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A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts.

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How to Construct Your Project Budget

Categories: budget, estimating

Olivier Lazar gave a presentation at the PMI Global Congress EMEA earlier this year and he talked briefly about how to construct your project budget. I wanted to share some of his ideas and some of my own here.

So, let’s look at the three components of a project budget.

1. The Budget at Completion (BAC)

This part of your overall project budget comes from the work breakdown structure and your estimating processes. (I’ve written a lot on this blog about estimating. Check out some of my videos on estimating terminology and processes here.)

2. Management Reserves

This is a pot of money put aside for use at management discretion. Typically you’ll get your sponsor to approve the spending from this allocation; it’s not a pot that you can dip into whenever you feel like it.

Olivier gave the example of a decision on a project that was made internally and that incurrs a cost that cannot be passed on to the client. On one of my recent projects – although an internal one, so we weren’t exactly billing the other department for our services – we did that. The change involved upgrading a system. There was no tangible benefit to the users of moving to a new infrastructure but it was part of the longer term IT roadmap. We couldn’t in good faith have passed this on, had it been an external client, as it wasn’t a change they requested or that we could ‘sell’ as having any user advantage. But it was still the right thing to do.

3. Risk Response Budget

The final section of your budget is made up of the money put aside to deal with risks if they happen. This allocation should cover the cost of putting your risk response plans into action. If a project risk has a response plan that is going to cost you £100k and a probability of 10% you would budget £10k in your risk response plan. Remember, the risk response plan is to deal with realised risks (i.e. the ones that become issues). You typically don’t put the whole amount for the risk response plan (in this case, £100k) in your budget because you are crossing your fingers that the risks won’t happen. Or at least, not all of them will happen, so you’ll have enough money to go round.

Any money is better than nothing, but the challenge here is that if this risk does actually happen it will still cost you £100k to respond to. You had better hope those other risks don’t materialise as you won’t have enough risk response funds to go around.

Those three elements make up the budget for your project. They don’t necessarily equal the price you would pitch your services at.

Create the selling price

Olivier expanded his point about budget construction to add a bit more about how you would calculate the selling price for the project, as an external contractor.

Add overheads

Overheads are things like heating, lighting, staff costs. They are the cost to you of doing the work and should include everything from mobile phone subscriptions to catered lunches.

Most companies I have had experience working with have had a fixed rate per employee that they add to budgets to give this figure. These are called ‘on costs’. They only relate to staff though (pension contributions, hiring costs etc). Make sure to add in any other overheads specific to this project that do not relate to people such as hiring meeting rooms.

Add margin

This is how much profit you expect to make on the project. If you are a business you aren’t doing it at cost. Otherwise you’d make no money on it at all and your shareholders won’t be happy. You’ll have to work out what is an acceptable margin to make on the project – 2%? 70%?

Adding these two additional lines gives you the price at which you would be willing to sell the project to the customer.

Olivier added these caveats:

  • If you mis-estimate the tasks, the margin goes down.
  • If you eat the margin then you may breakeven on the project – chalk it up as a lesson learned.
  • If you eat all the margin and go into your overheads then the end result might be laying people off.

If you make people redundant and have no one to deliver your projects you’ll lose work and the ultimate situation is that you could go out of business.

That’s why estimating is important: without it you can’t keep your business profitable.

The same goes for internal project managers: you still need to know that your project is making the organisation something and adding value, not creating more cost for no benefit.

Read more about Olivier’s presentation in this article about using budgets to help manage project risk.

Posted on: October 02, 2015 09:07 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

How to Use Your Budget to Anticipate Risks

Categories: budget, estimating, risk

I’ve been going back over my notes from the PMI Global Congress EMEA which was in London earlier this year and I realised I hadn’t written anything about Olivier Lazar’s presentation on budgeting and risk. I wasn’t sure what to expect but he raised some good points about ensuring your project budget accurately reflected potential issues and gave tips on how to do that.

He talked about the project budget structure as one that acted as an early warning system, integrating cost, scope and risk.

“Everything starts with an estimate,” he said. “An estimate is a risk.”

The truth about estimating

Estimating, Olivier explained:

  • Takes account of risk
  • Refers to the true project scope
  • Recognises uncertainty where it exists and not where it doesn’t
  • Separates contingencies from the general reserve
  • Defines contingency and reserves at the appropriate rate
  • Identifies and counters bias
  • Must be achievable.

“You fail it you have to react,” he said. “Project management is an activity of anticipation.”

Having said that, you can’t anticipate events in the future – unless your crystal ball works better than mine – but you can put mechanisms in place to maximise the opportunity to anticipate and avoid the wilful blindness that was discussed in other presentations during the conference.

Use your plan as a baseline

We all know that what you plan isn’t going to happen exactly as you had scheduled. Olivier said that we should consider the project plan as a baseline, not a map; a speedometer, not the GPS.

Usually, he went on, projects go over time and over budget because risk has not been adequately taken into account.

Therefore it’s important to plan the risk response as early as you can, because this helps you work out the cost. Risk response budgets can then be included in your budget, lowering the likelihood that you’ll go over your planned spending.

He recommended grouping risks together then identifying common response strategies, with a minimum of 3% contingency. You’ll want to increase the contingency reserves in these situations:

  • High ambiguity
  • Innovation
  • Research and development
  • Technical uncertainty

These circumstances reduce your ability to accurately identify the risk and so push the contingency up. Where you have low levels of uncertainty and ambiguity you can thoroughly identify risks (for example, in projects where you’ve done the same thing before) and thus be able to reduce the contingency reserves accordingly.

When you have identified risks (or threats) that have a high probability of occurrence, Oliver suggested integrating these fully into the project plan and identifying the opposite opportunity – the one that you could enhance or exploit.

Monitoring as you go

If 30% of your budget at completion has been used and yet 80% of your risk response budget is used up then you have a problem.

These figures show that a lot of things you thought were uncertain have actually happened – no one expects every single risk to really happen on their project because they are only risks, not certainties. If you merge your budget at completion, contingency reserves and risk budget together you might not be able to identify this situation as early. You’ll lose control and you can’t know what is happening because risk and contingency, Olivier explained, are not the same thing. Your risk and contingency budgets do not inflate your project budget (or reduce it, for that matter). They only give you more control.

If you are in this position then you need to act quickly to get your project back on track.

Review the scope statement and – while acting quickly – also take the time to react and review. Currently you are within budget so you may not have some of the triggers that you would expect, but consider this tracking your early warning sign.

Olivier concluded by saying that additional control lets you “move from panic and chaos to project management” and reiterated the idea of project management plan as the overall map for y our journey, not the step-by-step walking guide.

Have you split out risk and contingency budgets on your projects? I’d like to know what you think of this practice, so let me know in the comments.

Posted on: September 04, 2015 09:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (7)

A project budgeting calendar

Categories: budget

I could have also called this post: What money stuff do you do when?

I should start by saying that it’s difficult to give you a complete rundown of what project budgeting activity needs to happen when in the month or whenever in your project, because each company is different. So this article will cover what I think is common practice based on the project managers I work with and coach.

Project start up

At the beginning of the project, before the ‘doing’ of the work starts, you should:

  • Work out what budget you need.
  • Agree budget and tolerances with those in authority.
  • Agree contingency funds and the process for accessing them.
  • Negotiate any big purchases or put arrangements in place with suppliers.

Remember to write all this stuff down as part of your project initiation documentation.

Project delivery

During the activity part of the project where you are completing project work and achieving targets towards your deliverables you should be:

  • Raising purchase orders and issuing them to vendors
  • Approving invoices
  • Reviewing contract terms and supplier's performance against the contract
  • Completing internal processes to get suppliers’ bills paid.

Each month on the project

Every month you should be updating your project records and doing the following:

  • Track what orders have been raised and received.
  • Approving any cross-charges from other departments or projects.
  • Review what you’ve spent.
  • Review what you plan to spend.
  • Panic if there is a discrepancy against your actual budget – just kidding. Work through any discrepancies and reforecast as necessary.

Every couple of months on the project

Every so often – I’d do this every two months on shorter projects and every three on longer ones – review these bigger ticket items to see what your status is:

  • Review tolerances and get them changed if they no longer seem appropriate.
  • Review spending on your contingency budget and check your forecasts, ‘handing back’ any money that you no longer need, for example when a particular risk has passed.

