Estimates vs targets

September 18, 2022

There's always a dimension of time when we're discussing work. Either how long will something take, or when it will be ready.

A lot of frustration comes from miscommunication about time, especially when it pertains to WIP (work in progress). It is important that we lay some groundwork on how we approach talking about time.

There are 2 ways in which we talk about time and work:

  1. Estimations
  2. Targets (and deadlines)


Estimations are a rough measure of the effort needed to complete the work. Estimates are guesses and are trying to predict the future. Estimates are inaccurate, because they are always made with limited knowledge. You might stumble on a roadblock that messes up your estimates, or a tailwind that speeds up the work.

They are always a guess. Putting more effort into the estimate (i.e. gathering more information) does increase the accuracy of the estimation, but it's still a guess. Making better estimates is a skill that you can get better at it, but you should never fully depend on an estimate. Even the best teams on average underestimate by a third. Keep that in mind when giving out estimations and especially if you're receiving them.

Estimates are useful when you're gauging up future work, trying to work out the price/performance of potential commitments, and gathering information about the complexity of the work.

Estimations are not in any shape or form commitments. That's what targets are for.


Targets are commitments and are tied to a specific date and time. The easiest way to think about targets is to see them as deadlines. Either soft deadlines (can be moved into the future) or hard deadlines (can't be moved into the future).

The main purpose of a target is getting a commitment for the work being done. If you give out a target, you're committed to the work.


The confusion comes from using estimates and targets interchangeably.

Estimates are exploratory in nature. They are a way to scope up the amount of effort needed to do something. You're not actually committing to doing the work when estimating. If you do start working on it, you'll see that your estimates might change, as you gain more information about the complexity of the work. Targets are your commitments.

Be careful when responding to people asking how long will something take, because they might take your estimates for commitments.