What should you do when project estimates are demanded or imposed prematurely?

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Last Sunday’s Dilbert cartoon reflects the common scenario of project teams being asked for estimates, or worse, being told what their time or cost constraints are before planning has got underway.  Sometimes, as in the case of Dilbert’s pointy-haired manager, the cause is a lack of individual or organizational project management maturity.  In other cases, the constraints may be real – a customer may only have a fixed amount of money to spend, or a regulatory requirement may impose a hard deadline.

Recognizing that this issue is unlikely to ever be completely eliminated, how should a project manager react in a way that won’t be considered argumentative or evasive but at the same time doesn’t end up throwing themselves and their project team under the bus?

  • If you are being asked to prematurely provide or commit to an estimate, take the time to educate the requestor that while anyone can invent an estimate with minimal information, the degree of confidence in that estimate is minimal.  Leverage the power of analogy and ask them if they would feel comfortable if a contractor were to quote them a price for shingling their roof without inspecting the property or taking any measurements.  Don’t allow yourself to be put on the spot for an estimate – stall for as much time as you can get!  Hopefully the stakeholder has some accountability for the success of the project, so help them understand the negative impacts to the organization and themselves if the project goes over budget or behind schedule.
  • If the requestor is imposing an estimate (as opposed to asking for one), get as much information as possible to help you understand the rationale behind the constraint.  If they attempt to deflect the question by indicating that it was mandated by someone else, request to speak with that individual with the original requestor present to get clarification.
  • Get agreement from the customer or key stakeholders on what the primary constraints or objectives are for the project.  If there truly is no flexibility on cost or time, explore the option of reducing scope to fit within those constraints while still delivering something of value.
  • Solicit input from other project managers within your organization and get some background on how such situations have worked out in the past.
  • So long as you are confident in your concerns and have received independent validation of them to support your position, don’t hesitate to escalate as high as possible within the organization.

If after all attempts have been exhausted, it still looks like you are facing the project equivalent of the Kobayashi Maru training simulation, get some formal acceptance in writing from the key decision maker on proceeding in spite of your concerns and recognize that at this point you have one of two choices.

You could proceed and hope that things work out but your team and the customer may still blame you if the project fails or you can take the high road and try to excuse yourself from the project citing the significant risks which concern you.  This could be a career-limiting move with your current employer, but remember that if you don’t stand for something you will fall for anything!

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