Project Management

The Psychology of Estimating

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A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets, estimating and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts. Written by Elizabeth Harrin from GirlsGuideToPM.com.

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James Lea, founder of Project Science, spoke at EVA 26 earlier this year. He talked about the psychology of estimating. “People,” he said, “are just as important as the techniques and data.”

He went on: “Plans and estimates are built by and used by people. Psychology matters.”

The talk was very interesting, and here’s what I took from it.

He started by asking us our experiences of estimating and the emotional responses we had at the time. Think about your own experience of estimating. Did you feel:

  • Under pressure?
  • Worried about how the numbers would be used?
  • Unsupported by colleagues
  • Unsure what the estimate was for?

That’s all (unfortunately) normal, and we all nodded along as he talked.

Challenge how will estimates be used

James talked about how we should challenge how estimates should be used. “Uncertainty drives variable reactions in our teams,” he said. “It drives emotions and responses.” If you are open about how estimates are going to be used and how they should be used, that can help people feel more comfortable with the process.

Make estimating positive

How can we enable our teams to experience planning and estimating as a positive, creative experience? Instead of the stressful, “I suppose I can give you a number,” experience that it is mostly?

It’s hard for an organisation to accept that it doesn’t know the answer, and that can sometimes lead to a poor experience of the estimating process for the people involved.

Here are some ways he suggested we could turn the experience into a positive one:

  • Develop the models
  • Turn the work of an individual into the work of a team with reviews
  • Use the past as a guide to future performance
  • Frame everything as a change
  • Refine the estimates.

Creating a route to predict the future

James talked about asking the question about whether we have a route to predict whether the estimate is a robust one or not. We need to understand what is in and out of our control. Where things are out of our control, accept that and track it.

Estimates are only a guess without a map of how you got there and a set of viable routes.

We often hear that people can’t estimate where there is no historical data. Well, data science should make it easier now to estimate from past performance and the vast tracts of data we store about projects. If leaders can give teams the data, in a way that helps with estimating, that should make our estimates better.

Building defensible plans

James talked about showing your workings and documenting the bases of estimates. Steve Wake, the conference chair, shared his thoughts too, namely that the audit office regularly says people don’t know the basis of estimate and therefore the best ‘proof’ that your estimates are good is that you can justify them.

He talked about bounding your plans carefully, describing the world around the estimate as well as the estimate itself to provide rigour.

He suggested we quantify and compare with data science, applying risk appetite to the delivery methodology to round out what we know.

That, and the other points discussed, are ways to shape the emotional response and create a safe space for people to estimate their work.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Posted on: June 21, 2022 04:00 AM | Permalink

Comments (4)

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Dear Elizabeth
From what you shared with us, it seems to have been an interesting intervention

How to predict the future in a world where uncertainty is increasingly present?

Based on data? From past?

I had the opportunity to watch, during the pandemic, the predictions of the "experts". The more complex the models used, the less they were right in their predictions.

As you point out, the biggest problem with estimates is how much weight we put on them. Estimates is our best guess given the information available at the time. As soon as more information comes in, the estimates are obsolete.

Estimating is definitely something that can be updated as more information is available. The UK government's estimating guidance is really helpful in that regard, setting out that estimates are progressively elaborated with more information as that becomes known.

@Luis, I haven't read the book on Black Swans (I forget its name) but I think predicting the future is a huge challenge.

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