Dates and deadlines are an essential human element of project management. People work better if they have challenging but realistic schedules to work against.
The trick is “challenging but realistic.” In software, we know there is wide variation in our estimates, because we are almost always creating something unique (if it’s been done before, we just copy the bits). And we have a systemic underestimation bias, because there are lots of ways to cut scope or cut corners in software, and the intangible nature of it all makes anything seem possible.
Unfortunately, when schedules are no longer realistic, it will quickly destroy a project: causing cynicism, demotivation, short-cuts, bad decisions, unwillingness to respond to new information, loss of honesty and trust, and other problems which will fester. We could avoid these pitfalls if only we could estimate better. There are good books on this, including McConnell’s Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art and Wiegers’ Practical Project Initiation.
Out of all the techniques covered in those books, one widely-used technique is particularly effective for those critical early estimates of large, not-yet-well-understood projects. Estimates upon which we base our go/no-go decisions and early expectation-setting for upper management and customers.
It’s called Wideband Delphi, and here is a simple spreadsheet template and guide for the Wideband Delphi technique. Take a look, and let us know if this is useful to you and your groups.