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: