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Let's talk about estimation.

The project estimation process is the bane of existence for so many project managers. It’s not just that it’s high-pressure, hurried, and mostly done off the sides of our desk. It’s also that our efforts usually get carved down into a compromise that is almost never accurate or ideal.

But one thing I do love about the process of estimating is the opportunity it creates for some really important conversations to surface.

Throughout those conversations, we imagine the best and fear the worst. We make plans we know will change and resist making commitments around things we can’t see clearly yet. We look at past projects and at our vision for the company’s future.

In fact, I believe that every estimation conversation is actually an opportunity to talk about process, quality, vision, and values.

If you’ve been finding the process of gathering and revising estimates a bit of an energy drain and time suck, try these tips for making the process more gratifying, less mechanical, and maybe even a bit fun.

1. Spend less time estimating alone and more time discussing them

Cost estimation means some heads-down time, but there’s no point creating a perfect estimate if it won’t fit in with the rest of the context. Train your project team to put stakes in the ground that they can refine through discussion. It will help everyone see the bigger picture and gain a better understanding of their team members’ respective crafts.

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2. Make it a creative process, and don’t put a gun to anyone’s head

Dealing with ambiguity is the most common stumbling block for people being asked to create a project cost estimate. The next most common stumbling block is the fear of producing an inaccurate estimate. Use your role as a PM to keep the conversation somewhere between the bare bones and the blue sky by documenting assumptions, reiterating constraints, and asking challenging questions.

3. Educate your clients and sponsors

Whether it’s through hard facts or metaphors that involve building a house or preparing a coffee, make sure you’re not overpromising what a project estimate is. Set expectations that it will need to be refined when more is known, that it is subject to change, and that the project budget is something that will need to be managed proactively together.

Check out this real example of how a project manager in our community dealt with having almost zero funds for a high profile project, and she navigated her stakeholders to get the project done.

4. Don’t assume your historical data is a viable shortcut

You could look at all the timesheets from the last 5 similar projects, but that’s only going to be useful to you if you plan to use the exact same process of a past project and also have a clear understanding of the variables that will shrink or expand the effort. You can definitely increase accuracy and reduce time spent estimating, but not without doing the legwork ahead of time!

Conclusion

That last point is probably the most important one because a lot of you might be asking “what’s the point of making the estimation process gratifying if our estimates are always wrong?”.

Well, I’d argue that the conversations around estimation lead to conversations about processes, which lead to conversations about data. And that leads to a foundation for more consistent and accurate estimates.

In fact, that’s what we talked about in a podcast episode with data-driven estimation champion, Marcel Petitpas. DPM Members can also watch an Ask Me Anything with Marcel on demand here.

Galen Low
By Galen Low

Galen is a digital project manager with over 10 years of experience shaping and delivering human-centered digital transformation initiatives in government, healthcare, transit, and retail. He is a digital project management nerd, a cultivator of highly collaborative teams, and an impulsive sharer of knowledge. He's also the co-founder of The Digital Project Manager and host of The DPM Podcast.