How to Get the Estimates You Need

How to Get the Estimates You NeedSo you need to put together a schedule, but are having trouble getting estimates from your team?  Believe it or not, that’s good news! 

Well, not great news: great news would be quick, accurate estimates, honed by years of experience and factoring in a reasonable amount of risk. 

But it’s not bad news, either.  Bad news would be estimates that sound good initially, but don’t factor in risk and uncertainty.  Because projects almost never go perfectly, those estimates rarely hit the mark.

So why is it good news?  If a task owner is having trouble committing, he takes his commitment seriously, and doesn’t want to give you a date he can’t meet.  Once he does give a date, he’ll do his utmost to meet it.  And that’s good news! 

So, how do you help your task owners come up with estimates? 

The roadblock here is probably uncertainty: too much is unknown for the task owner to feel confident he can give an accurate estimate.  Here’s a process to deal with this type of uncertainty:

1. How specific do your dates need to be?

What sort of a schedule do you need at this point in the project?  Do you need a detailed schedule, or is a back of the envelope schedule with a high level target timeframe what’s called for?

If you’re looking for a high level schedule, give your task owner a unit of time to work with.  He may have been struggling to estimate number of days for detailed tasks, when you just need number of weeks for high level modules.

For some task owners, this is enough to get over the hurdle.  Others feel an accurate estimate must be derived from the bottom up.  If so, move on to steps 2 and 3 to take advantage of techniques derived from Decision Analysis.

2. Is it bigger than a breadbox?

If the task owner is more comfortable estimating each task, that’s OK.  If he doesn’t have enough information to estimate confidently, bound the time required using Ideal, Likely, and Worst Case scenarios.  Here’s how to do it.

For each task, start with a wildly unlikely high estimate (e.g., “Could it take a year?”).  Pick something where the task owner can confidently tell you, “Of course not!”  Then narrow in.  Could it take 3 months?  Could it take 1 month?  Note where they start to get uncomfortable.  That’s your Worst Case.

Now, start with the wildly hopeful (e.g., “Any chance you might finish in a day?), and increase from there.  Note where they start acknowledging there’s some possibility.  That’s your Ideal.

With the Ideal and Worst Case in front of you, ask the task owner whether they believe the likely scenario to be closer to the ideal or worst case.  Triangulate to get a reasonably “Likely” guesstimate.

3. Determine where to focus

Do a back of the envelope schedule with your Likely estimates.  Where’s your critical path?  Find the critical path tasks with wide estimate ranges.  These are your high risk, make or break tasks. 

Go back to the task owner and ask if they could narrow down the estimate if they had time to research.  While you’re at it, ask them if there are other critical tasks you may have missed, but need to know more about.  Jointly decide on a research plan to reduce the uncertainty (thus also reducing your project risk!) and refine the estimates.

You’re off to a great start!  You now have a high level schedule you can communicate, you’re on your way toward a more detailed schedule, and you have begun to reduce some project risk.  See, isn’t that good news?

Would you like help addressing situations like this to deliver projects more effectively?  If so, let’s talk.

Best Wishes,

Mia Whitfield, M.M.Whitfield Consulting

p.s. Tune in tomorrow, when we’ll be talking about The Key to Successful Cross-functional Collaboration.


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