So you need to estimate some work for your project? Great. Project managers need estimates to help with planning, scheduling and budgeting. Estimates are useful things. But how do you get there?
Estimates come from talking to people. Even if you use scenario-based software or modelling tools, you have to talk to people to get the parameters set up correctly. The easiest way to do this is to run an estimating session.
Here’s how to facilitate the meeting so you get the outcome you need.
1. Get the right people in the room
First, get the right people in the room.
I’d recommend having separate meetings with separate groups of colleagues. There’s nothing more boring than having to sit in a meeting where people are estimating tasks that have nothing to do with your work, waiting around for your chance to talk about how long your work is going to take. If you don’t need everyone there together, split them up.
You need to have people who have the knowledge to contribute to the estimating process. These will be people who:
- Have done the exact same tasks before
- Have done very similar tasks before
- Know a lot about the subject matter
- Manage people who do the tasks
- Have been involved in projects where these exact same tasks or similar tasks were done.
Your meeting attendees don’t have to hit every item on that list, but they should be knowledgeable and helpful to the ultimate goal of the meeting, which is to come up with estimates for your project plan. And that brings us on to…
2. Have clear outcomes
You can have a loose agenda, but you need to have clear outcomes. What are you estimating: the whole workstream or a particular phase? A set of tasks for the coming month?
Are you estimating time or money or both? If it’s time, do you want to get duration or effort out of the meeting (or both)?
If you are clear about what you need to achieve before the meeting closes, you are more likely to get there.
Keep bringing people back to the ultimate goals of the meeting and reminding people what you need from them. You can keep the meeting on track far better with clear goals – and generally, people want to be out of a meeting room as soon as possible!
3. Agree the techniques or approach
What tools, methods, approach and techniques are you going to use? People often get hung up at this stage because the language is off-putting. Is chatting with your expert peers really a technique? The PMBOK® Guide – Sixth Edition would describe this as Expert Judgement.
All this step means is work out how you are going to do the estimating. Make sure everyone understands how it is going to happen. For example, if you are using Monte Carlo simulation, then you’ve got software and a process for doing it. If you are making up the estimates based on a set of sticky notes on the wall and a long debate ending with a guesstimate, that’s fine too. Just get everyone on the same page.
Have an open conversation about how vague you are prepared for the estimates to be, and at what point they would be firmed up. How are you going to track confidence levels? (Are you going to note down confidence levels at all?) Sorting out things like this at the beginning of the meeting will ensure everyone understands the context for the estimate and can explain it to others when they leave the room.
If part of your approach requires looking at past project data (a very handy and robust way to estimate similar tasks) then I’d suggest you have that ready and accessible. Run a few reports or download some planned/actual data before the meeting so you don’t have to waste time in the session itself trying to find the figures you need.
4. Do the estimating
Now you come to the part where you have to do the estimating. You’ve got the right people. They know why they are there and what you need to get out of the session.
Now talk to them. Use the tools you’ve decided on. Run simulations, stick sticky notes on the wall. Pull up holiday calendars and plan around vacation time.
This part is the bulk of your meeting. Go through each item and estimate it. Make sure everyone has a chance to contribute. If you notice disagreements in the estimating process, try a technique like three-point estimating to bring most and least likely scenarios together in a way your experts can agree on.
5. Document and use the estimates
Document how you got to the estimate. You might think you’ll remember, but in three years, when someone asks you to run an estimating session for their project, trust me, you won’t remember exactly how you arrived at the end result. Sometimes I don’t even remember how an estimate was calculated and we only worked it out a few months ago.
Write down your assumptions and the constraints you took into account when coming up with the final figures. Note the confidence levels and anything else you considered when you were discussing the estimate.
Finally, all you have to do is use the estimates. Incorporate the outcomes into your project schedule or budget. Look at what impact that has. Update resource calendars and any other documentation that might change as a result of the new numbers.
Then get on and deliver those tasks!