The Money Files

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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5 Project Management resolutions with a financial theme

It’s the time of year when project managers (and everyone else) are looking to make resolutions. You know, the kind of promises you make to yourself in the dark days of winter and then have completely forgotten by Easter.

On the off chance that you’ll be making resolutions this year, here are some you could consider. They all have a money-related theme, so if you want to brush up your budgeting or polish your financial management skills in 2013, these could be great resolutions for you to adopt. So here we go: 5 promises for better money management over the next 12 months.

1. I will look at historical data for forecasts

When you are managing projects that are repetitive in nature and that the team has a lot of experience of, it’s very tempting to simply let them estimate the length of tasks and assume that they know what they are doing. Most of the time, they probably will. But it is worth validating their estimates against historical data from timesheets and previous project schedules. Use your online project management software to pull up reports of how long things took the last time you did them.

This could be at the level of an individual task, like completing a particular piece of coding, or a project phase, like testing. Or both. The purpose of checking is to make sure that your estimates really are sound and that the people who are estimating are not making the same mistakes about task duration on every project.

2. I will do my timesheets in a timely fashion

This is a personal resolution for you, although you could extend it to all your project team members. The risk of not doing your timesheets on time is that you forget exactly what it was that you were doing. As a result, you block out 8 hours per day for a task called ‘project management’ which doesn’t give you any breakdown of how you actually spent the time. Worse, you could be booking time to one project when in reality you got pulled off that project to spend half a day on some other project. These things happen in real life, to you and your team members.

By aiming to complete your timesheets at least weekly you’ll not have long enough to forget what you were working on!


3. I will understand Earned Value Analysis (or teach someone else how to do it)

If you don’t understand EVA, make 2013 the year when you get your books out and study how it works. If you do understand EVA, make a resolution to share your knowledge with someone else this year. Even if you don’t use EVA on your projects, it is a very useful skill to have.

4. I will do my expenses on time

Most project managers will incur expenses in the course of their job, such as travel to meetings. Not doing your expenses on time means that you are out of pocket. Many companies only pay expenses once a month in the monthly pay run, so don’t let your expense bill mount up – that’s effectively a loan to your company.

Get your personal paperwork in order by keeping receipts together, noting down your mileage after every trip and understanding the schedule for submitting expenses so that you don’t miss the deadlines.

If your expenses are being cross-charged to your project it is even more important to get your expenses in on time. If you don’t, your project budget will reflect that you have more ‘in the bank’ than you actually do.

5. I will review my budget quarterly

You do this already, don’t you? If not, make 2013 the year when you review your project budget forecasts regularly. If your project runs over two quarters you’ll probably be asked to do this by your finance team anyway, but even if you are not, it is still good practice to get out your spreadsheets and just check that you are still on track to stick within your budget tolerance limits.

Have you chosen any of these as your resolutions for 2013? If not, what are you having as your resolutions instead?

Elizabeth Harrin is Director of The Otobos Group, a project management communications consultancy. Find her on and Facebook.

Posted on: January 17, 2013 03:10 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are project forecasters “fools or liars”?

Categories: forecasting, research

Oxford University“The majority of forecasters are fools or liars,” says Professor Bent Flyvbjerg from the BT Centre for Major Programme Management, at the Sa?d Business School, University of Oxford, in a new paper on inaccurate estimates for major projects.

The paper, published in the International Journal of Project Management, sees Professor Flyvbjerg criticising the way that forecasts for projects are put together. He says they are inaccurate and provide poor material from which to make decisions about cost and benefits.

“Estimates are commonly poor predictors of the actual value and viability of projects, and cannot be trusted as the basis for informed decision-making,” he says. “These forecasts frequently misinform decision makers on projects instead of informing them. Some of the inaccuracy comes from genuine forecasting mistakes arising from over-optimism, but some estimates are deliberately misleading, designed to secure financial or political support for a project.”

You probably know of examples of where a project manager has padded estimates for one reason or another, by Prof. Flyvberg is pretty scathing about forecasting methods and the people who use them.

“Many forecasts are garbage and can be shown to be worse than garbage,” he is quoted as saying in a press release from the university. “These reports give the client, investors and others the impression that they are being informed about future demand, or the costs involved in a major project, when they are being misinformed. Instead of reducing risk, reports like this increase risk by systematically misleading decision-makers and investors about the real risks involved.”

