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Curiosity: The Prerequisite for Good Estimates
Jan Warko, PMP What makes for a good estimate? In a nutshell, I believe it’s curiosity, and the ability to ask questions until your curiosity and your team’s curiosity is satisfied. To keep the questions coming, ask your estimators (yourself included) to ‘live’ the estimates. Help them understand the importance of their estimate in the context of the project. “If we had to present our estimate in an hour and couldn’t change it, in what way would your estimate or assumptions change?” Or, “If you had to bet your job on the accuracy of your estimate, would anything change? Why?” Curiosity killed the cat, as the saying goes. Lack of curiosity can kill your project just as easily. Getting a handle on estimating terminology is also essential. Effort and duration play key roles in schedule estimates (check your PMBOK or any number of other project management documents for the official definitions).

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I like to think of effort as the amount of time an activity or task would take if one person did the task at a 100% productivity level for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The effort portion of the estimate is the place to take into consideration a resource’s productivity and experience level (ask them, and/or document your assumptions). Duration is that same amount of work identified in your effort estimate, but placed in the context of the client’s calendar and the length of the standard workday. Duration is the place to take into consideration calendar events specific to each resource, such as vacations, holidays, nonstandard work schedules, additional work commitments, or other items affecting availability (again, ask them. This can be one of the more enjoyable aspects of project planning).

In some circumstances, the estimate for a task is based solely on the duration aspect (i.e., coordinating all participants’ busy calendars to schedule the acceptance sign-off meeting means waiting three weeks to close the project). Basing an estimate solely upon effort is valid only for those of us lucky enough to have an interruption factor of zero. For the tasks performed by humans, the best schedule estimate should take into consideration both effort and duration (plus a little bit of gut feeling and intuition). Cost estimates address the resource’s rate over the life of the project and the frequency in which that rate is incurred. Cost estimates for resources should take into consideration internal staff, external staff, travel and equipment. Check out Mark Durrenberger’s “You Can’t Negotiate Cost ” article in the September 2000, issue of pm Network magazine for a relevant discussion of the role of negotiation in the estimating process. What’s a good approach to developing an estimate? Here are some tactics I take into consideration every time I estimate. Skipping one or more is not recommended, but sometimes unavoidable; be sure to capture the elements you bypass in your assumptions and other aspects of your risk management plan. Estimates should: Match work plans to the numerous client constraints regarding existing or planned processes, quality, risk (including issues and assumptions), results, scope, and of course, schedule and cost. In other words, estimates are based on clear and open communication about every aspect covered by the knowledge areas of the PMBOK. A full understanding of the scope (both product and project) and risk are most essential. I can’t say enough about assumptions. A wise man knows what he doesn’t know, and he also knows when he’s made an assumption. Document assumptions regarding your basis for estimating and about those things that

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Assume an average skill level until the next step. Involve the right people. Once again. the scope is critical in developing a good estimate.e. named resources. Whenever possible. or is known but not widely understood. but does not produce an average. new technology and/or new clients and/or new project type. to exercise the project approach and expected performance.00. At each status meeting as agreed to in the communication plan.com/Gantthead/articles/articlesPrint/1. initiative and attitude development environment size and complexity of the solution being developed schedule considerations. Not only will your change management plan be more robust. the nature of the client) project elapsed time (risk of burnout) physical working environment (risk of burnout) Is an estimate provided outside the context of the work to be done and the people doing the work a good estimate? I suggest this would be a good guess. number of locations.gantthead. At a level of detail that provides a solid foundation for managing project performance against schedule and cost. etc. Be based on a clear understanding of the commitment level to the project . a consensus approach is used. Commitment to the project ’s work plans and supporting estimates has a direct relationship with the degree of certainty about the project’s result and the project processes that will be followed. Be iterative . which can sometimes result in an educated guess in the context of a work plan review workshop. The list includes but is not limited to: l l l l l l l l l project organization (size.Page 2 of 3 may affect the estimate (especially those factors that are out of control of the team). when the project manager doesn’t ask questions or otherwise satisfy his/her curiosity. At a level of detail that is sufficient enough to make project commitments with logical resources.). requiring specific. So many things contribute to a human resource’s effectiveness. type) organization’s culture skill. re-estimating your project in light of changes will be a breeze. I’ve found the following iteration points to be consistently valuable: l l l l At a high level. including the person(s) doing the work and the person(s) responsible for project delivery. and are experienced with the technology that will be used to deliver project results. motivation. Estimates aren’t accurate if the project’s objective isn’t known.html 6/2/01 . http://www. have produced work plans and estimates on a regular basis. You are guessing when: l l l there isn’t any relevant experience (i. to keep abreast of changes to and progress of the project Consider each resource’s effectiveness/productivity. are trained in the process the project will follow..16512. experience.1685. such as overtime or securing specialized resources customer characteristics (where they are located. Estimates created without relevant experience tend to be off by approximately 35 percent. Be based on a clear understanding of the work to be accomplished. There is absolutely no substitute for the judgment and knowledge gained from doing a similar project in the past. as is the nature and size of the components supporting the project and the skills required to deliver the results. use qualified resources who l l l l are experts in the application area. not a good estimate.

gantthead.html 6/2/01 . If your estimates and corresponding actuals are captured in your Project Review. She is currently studying for her Masters in Project Management degree. Who thought estimating could benefit so many people? Jan Warkoczewski is a senior project management consultant at Berkshire Consulting. and specializes in the creation and delivery of project management offices.com/Gantthead/articles/articlesPrint/1. As an added bonus. the more you estimate projects of different sizes and complexity levels. the better your estimating becomes and the better your projects perform.Page 3 of 3 When you’re estimating. http://www.1685.16512. other projects’ estimates may be more accurate.00. LLC. you’re communicating.