A Standup Free of Should, Probably, and Hopefully

It's interesting to listen to the word choices that people use in the daily standup.

"I should be done with that today."

"I'll probably be done with that today."

"Hopefully I'll be done today."

"I'll try to wrap that up today."

I like to take a mental note of the "shoulds", "probablies", and "hopefullies", and see if the next day that work was truly finished.

There are serial offenders on every team. If a should one morning comes back with another should the next morning, you're really worried.

Why do people feel the need to give these hopeful yet indefinite pseudo-pronouncements about their progress? Is it natural optimism, a people-pleaser temperament, willful deceit?

More importantly, what is the temperature in the room where people feel more inclined to give optimistic projections over more realistic ones? Hopeful wishes over definitive statements?

It could be...

  • The person does not have a good understanding of the goal of their assigned work, so they don't have a good idea of what it will look like to be "done" with it.
  • They're operating within an environment where people routinely make weak promises and exaggerations of progress, so that seems like a normal thing to do.
  • They're operating in a chaotic environment, where it's hard to predict how much focused time they'll get on any given task on a given day.
  • They know they're not being given enough time or resources to complete work in a politically acceptable timeframe, but it's also not politically acceptable to just say that, so their best option is a hopeful statement about the timeframe in which they intend to deliver it.

But, hey, sometimes people are just inexperienced in the kind of task they've been assigned, and so they can't see the road ahead of them and the milestones along the way. That will absolutely make it hard for them to predict when they'll reach the finish line. Fair enough!

But...I think the "should", "probably", and "hopefully" indicate something else than inexperience. They indicate a foresight about the task ahead and a suspicion that they don't feel comfortable stating.

What is making it hard for people to tell the truth in this environment? We need optimists in software, but too many unchallenged "shoulds", "probablies", and "hopefullies" in the room is a sign of trouble.