a certain date, reveals the real need better, in my experience

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