Late Expectations

  1. Posted on August 21, 2007 9:00:AM by Earl Beede to Practicing Earl
  2. Technique, humor, planning, estimation, Management

I don't like being late. I have never gotten into the habit of arriving well after the party starts (under the euphemism of being "fashionable", like you couldn't get your clothes on) nor sending birthday cards after the fact (though I do admit the belated birthday cards are often funnier). I tend to arrive to meetings a few minutes early, be one of the first guests at a party, and make my trains. (With my recent trip to Switzerland, being on time really helped with the train thing.) Sometimes, if I am running behind, I will just cancel the item I am late for (as if I never really planned to go) and be really early for the next thing.

I, however, appear to be in the minority. Many people appear to enjoy being late. Most of the companies I visit joke about the five (or fifteen!) minute rule for starting meetings late. Not that there are many with me to make the joke at the scheduled start time, just one or two other people who desire to be on time. Most people seem wonder into parties, dinners, movies, plays, etc. whenever the mood strikes them. There are full industries, like furniture deliver staff and plumbers who take being late to a professional level.

Don't get me started on airlines...

With this seemingly mass movement towards lateness, why do people get upset when the software project is late? Should it not be expected, if not desired? Can software be "fashionable"? Maybe there is an "acceptable late" and an "unacceptable late". A five minute late airline departure from the gate is not a big deal; a fifty-five minute late departure typically is. Being an hour late for a birthday party can be OK unless, of course, it is a surprise birthday party and it is your birthday. At that point, everyone is pretty pissed (both UK and US versions of that word).

Maybe it all has to do with expectations. Are there expectations of time that include some degree of lateness as acceptable? (I have heard of places where being on time is NOT expected!) If I set the expectations appropriately, then being late is the right thing to do. If it is expected that meetings start late, that the party really doesn't get going until 2200, that the train will leave no sooner than posted, then perhaps nobody gets upset.

If this thinking about expectations is correct, then we should start setting expectations of lateness when we are asked about when the software will be done. We can say, "Well, here is the target date but it is likely to be late". We can talk about the software's completion being no sooner than 4th quarter 2012. A good way is to say the software is going to be really late then list all the things the person asking the question can do to make it come in sooner. Now it is a shared responsibility and the asker can manage their own expectations.

Perhaps setting late expectations can lower the frustration felt when fully-functional high-quality software development takes the time it needs to be fully-functional and high-quality. As long as they don't turn around and ask me if I expect to get paid for this.

Jason Bucata said:

August 21, 2007 12:18:PM

I think it might come down to efficiency. We're so busy that we're scheduled back-to-back, and we can't help but be late. As Tom DeMarco's book _Slack_, and Goldratt's _The Goal_, and many other books, have pointed out, if unpredictable demands are made on your time, you either need to have extra unscheduled time as a buffer to use just in case, or something else won't get done (as you pointed out). But having extra unscheduled buffer time effectively means waste: That 45 minutes you spent at the airport because you got there early is 45 minutes that could have had yet another meeting crammed into it. (Whether the meeting itself would have been a waste is another story...) Who can afford the extravagance of arriving early? Cutting slack time is a calculated risk, especially if the costs of arriving late due to unforseen problems, times the risk of any such problems, are outweighed by the benefits of getting a little more work done. If you manage to "externalize" the costs of your lateness (it hurts those you meet with but not you), then so much the better. Thus pressure becomes habit, and habit becomes culture...

David Clayworth said:

August 22, 2007 3:00:PM

The trouble with the attitude of "I arrive late so that I can get more done" is that it descends into a lateness war. As soon as everyone else you are supposed to be meeting works out that you are trying to maximise your efficiency by arriving late (or by not leaving enough time to be sure you'll be one time) then they also start to arrive late after all why should they suffer an efficiency loss to keep your efficiency high? Of course you respond by being later, and so on.

David Harper said:

September 6, 2007 6:08:AM

You may be in the minority but you certainly aren't alone. One of my pet peeves is people that think being late to a meeting is acceptable. If being late becomes acceptable and gets ingrained into your culture then its not just meeting that are late. Everything becomes late and you find yourself waiting when you could just get on and do it.

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Earl Beede

Earl Beede, CSDP is a Senior Fellow at Construx Software, where he designs and leads seminars and provides consulting services on early project-lifecycle practices, estimation, requirements, quality assurance, contract management, and software methodologies.

With more than 20 years experience as a quality assurance representative, systems analyst, process architect, and manager, Earl has designed and written software development processes for companies across a wide variety of industries. Prior to joining Construx, he held quality assurance and systems analyst positions at organizations that include the Department of Defense, Boeing Computer Services and Verizon Wireless.

Earl has a Bachelor's degree from the University of Washington. He is a member of the IEEE Computer Society and a past coordinator of the Seattle Area SPIN (Software Process Improvement Network).


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