Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 21, Issue 11;   March 17, 2021:

Facts, Opinions, Estimates, and Desires

by

One reason why resource allocation debates can become so difficult is confusion about the differences among facts, opinions, estimates, and desires. Clarifying their differences can reduce the length and intensity of resource allocation debates.
A U.S. 100-dollar bill made into a jigsaw puzzle

A U.S. 100-dollar bill made into a jigsaw puzzle. It serves nicely as a metaphor for the problem of resource planning in the context of multiple competing projects

In project-oriented organizations, the appetite for new projects can be insatiable. We often seem to have more work to do than we can support with the people, equipment, and financial resources we have. To deal with what's commonly called resource contention we try to determine who and what will be available, when they will be available, and for how long they will be available. Making these projections requires hard data, excellent judgment, some arithmetic, and an understanding of estimation. Using these projections responsibly requires an understanding of the business objectives of the projects in question.

Rarely do we get all this right. That's why an ongoing activity in many project-oriented organizations is resource allocation — a more accurate term is probably resource reallocation. One factor that leads us to mis-allocate resources is confusion about the distinctions among facts, estimates, opinions, and desires. That confusion causes our debates about resource (re)allocation to lead to conclusions that fit our circumstances less well than we need.

A program to avoid these outcomes can begin with understanding these four terms, understanding how they are commonly misused, and understanding the consequences of their misuse.

Facts
Facts are bits of data that can be objectively verified. Verification methods vary. They include measurement, observation, and confirmation by trusted sources.
In oppositional debate, fact denial is a tactic often employed to advantage. Usually, the denier states an opinion, representing it as fact, in contradiction to the fact the denier wants to deny. For example, if two advocates of two different projects are in contention for portions of the same resource pool, one of the advocates might contend that a particular technology proved problematic in another recent project because the skill sets required for its use are so rare that the organization was unable to recruit staff with expertise in its use. To deny this fact, the opposing advocate might claim that the recruiter used by the organization was incompetent. Scarcity of qualified individuals is an objective, measurable fact, but assessing the competence of the recruiter is more likely to be based on opinion. Still, the fact denier can prevail if the debaters don't recognize that an opinion is not a fact.
If denying the facts fails, a contender might raise questions about the reliability of verification methods for particular kinds of facts. Indeed, questioning verification methods is a tactic often employed to convert facts into opinions for purposes of the debate at hand. Trusted human sources can be particularly vulnerable. Instead of questioning the fact, the skeptic can attribute nefarious motives to anyone who claims to offer verification of the fact. To limit the effectiveness of this tactic, begin the debate by agreeing on a set of verification methods. For example, when choosing a source for training, start by agreeing on a list of acceptable certifying agencies.
Opinions
Opinions are statements that cannot be verified (or cannot be verified in the time available) by objective measurement, observation, or trusted sources. For example, personal likes and dislikes are opinions. More to the point for the context of resource allocation in project-oriented organizations, opinions are participants' inclinations or disinclinations based on personal experience or reports of experiences of others. For example, a statement of opinion is, "As a programming language C is beginning to show its age." A statement of fact is, "C was first standardized in 1989 when the American National Standard Institute (ANSI) published the standard known as ANSI X3.159-1989."
Not all opinions are preferences. Some are beliefs. Key phrases that indicate that a statement is an opinion, and not a fact, include, "I think…," "I believe…," "I seem to recall that…," and "I've heard that…."
Among the Fact denial is a tactic often employed to
advantage. In Fact Denial, the denier
states an opinion, representing it as
fact, in contradiction to the fact
the denier wants to deny.
opinions that perhaps present greatest risk to healthy debate are those opinions whose authors believe they are stating facts. Such opinions present risk to the health of debates because the authors of these opinions-as-facts don't allow for the possibility of legitimate but contradictory opinions of others. This attitude can seem to others to be arrogant and disrespectful, which to some is justification for retaliation. Over time, with a repeated pattern of opinion delivered as fact, the strain can grow until people lose control and toxic conflict erupts.
Cultural norms can be helpful in protecting against this pattern. But norms are usually voluntary, and they survive best in an enlightened culture. When everyone understands what a norm provides, they're more likely to abide by it.
Estimates
Resource planning requires projections of resource needs for activities underway and activities about to be undertaken. Those projections are based on estimates of the kind and scale of the effort required by those projects.
Estimates are neither fact nor opinion. They are a synthesis of both. Those who develop estimates rely on facts such as defined approaches to projects, and experience data from other projects. And they rely on opinions such as subjective assessments of the difficulty of tasks, or the time or effort required for finding the people needed to carry out those tasks.
But because estimates aren't facts, people who are dissatisfied with the implications of a particular estimate sometimes treat that estimate as if it were just another opinion, like the opinion, "I dislike raspberry ice cream." Unlike personal opinions, we dismiss unwelcome estimates at our peril.
A serious estimate is far more than an opinion, for two important reasons. First, if the activity being estimated is eventually undertaken, the actual values of the quantities estimated — financial expenditures and time taken — can be compared to the estimates. No one expects exact agreement between estimates and actuals, but the differences must be within tolerable limits. Because the professional reputations of the people who developed the estimates are at stake, estimators usually take care to make the estimates as realistic as possible.
Second, developing a serious estimate requires research. Portions of the estimate must be based on data from previous efforts and data pertinent to the activity in question. Estimators use that data, after making adjustments for current particulars. They might even employ sophisticated mathematics to make their projections. Except in rare cases, it's foolhardy to imagine that one can find fault with an estimate by simply examining the estimator's results.

Finally we come to our fourth item: desires. Those engaged in resource planning debates often have in mind their own preferred outcomes — their own desires. Many have strong attachments to particular projects. They want the available resources to be allocated in such a way that the projects they prefer receive support.

If the resources available aren't sufficient to support every desire of every debate participant, the pressure on all concerned escalates. Participants begin to regard their own opinions as facts. Participants begin to regard an estimate as just one more opinion. And projects that the organization cannot afford to undertake are given a green light with inadequate resources.

Desires therefore can bend the results of these debates away from what is best for the organization. People treat opinions as facts, or they treat estimates as opinions. Watch the resource debates in your organization. If you have an opportunity, you might be able to help others distinguish among facts, opinions, estimates, and desires. Go to top Top  Next issue: Learning-Averse Organizations  Next Issue

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