If your project falls over the year end financial accounting period you should also be preparing for anything that you might need to do in order to satisfy the internal processes around that. For example, managing accruals. If you’re lucky, someone will do this for you!

Project closure

At the end of the project you should:

  • Tie up any contracts and draw the arrangements to a close.
  • Migrate any project-related contracts or purchasing agreements that will be maintained long-term to an operational business team who can manage them day-to-day after project closure.
  • Prepare a final statement of your project budget.
  • Let everyone know that the project is over. No more cross-charges!

What else would you add to the list? Let us know in the comments.

Posted on: April 14, 2015 09:34 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

9 steps for asking for a budget increase

Categories: budget, contingency

You’ve looked at the budget tracker and – to your dismay – you can’t make the figures balance. At the current run rate you will be overspent by the end of the project. You are forecasting to be over by way more than your project sponsor has agreed in terms of tolerances. There’s only one option: you need to ask for more money.

Asking for a budget increase isn’t an easy thing to do. For one, it’s embarrassing, especially if you were involved in putting the budget together in the first place. You’ve got to admit that you got it wrong. Here are nine steps to handle that difficult conversation with your project sponsor.

1. Be honest

You can’t hide at this point. Make sure that you are working from a position of clear, transparent, justifiable data.

2. Get time with your sponsor

Don’t do this over email. Even over the phone is pretty bad. If you can, get time with your sponsor to meet them face-to-face. If necessary, book it through their PA and confirm the day before. You can do this as soon as you know you are going to need the meeting, and ask to see them as soon as possible. Your budget position is only going to get worse, so you need a steer from them about the project financials as soon as you can.

Give yourself time to work out the position and prepare some alternatives but ideally you’ll want to meet them quickly.

3. Sort out your estimating

You need better estimates. Most likely your project budget is over because you:

  • Forgot to include key elements of work
  • Didn’t estimate properly and several tasks are costing more than initially expected.

Estimate, and then include proper contingency reserves if you do not have confidence in those estimates.

4. Prepare a new budget

Use your new figures to revise your budget. Go back to basics. Start from scratch and do the whole thing again. There may be some elements you feel confident enough to keep but at this point nothing should be without challenge.


Because if you are going to back to ask for more cash, make sure you only do it once. Once is excusable – kind of. Twice makes it look like you don’t have a handle on the work involved and it undermines your professional credibility.

5. Prepare your rationale

You may be more interested in securing more funding, but your project sponsor is going to want to know why you need the money. Work out your arguments in advance, and make sure they are good.

You should be able to articulate why you are overspent (remember point 1 about: be honest and if you messed up, say so). Stay factual, and avoid apportioning blame even if it is really tempting to mention that you got a bad deal from a supplier.

6. Prepare some alternatives

Could you stick with your existing budget but deliver less functionality? Or deliver the same functionality over a longer period of time, perhaps with less expensive or in-house resources? Or deliver some functionality with the extra funding but not everything?

Come up with some alternatives to the whole amount so your sponsor has options. Be aware that one option is to cancel the project completely.

7. Prepare your sponsor

Don’t let your sponsor believe you are going to meet them to tell them that all is well. Nobody likes surprises, and in my experience, project sponsors hate them more than most! Send over a briefing pack for them to review in advance of your meeting, including the alternative options if securing the full amount of additional funding isn’t an option.

8. Hold your meeting

Meet your sponsor. Clearly present the current project situation and the financial position. Clearly explain what cash is needed to keep the project moving forward and why that is required. Give a level of confidence about how comfortable you are that these figures are now accurate and what is needed to complete the project on time and to the existing scope.

Talk to them about the additional options that you have come up with and ask if they see any further alternatives that would deliver business value but keep within reasonable cost.

Ultimately, your sponsor will make a decision about what to do next. The exact answer you get will depend on the situation and how far along you are in the project but it’s likely to be something like one of these:

“Here’s the extra funding. Carry on.”

“Here’s a portion of the extra funding. Let’s work out how much we can deliver with this.”

“There is no more funding. Work out what you can deliver without more money.”

“This project is no longer viable. Please shut it down and salvage what you can.”

