Negotiating the Numbers You Need: Politics and the Project Estimate

Mark Mullaly is president of Interthink Consulting Incorporated, an organizational development and change firm specializing in the creation of effective organizational project management solutions. Since 1990, it has worked with companies throughout North America to develop, enhance and implement effective project management tools, processes, structures and capabilities. Mark was most recently co-lead investigator of the Value of Project Management research project sponsored by PMI. You can read more of his writing at

There is probably nothing quite so political about projects as the estimates we create. If you ask your typical project manager--or executive sponsor--for their definition of project success, you are likely to hear some paraphrasing of “on time, on budget and to specification.” But who actually determines what “on time” or “on budget” should be? In other words, how do we know what the “right” schedule or budget for a project should actually be?
An estimate is the product of an exercise in which someone is convinced at the outset of a project that the appropriate cost and timeline is what has been proposed. Once approved, however, these numbers takes on magical, immutable properties--change them at your peril.

The challenge for project managers, therefore, is two-fold. The first challenge is actually determining a reasonable estimate for the project. The second and equally significant challenge is getting someone to actually accept the estimate. The results of these difficulties, and the political games that often ensue, are that project managers engage in a number of strategies in an attempt to determine and sell the “right” estimate. Most common among these is padding our way to success and low-balling a number based upon what we feel others want to hear. Neither is a particularly successful strategy, but…

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