Six Tips to Break the Estimation Doom-Loop

Swirling picture of clocks, a visual representation of "the complexity of now"I’m guessing that many readers of my blog spend their lives working on projects. Whether you’re a business analyst, project manager, or architect, chances are that you’re working on at least one project right now. And whatever type of project you’re working on, you almost certainly have to estimate work as well as comment on estimates that other people have produced. If you work in an internal business analysis/change team, your estimates are likely to be around effort and time. If you work for a managed service provider (MSP) or vendor, you may well be delivering estimates to clients that relate to cost as well as time. As hard as we try to highlight that we are providing an estimate (rather than a final concrete figure), the stakes can be extremely high. As soon as a number is agreed upon it tends to be seen as the definitive number. And if it changes, we’ll find ourselves in a very difficult situation!

 

Estimation often feels like a dark art. We often need to estimate very early on in a project, long before we have a full and thorough understanding of the scope. If we’re unlucky, we’ll find ourselves bartering with our stakeholders. I’m sure we’ve all seen or been involved in dialogue that goes something like this:

 

Estimator: “This is a pretty big task, it’ll take 4-7 weeks with the resources we have”

Manager: “Great, thanks, but we need it done in two weeks. You’ll find a way, I have every confidence!”

Estimator: [Walks away thinking “not again!”]

 

In fact, there are many good Dilbert cartoons around this dilemma.

 

Breaking the estimation doom-loop

The good news is that this cycle of estimation and disagreement can be avoided—although it takes a change in tact. Here are some tips:

 

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Let Constraints See Daylight

Person looking through door at skyAs much as we’d all like to work in an organisation where resources are unlimited, time is unimportant, and our competitors move slowly (allowing us ample time to respond), the reality is often vastly different. In many industries, new technologies are allowing nimble start-ups to enter the market with different and sometimes disruptive business models. New channels mean that our competitors can reach clients in new ways—and our clients can interact with each other faster and with more transparency than ever before. Markets move and develop with increasing momentum. Just ten years ago, letting a smartphone ‘suggest’ a local hotel and taxi firm would have seemed insane. Today, it’s possible to book an entire journey with a smartphone, figure out which of your connections are nearby, book dinner and see what’s on at the local cinema all before you’ve boarded your flight…

 

In this constantly changing environment, utilising external environmental analysis techniques like PESTLE or STEEPLE becomes crucially important. Smart organisations will continue to regularly adapt, experiment and implement change with increasing speed. These changes can be small (perhaps a new incremental change to an existing website) or massive (cannibalising an existing product in favour of launching something completely new). These changes can affect any part of the business eco-system—the IT systems, processes, organisational structure, facilities, plant/machinery, products or proposition and so on. And increasingly this will involve liaising with skilled partners—internal or external—to help build, customise or buy elements of the final solution. It may involve procuring IT from selected vendors or services from managed service providers (MSPs), as well as engaging a wide range of internal stakeholders. It may even involve outsourcing or insourcing a capability.

 

In this race to get change implemented, so often, constraints get forgotten about. Or rather, with the fire behind us and with a strong sense of urgency, it is easy to delay a discussion about what will constrain us. Yet as alluded to in my opening paragraph, it is highly likely that we don’t work in an organisation where time, budget and resources are unlimited.

 

Leaving our constraints un-discussed and un-stated is akin to locking them in a dark, dank cupboard and just hoping they won’t affect us. We become like ostriches, with our heads firmly in the sand. Even worse, different stakeholders have different views over which constraint should be compromised. It is worth considering the traditional triple constraint of project management here. The Sponsor may hold budget as the most important unbendable constraint. The customer service team may feel that quality can’t be compromised on, with the marketing team advocating time as the most crucial factor. This is before we even discuss the rocky issue of scope as well as any other business or technical constraints.

 

Bringing constraints out into the daylight

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The Countdown: Two weeks until #BA2015

Adrian speakingTime really does fly! I can’t quite believe it’s just two weeks until the start of the Business Analysis Conference Europe 2015 (#BA2015). As I plan a final few practice runs of my presentation, I can’t help but get a little excited about the event – it’s always a real highlight of the BA calendar.  Every year the conference attracts such a wide variety of delegates and speakers, it’s such a great place to meet people and hear new ideas.

 

The conference gets bigger every year and, and I’m pleased to say that there are still tickets available — so if you’ve been thinking about attending, it’s not too late! You can find out more details about the conference by clicking the link below. And remember, IIBA UK members are entitled to a 15% discount.

 

http://www.irmuk.co.uk/ba2015/

 

I highly recommend attending the conference, if you can. There are fantastic presentations from real-world practitioners, and there’s also the opportunity to relax and chat over a beer (or two) after the conference has closed.   If you haven’t been before, I’d highly recommend taking a look.

 

If you’re attending, drop me a mail or tweet and we can catch up.

 

See you there?

Adrian's signature

 

 

 

Adrian


PS — if you can’t make it to London, you can also catch me at BBC Conference in Las Vegas, USA on 2nd November, running a workshop entitled “Strategic Business Analysis: Identifying the Business Need Before the Project Starts” November and again on 5th November with a session entitled “Strategy: The Crucial Enabler”. You can also catch me at BA Camp 2016 in Vienna, Austria in May 2016.