Time and Estimates are Relative

by Geof Lory

For a few years during my childhood, my father taught math and science at a vocational tech school. He had a great love for the hard sciences, and particularly enjoyed physics, something we share even today. Einstein was his idol, and I remember him saying once that most of Einstein's work was truly understood by only a few people in the world. I thought it would be great to be one of those few. But, a love for the more mundane superceded such lofty goals and alas, I ended up a project manager.

One of the few things I do remember from my dad, though probably still do not fully understand, is Einstein's Theory of Relativity, particularly as it relates to time. One of the predictions of general relativity is that time should appear to run slower near a massive body like the earth. This is because the energy of light is proportional to its frequency (waves/second). Therefore, to someone high up, it would appear that everything down below is taking longer to happen.

Hang with me here, I'm almost ready to make my point. You see, my father also told me that a lot more in my life would become clearer once I had children. He was as right about this as he was about Einstein's theories, but I never thought the two to be related. Now I understand his wisdom; my teenage daughters are living proof that time is relative.

To someone high up in age (like a dad), time below (like for that of a young teenager) moves at a slower pace. More accurately, it just runs late. Perhaps this is not exactly a corollary to Einstein's theory, but it makes sense to me, and given that I have empirical data to support my theory, I'm going with it. I don't argue with the facts.

The same holds true on projects. From high above (management), things below (project activity) appear to move more slowly. More accurately, they just run late. Given that I have not been able to fully grasp the reason for this in the physical world of the hard sciences, I make no pretense that I truly understand it in the more mystical realm of the human sciences. I just accept it. It's a matter of faith.

It isn't necessary to understand the intimacies of this theory to deal with the consequences and try and leverage them to my benefit. What good is highly complex theory if you can't use it to your advantage? What is key here though is that time appears to move more slowly; reality is another issue all together. So here is my stab at it.

Being late on an estimate is not reality, it's relative. Late is a perception, a frame of mind. Change your perception and you can change the relative reality. It works for my daughter; it ought to work for project teams.

Last week my daughter asked for an early ride to school. I told her I had a breakfast appointment so I could take her as long as she was ready no later that 6:45 am. Time for Jenna is a moving target, and I know that, so I had allowed 15 minutes of buffer in that estimate, since I really didn't have to leave until 7:00 am. As expected, I was waiting in the car ready to go at 6:45 a.m. and Jenna was still dong her hair.

Do I hold to my published deadline and leave at 6:45? Do I go into the house and tell her to fix her hair in the car? Or do I just use up some of my buffer and wait patiently? I chose door number three. While not a matter of life and death, I didn't want to lose the learning moment. Five minutes later she comes bopping out of the house, backpack over her shoulder and plops herself in the passenger seat. With a big smile of satisfaction she looks at me and says, "I told you I would be ready on time."

In my world, way up above, she sure seemed to be moving slowly, and she was clearly late. To her, she was on time. 6:45 was an estimate. How could she possibly be held to an estimate? It was an intention, not a precursor to reality. Estimates are relative, and the greater the distance between the view from above and those supplying the estimate, the slower time will actually move and the later things will be. This too should have been part of Einstein's theory. Maybe it is and I just don't understand it.

The learning moment that morning was for me, not her. When managing schedules, particularly with software developers, these five minutes are representative of the time difference allowable under the theory of relativity. They are the weekend. If you are like me, most of my schedule deadlines are on a Friday. Yet few things are actually delivered on Friday, they are delivered on Monday. And that is because to a developer the weekend is an infinite amount of time, and Monday morning is the same as Friday night in a world where time is relative.

Now, all I have to do is keep my daughter from reading this and figuring out that it is OK to be five minutes late. Unfortunately, I think the cat is already out of the bag. I have Einstein to thank for that. Oh, and by the way, this article was due Friday. Guess when I sent it in?

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