Cone of Uncertainty is another reason why we need to deliver early and often

I already wrote about 3 reasons why it is important to deliver your product early and often to your users. Now I want to give you a 4th reason, based on the Cone of Uncertainty concept from the project management world.

First, let’s understand what is the Cone of Uncertainty:

In project management, the Cone of Uncertainty describes the evolution of the amount of uncertainty during a project. At the beginning of a project, comparatively little is known about the product or work results, and so estimates are subject to large uncertainty. As more research and development is done, more information is learned about the project, and the uncertainty then tends to decrease. (Wikipedia)

In an image, we can picture it like this:

Cone of Uncertainty

This image shows that the farther away we are from the end of a project, the bigger the uncertainty. At the beginning of a project, the uncertainty ranges from 0.25x to 4x. For instance, if we are estimating the delivery time for a specific project as 4 months, at beginning of the project this estimation will range from 1 month to 16 months. This is A LOT of uncertainty!

However, this is the theory. When we analyze projects in real life, the majority of them have their estimation smaller than what actually happens. It’s quite rare to see projects being delivered before their original estimation. So we can better represent the Cone of Uncertainty as follows:

Cone of Uncertainty in real life

This picture shows that the probability of an estimation being 2x to 4x times what was originally estimated is greater than the estimation being right or even greater than what actually happens. That’s the reason why many people, when providing an estimation, tend to increase this estimation to increase the chances of the estimation being more accurate.

The solution: releasing early and often

The best way to reduce uncertainty is to release early and often. Besides the 3 reasons I already explained previously:

  • Moment of truth: you will only get real feedback when your product is in front of people using it in their own context.
  • Too many features: the more feature you add to the product, the bigger the chances to add unnecessary features.
  • Return on investment: the earlier you release some part of your product, the earlier you’ll start to recover your investment in you building this product.

To add to these 3 reasons, let’s check what happens to the Cone of Uncertainty when we release early and often:

The iterative approach to the Cone of Uncertainty

As we can see, when we deliver early and often, we are lowering the range of uncertainty. In the example above we lowered the range of each delivery from between 0.25x and 4x to 0.8x to 1.25 times. This approach is very well suited to digital products because we can break down deliveries to the smaller delivery possible.

So there we are, the fourth reason to deliver early and often is the Cone of Uncertainty, the earlier you release some part of your product, the smaller will be its uncertainty.

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