9. Act on your sponsor’s decision

Your sponsor has spoken. Now it’s your turn to follow through. Obviously what you do depends on what route they have chosen as the most appropriate one for your project. Whatever the way forward, you should explain the situation to the project team so they are fully aware of what is going on.

Nine steps might sound like quite a lot but it’s an involved process that you need to get right. Have I missed anything out? What are your experiences of having to ask for more money to complete your project? Let us know in the comments.


Elizabeth also writes the blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. Find her on Twitter here.

Posted on: February 22, 2015 03:20 PM | Permalink | Comments (6)

5 Ways to create a budget

Categories: budget, estimating

Blank spreadsheet, new project. Where do you start? Here are 5 options for creating your new project budget.

Bottom up

This is my personal choice most of the time. Work out the cost of the individual items included in your project budget and then you add them up to get the big picture. Simple. Especially when you can rely on subject matter experts to give you the figures. All you have to do is ask intelligent questions and make sure nothing is overlooked.

There’s more on how the elements of your budget fit together starting with the individual task estimates created through bottom up estimating here.

Top down

Parametric estimating is not a method that I tend to rely on, but it does work. It relies on you having sensible data to use at an overall level (although there is no reason why you couldn’t decompose your tasks and work it out at lower levels).

For example, if it takes one person three days to dig a trench and you need three trenches, that’s nine days of digging.

The risk with this very simplistic example is that maybe people need a rest day after they’ve been digging for two days. Or maybe one of the diggers doesn’t dig as fast as the others. Still, if you’ve got a reliable way of using data to extrapolate your estimates, you may as well use it to give you an overall, high level estimate while you consider other techniques to refine your approach if necessary.

I’d be interested in hearing about examples from people who have successfully used top down or parametric methods to work out their budgets to understand more about the type of projects it is useful for. Get in touch if you have anything to contribute on that topic.

Based on previous projects

This is a method I’ve also used successfully, although it does rely on:

  • Your previous projects having good cost management processes
  • Your previous projects being updated when estimates change
  • Making sure that you are using the latest estimate data and not the original budget forecast from the project initiation stage.

If you can get round that and use real, validated data from previous similar projects, then I think this is a very robust approach to putting together a budget for your new project.

For example, we often repeat project implementation phases in multiple sites. The initial planning and set up at one site might take a bit longer than by the time we’ve done it 25 times in 25 locations, but essentially the steps are the same. We use the data from the first two or three installs to determine the implementation plan for the other sites. Then it’s almost a case of working through a project checklist and productionising the deployment of software on site. Of course, we always hit some kind of unique problem, but if we know there will be something at each site the overall timescales are still virtually the same. It does mean that sites that will get the software in the future are able to know with a high degree of certainty about when the project team is coming to them.

Using three point estimating

Three point estimating takes some time to do. OK, all estimating should take time to do if you are doing it properly. But three point estimating takes more than the others as you aren’t estimating once, you’re estimating three times.

First, you estimate the optimistic time for completing the task. Then you estimate the most likely result. And finally, you need a view of how long it would take if it all went a bit wrong – the pessimistic view. Then you use the formula:

Take your most likely estimate and times it by 4. Then add on the optimistic estimate and the pessimistic estimate. Divide the total by 6. That gives you a weighted estimate of how much the task will cost, weighted in favour of the most likely cost, but taking into account the fact things might go well or they might not.

A combination of approaches

I know I’ve said that bottom up is the approach I rely on the most, but really, it’s this one. I use whatever works at the time, and in reality that’s a combination of approaches based on the data I have, the expert input available at the time and my best guess.

I think that given the choice, most project managers would opt for this approach to building their budget. It’s the most flexible, and gives you the best chance of coming up with a sensible budget. Where you’ve got data for parametric estimating, you can use it. Where you know how to decompose the tasks, you can plan from the bottom up, and so on. Why limit yourself to one way when actually a combination of methods would get you a better result?

The only thing to remember is to make sure that your cost management plan includes the assumptions and parameters you are using to estimate so that if someone else needs to review your budget it’s clear to them how you came up with the costs you are using for each element.

If you had to choose your favourite budget method, what would it be? Let us know in the comments.

Posted on: January 06, 2015 06:41 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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