An Estimate Isn't Supposed to Be Accurate, Stupid!

Ian Simpson

Have you ever looked at the way people view estimates? Project managers complain bitterly about the demands made on them to develop good ("accurate"!?) estimates, pointing out how difficult that is to do. But when the project starts rolling, their attitude becomes strangely different. They treat estimates like they are written in stone.


Let me expound.

First, difficulty is no excuse. It is a project manager's job to produce the best estimates, but what makes them any good?

  • Good estimates should have the ability to be wrong by the same degree each way. In other words, if I think it is 10 hours, then it might vary by one hour each way, not +40 percent or -10 percent, which simply admits an over-optimistic approach.    
  • Good estimates should also have their logic defined (written down!) so that variations can be analyzed quickly and easily to help adjust the forward plan.    
  • The team that has to deliver against good estimates will also buy into them.

Second, once these estimates have been dragged out of the project manager, s/he then becomes ever so defensive and arrogant about them. Witness the weekly progress report.

  • If the team member is on time, then that’s great. (It proves what a great estimator the project manager is.)    
  • If the team member is ahead, then the project manager …

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"The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

- Bertrand Russell

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