Software development ranges from straight forward, with small a team with a continuous improvement effort. Say a web site or warehouse management application were the customer is happy to just keep the improvements coming. Every improvement or new feature can be put to use. Along the way new ideas enter into the mix and since there is no real deadline, the features can be deployed when they are ready.
On the other end of this wide spectrum of projects is the mission critical, business critical project. For example a Mergers and Acquisition strategy of two large firms that need to join their ERP systems before any benefits from the merger for the customers, operations, and cash flow can be realized. Below is an example of the Plan for such a project.
The first thing to put to rest is the naive and misinformed notion that planning is somehow not needed. The Plan above is a strategy for the integration of legacy systems with a new ERP system. The Planned date for this system is tied to business success. Long before this Plan was developed, the business strategy identified the needed capabilities of the integrated system, the planned savings from the integrated system, and a customer facing set of abilities of the result.
This is the fundamental Return on Investment equation. ROI = (Value - Cost)/Cost. We know the value, since the analysis of the value of the integrated system was done before the merger. The cost was estimated at the highest level from experience of integrating ERP in the past. Details come next, usually after the merger.
Each of the boxes provides a needed capability. End box is an incremental deployment of this capability, with feedback that informs the downstream capabilities. No project can have an end-to-end detailed schedule with any hope of that schedule remaining intact. But the Plan above describes the order of delivery of the needed capabilities. These are not arbitrary, these are not random, these are not subject to change. At least not without understanding the impact on the business merger process and the resulting cost savings and cash flow generation.
So What's The Point
If the value at risk is sufficient to call into question business failure, or at least major issues, if the project fails to meet its goals, then we need a Plan, an estimated cost, and an estimated delivery date. To ignore these business needs is to ignore the obligation to provide that needed information.
You project may not be a merger of two multi-billion dollar firms. But the question isn't when to estimate but when do we no need to estimate. The asnswer to that starts with the Value at Risk. The business providing the funding gets to say what the value is.
What is the business willing to Risk on the project without knowing that value before starting?