What’s the answer?

Prof. Flyvbjerg says that the answer is for everyone to be a bit better at not putting up with this (I paraphrase). For example, he recommends that clients should ask for their money back when they receive reports which later prove to be significantly inaccurate and misleading. He even goes as far as saying that they could demand compensation (some contracts must have a clause for this in anyway). His most radical idea is that in some cases criminal action would be justified. “Merely firing the forecaster may be letting them off too easily,” he says. “Some forecasts are so grossly misrepresented and have such dire consequences that we need to consider suing them for the losses incurred as a result. In a few cases where forecasters foreseeably produce deceptive forecasts, criminal penalties may be warranted.”

Personally, I can’t see many project managers ending up in court because of poor scheduling, but as this has come from the Centre for Major Programme Management, Prof. Flyvbjerg is really talking about complex, mega projects.

When we say ‘everyone’, Prof. Flyvberg includes the professional bodies in that too. He calls on them to use their codes of ethics to penalise and possibly exclude members who produce unethical forecasts. “This needs to be debated openly within the relevant professional organisations,” he says. “Malpractice in project management should be taken as seriously as malpractice in other professions like medicine and law.” How many project managers genuinely produce unethical forecasts and how many are just incompetent? I think it would be hard to decide if someone was acting in good faith and to the best of their abilities or whether they were deliberately altering estimates for political gain.

A better way of forecasting

As you would hope from someone who is so outspoken about this, Prof. Flyvberg has all the answers. His answer is to turn to his own work and in this IJPM paper he sets out the case for quality control and due diligence to be applied to the evaluation of front-end forecasts. Unfortunately, I think his answer only works for massive projects and not for the type of forecasting and estimating most project managers do on their projects.

“Recent research has developed the concepts, tools and guidance on incentives that could help curb both delusional and deceptive forecasts,” he says. “Whether forecasters are unwittingly or deliberately under-estimating the costs, completion times, and risks of projects, and over-estimating their benefits, we need to have a systematic basis for evaluating their findings in order to make informed investment decisions. Given the high cost of major infrastructure projects, the irreversibility of decisions, and the limited availability of resources, this is clearly critical for both public sector and private sector projects. Significantly more accurate forecasts can be produced by looking at the evidence available from previous similar projects which have been already completed – what I call, taking an ‘outside view’. This seems so simple, but in practice it is transformative and leads to much more accurate forecasting.”

In other words, take large data sets or statistically relevant data for projects in your sector, apply due diligence, estimate from the basis of past experience and critically evaluate the forecasts. You’ve spotted it – the big downside to this estimating approach is that you need large, validated data sets to draw benchmark data from previous, relevant, projects. If your PMO has been up and running for years and has gathered all this, and you never do any projects which innovate or deliver something new in a way you haven’t done before, then you could make use of this technique.

If you don’t have all that data to hand, then this method of forecasting will not scale from mega projects and programmes to the humble projects that you and I work on. While using historical data is great and we should all look to the past to better predict the future, we would be wrong to expect this model to work for all projects.

Posted on: December 19, 2012 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (4)

5 things to consider for resource planning

Categories: forecasting, resources

TimelineNormally on a project you will plan out the tasks required to do the work, and then add in the resources needed to carry out those tasks. Here are 5 things to take into account when doing resource planning on your project.

1. Holidays

All team members need holidays or vacation time. Remember to plan for this when you are scheduling resources – you may find that a critical resource has already planned to take leave during a time on the project when you would really rather that they are around. Talk to the line managers of your team members about when they already have holiday time approved.

Also factor in religious and other cultural holidays. Team members may want to take time off around these times – and that goes for school holidays too.

2. Sickness absence

Unfortunately, team members can go off sick without any notice. While the option to work from home allows many people to soldier on when they may be too ill to make it to the office, you can’t rely on people to not be ill.

One way allow for this is to consider how you will backfill a project role if the person currently doing it is away from work. While you shouldn’t allocate two resources to every task just on the off chance that someone will get the flu, you should have a plan in mind just in case someone drops out of the team due to sickness absence at short notice.

