by Leon Rosenshein

Hofstadter’s Law

It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law

     — Hofstadter’s Law

Even if you've never read Godel, Escher, and Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid (GEB) you've probably heard Hofstadter's Law. And like most of GEB, it's a recursive law. That doesn't make it any less relevant though. The real question though, is how can we acknowledge it and make plans while maintaining our internal honesty.

One (the?) way to do that is to be clear that we're not planning, we're forecasting. Forecasting the weather is far from an exact science, and no-one expects it to be. Long term we have climate. Colorado is sunnier than Seattle. While any given day might be different, over any significant period of time it's a true statement. The 2 week forecast is usually directionally correct, but expecting the daily high/low to be accurate more than 3 days out is asking to be surprised. Similarly, tomorrow's high/low is pretty accurate, but no-one is very surprised if it's 5 degrees off.

Estimating software completion dates shows the same kind of pattern. However, we call them plans or schedules, and that changes expectations. The fact is that for any given person's estimate, the larger in scope/longer the estimate the less accurate it's going to be. If we call them forecasts instead of schedules a couple of important things change.

First, and most important, is that the expectations of accuracy change. Forecasts aren't just off by a consistent percentage, the accuracy gets worse the farther out they are. So when you say something will be done today people expect it to be done today or early tomorrow. If you say it's going to take 6 weeks then people won't be surprised with anything between 3 and 12 weeks. They'll be unhappy, but if you keep them updated they won't be surprised.

Second, is the internal expectation. You expect a forecast to change as much as anyone else, so there's much less internal struggle to change it. If your schedule is wrong you've missed a deadline, but if a forecast is wrong you update it as soon as you have better information and don't feel bad about it. So you're more likely to update it and keep it as accurate as possible. Which, paradoxically, makes it more reliable and better for planning :)

So, next time you're thinking about what you're going to do over the next month/quarter/year, try forecasting it, not scheduling it. Get it directionally correct. Make sure the sequencing is correct (as far as you know now) so you don't end up blocking yourself. And update your forecast as new information becomes available. You'll end up being more accurate that way.

And if you haven't read GEB, take a few weeks and read it. It's worth it.