SWAG: Embracing the Scientific Wild-Ass Guess

Whether or not you’re a person who makes New Year’s Resolutions, it can be hard to resist the blank slate offered by January 1. The first few weeks of the year feel suited to reflection and planning. (This is especially true if you’re managing a business and your fiscal year happens to correspond with the calendar year.) If you’re taking some time to assess or reassess your priorities and goals right now, this post is for you.

Any time you’re crafting a plan for the future, you’re taking a guess. You’re making a prediction based on the set of information that’s currently available to you. For example, one obvious place this comes up for PatronManager (as a technology company) is in planning the product development roadmap. The team weighs many different factors, evaluating which features are most important or would have the most benefit for clients, and estimating how much work each feature would take to build and deliver. That last part is where the SWAG comes in.

SWAG stands for Scientific Wild-Ass Guess, a term that acknowledges the two key aspects of making this kind of estimation: It should be scientific i.e., based on some form of data or past experience, but it’s also wild, inherently imprecise (unless you have the benefit of a time machine).

When our product team is assessing how many weeks of work it might take to build feature X, it’s impossible to be completely accurate, since there’s always room for unknowns or unforeseen challenges. Instead, the team is aiming for a SWAG. A SWAG is better than a total stab in the dark (that would just be a “WAG”) — it’s an educated guess based on existing information, usually in the form of a rough “spec” document describing the feature and reviewed by the engineering team. That’s the science behind the estimate.

The Wikipedia page for SWAG offers “silly wild-ass guess” as an alternative meaning for the acronym, but I strongly caution you against that interpretation! Embrace some science in your art — if your WAGs feel silly, you’re doing it wrong.

SWAGs are everywhere. You follow this process naturally in many cases. When you’re budgeting for a new fiscal year, you’re making lots of projections about revenue and expenses. Some recurring items have a high degree of certainty, but other items are less predictable. Unless you’re just closing your eyes and typing random numbers in your spreadsheet (not recommended!), you’re using history to drive your future predictions. Now that you know there’s a term for this work, it’s worth formalizing it. What’s the science behind your guessing?

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