3. Single point of failure

When task planning, look at who on your resource plan is the single point of failure. Who has worked on all on the Finance tasks and has all the operational knowledge? On long projects it can be particularly difficult to switch someone in at the last moment if your single point of failure person hands in their resignation.

4. Negotiating with line managers

If you don’t have direct responsibility for the team member concerned, you will have to negotiate their time on the project with their line manager. This can be tricky, especially if you only need them on a part-time basis. You may find that they can’t do the job they used to do before the project on a part-time basis, and their line manager may not find it convenient to have them back. It may be possible to job share the role in this case.

You should also consider what would happen if your schedule slips and you end up needing the team member for a longer period of time – how will you negotiate this with their line manager?

5. The triple constraint

If you lose a resource back to their day job or for any other reason, you will have to consider the impact that this will have on your task scheduling. The traditional triple constraint, for all its faults, is a good place to start discussions with your sponsor. If you have fewer resources, can you negotiate a longer time to deliver the project? Could you negotiate more money to pay for additional resources so that you have more confidence about reaching the original milestones?

In the end this will be your project sponsor’s decision, but you can at least take him or her some options to consider.

Resource allocation will no doubt change your task plan. You really need to review both the tasks and the resources in parallel so that you can put the two together and come up with an effective and realistic schedule. What other tips do you have for successful resource scheduling? Let us know in the comments.

Posted on: December 16, 2012 04:16 AM | Permalink | Comments (2)

Managing Money Q&A (Part 4): Why do projects go over budget?

CalculatorIt was a while ago now that I gave a webinar on managing money on projects, but it is taking a long time to answer all the questions that I didn’t get round to doing during the live session.  Thanks to all the fabulous participants, who asked such brilliant questions!  I am still trawling through them hoping to answer them all, and here is today’s batch of managing money Q&A.  

What is the difference between the contingency and a reserve?

Nothing.  Call it whatever you want.  The idea behind both contingency and a reserve is to have a pot of money put aside in case of unforeseen developments.  Regardless of what you call it, you can’t draw on it as a matter of course.  Accessing the contingency fund is only done with the permission of the sponsor – it’s not there for you to use as a buffer because you haven’t managed to keep the project costs on track.

If you choose the biggest number in the range of total project cost, would you then use that as the basis for applying a percentage as contingency?

What you are talking about here is presenting budget figures as a range to key stakeholders during the decision making process.  This is a great idea, and it encourages people at the early stages of a project to take into account the fact that the planning is not yet completely finished.  If you then want to apply a percentage amount as contingency – say, 10% - choose the biggest number in the range. So if your budget prediction is a range of £250k to £280k, you would work out 10% contingency as 10% of £280k, giving you £28k.  You can always hand your contingency back if you don’t need it, or reforecast it to a more accurate level later.

How we can handle project cost in a software product development company where the same resources are being used both for Development and production support and trouble shooting the issues of the live product?

Timesheets!  The project costs you must be referring to here are resource costs.  All other costs could be attributed directly to the cost of brining a new product to market, like buying a new server to host it on or marketing for new clients.  Accurately predicting and monitoring resource costs on a project are going to be hard unless you know how your teams are spending their time. Get them to do timesheets for a couple of months to get a baseline of what percent of their time is spent on support and troubleshooting.  This will give you a basis on which to forecast going forward.

On the other hand, if you aren’t worried enough now to be tracking time and working out how much effort your teams put into managing projects, why do you want to going forward?  Consider the reasons why knowing this information is important to you before going to the effort of introducing a time recording system that won’t give you all the data you need to make useful business decisions.

Would you say an initial budget has a +/- % deviation and encourage revisiting the initial estimate to reduce the deviation or wait till you expect to exceed initial budget?

Never wait until you expect to exceed the initial budget to reforecast.  Typically, project budgets are reforecasted at the same time as the rest of the company accounts are reforecasted, so once a quarter is normal, if the project is large or costly.  You can set points in the project lifecycle where it is sensible for you to revisit the costs.  For example, after the first phase, or once the development is complete could both be good examples of where it is an appropriate time to look again at your projections.  

I would say a budget has a +/-% deviation, and I think this is a good habit for sponsors to get into – they should be used to looking at ranges of numbers, and you can then revisit this estimate to reduce the deviation once more detail is known.

What are the reasons for going over budget and how can I control it early?

