It’s unfortunately an all too familiar scenario.
You are assigned to manage a project and before you or your team have had an opportunity to start to chip away at the looming mountain of uncertainty, you get put on the spot to provide a cost or schedule estimate by your project sponsor or some other stakeholder. To make matters worse, your company’s project delivery methodology might insist that an estimate gets provided before work has even commenced.
We can support our estimates before we provide them with a long list of caveats and assumptions, but those qualifiers are forgotten by stakeholders a long time before the original estimates are. We can assign terms such as Rough Order of Magnitude or SWAG to these estimates but what we should really be calling them is pure guesses.
If only we had the confidence of Dilbert in Scott Adams’ 2010 cartoon below to stick to what we know is right!
A preliminary estimate, once provided, anchors expectations and starts the project off on the wrong track.
If the estimate provided is too high, a valuable project might get scuttled prematurely if the sponsor gets cold feet or worse, the team will get a reputation as being inefficient.
Offer too low an estimate and not only will you set your customer up for an unpleasant surprise when Murphy strikes, you might also be dooming your team to a death march. Make this mistake this more than once and word will spread that you are an untrustworthy project manager. Expect to have your team members double their estimates before they provide them to you in the future.
Sometimes we see an oscillation between these outcomes.
Team members who are optimistic and provide aggressive estimates soon learn that this is only hurting them and will start providing heavily padded estimates. Becoming frustrated with increasing levels of estimate obesity, sponsors and project managers exercise Theory X practices such as eliminating contingency reserves or cutting estimates.
Instead of furthering the insanity, why not start by ensuring during ideation that there is a clear vision and opportunity definition for the project such that all key stakeholders believe it is worth doing? Then confirm that the customer has the capability and commitment to spend a small amount of seed funding. This funding should be enough to help the team clarify scope, develop solution options and perform sufficient construction to explore the scope elements which they believe will pose the greatest threat to project outcomes. Once this is done, have the team provide estimates and let the sponsor or customer decide at that time whether it’s worth further investment.
Mr. Miyagi – Best way to avoid punch. No be there.