Where do I start?!  Here are some reasons:  poor estimating, equipment costing more than you first thought, forgetting to add in the tax (I’ve done that), not calculating formulae properly so your sums are wrong before you start (done that too), a risk materialising and not having budgeted for problem resolution, resources costing more than you thought i.e. having to pay for overtime or weekend working. The list goes on, and I’m sure you have your own suggestions of why projects go over budget.

Mainly it all comes down to poor monitoring and control.   If you have estimated accurately, keep the project on track, manage the resources effectively, and forecast estimate to complete properly, you should at least have an early warning that you are going to go over budget, and you can address this appropriately.  That could be through increasing the budget, using the contingency fund, trimming down the scope or dropping the quality of some deliverables, or through other means.

Read Part 1 here
Read Part 2 here
Read Part 3 here

You can see the whole presentation online here, via a recording of the webinar.  I’ll have some more Q&A for you soon!

Posted on: August 06, 2010 04:45 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Managing Money Q&A (Part 3)

Picture of workers with clocks instead of headsIt wasn’t that long ago that I gave a webinar on managing money on projects, but it is taking a long time to answer all the questions that I didn’t get round to doing during the live session.  Thanks to all the fabulous participants, who asked such brilliant questions!  I am still trawling through them hoping to answer them all, and here is today’s batch of managing money Q&A.  They are all about timesheets and time tracking today.

If not via timesheets, how do you gather information on time spent on individual work packages?

I think timesheets are the only viable option to gather information on time spent on individual work packages.  The alternative is not recording time at all.  This is possible with fixed date projects where you have high commitment to work towards fixed milestones, but it doesn’t give you any data to use for forecasting in the future.

Without timesheets, how can you develop historic figures for future planning?

As I said above, you can’t.  Guessing might work, but I don’t recommend it!

I found that subject matter experts are more willing to devote time on projects if they can charge time to it.

I expect this is true in companies where charging is part of the culture and reward structure.  Other companies reward people on their contributions, team work, collaboration and so on, where being able to cross-charge for time spent is not as important.  It can even vary by departments within an organization.  I think the best thing to do is find out what works within your organization and do what you need to do in order to get the commitment required from the relevant people.

If you don't use timesheets how do you track actual hours against budgets?

You can’t.  But if you aren’t charging for your resources, you don’t always need to.  Salaried staff, seconded to a project for a fixed duration can work 3 hours a day or 13 hours a day and they cost the same.  A project resource who charges your hourly for his or her time could spend an hour being not very productive, or an hour being productive, and they cost the same.  Good management practices will mean you can monitor their workload and get the best out of both salaried and chargeable resources.  Whether or not this is important to you depends on whether you need to cross-charge other departments for effort spent, or whether they will be charging you.

Are timesheets used for other resources (non-PM resources)?  How do you capture PM time?

If you need to know how many hours someone is working on your project, or on individual tasks, then you need them to do timesheets.  So ask them to!  You can capture project management time in exactly the same way as you capture any other time.  Here are some sample timesheet entries for project management activity:

  • Planning
  • Risk, Issue, Changes and Dependency Management
  • Project meetings (e.g. steering group, Project Board, team meetings, producing minutes)
  • Team management (1:1s with project team members etc)
  • Financial management (ordering, budgeting, forecasting)

You could have a big bucket task called ‘project management’ but I expect you would get more use out of the data if you broke it down further.

How do you convince everyone on the team to record their time accurately?  Especially when working multiple projects?  If they document them throughout the day, it’s easy, but is it practical?

This is the perennial problem with time recording.  I think the best approach is to make it as easy as possible for the people who have to record their time.  I saw a little desktop widget recently that times you and updates your timesheets automatically.  You just have to click when you start a task and click when you are done.  You can’t make it easier than that!  

You also have to fight against the urge for people to put in more hours than they have actually worked in order to ‘look good’.  Presenteeism is a problem in many offices, and this should be discouraged.  How about sharing your personal timesheets with the team so they can see you setting a good example of how it should be done?  What tips do other people have for getting time recorded accurately?

You can see the whole presentation online here, via a recording of the webinar.  Read the previous instalment of Q&A here.  I’ll have some more Q&A for you soon!

Posted on: June 14, 2010 12:48 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)

If you haven't got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.

- Alice Roosevelt Longworth



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