Here are 5 quick tips to help you with project estimating.
For a more in-depth look at some of these points, check out this article on project estimating.
Cesar Abeid has a new book out, called Project Management for You, and it’s a step by step guide to everything you need to get started with managing a project. You may feel that you have enough experience to not need a beginners guide to project management, and you may be right. Still, it doesn’t hurt to refresh ourselves on the basics every so often, and that’s never more true that on topics relating to project budgets. Because if you mess up your project’s finances it is very difficult to recover your credibility and the lost cash!
Here’s what Cesar has to say about project estimating for budgets.
Estimating a Work Package
Cesar breaks down estimating the cost of a work package into three areas: people, tools and materials.
People: “Estimate how many hours/days will be required by the person responsible for the work package, and calculate how much that will cost,” he writes. This, he says, is the best way to go if you are paying your team members for their time and they are billing you in hours or days. If you plan to pay them a flat rate for the task, then he points out you’ll need a quote to use as a estimate.
Tools: Think about the tools you need to complete the work package. “This determination will include actual tools, equipment, and software that you might have to purchase to enable your team to do the work,” he writes. Many of these you may already have but you might need additional tools in order to deliver this particular project.
Materials: If tools are what you need to do the project management, materials are what you need to do the work. Small projects, digital projects and other types of project may have very little here. “If you are building a deck or a garage, then materials might be the largest part of your estimate,” Cesar writes.
These three mini-estimates make up the components of the budget estimate for your work package. Add them up and that’s the total cost for the work package.
Estimating Your Project
“Once you have the estimate for each work package, add them up,” Cesar writes. “The resulting number will be the cost estimate for your project.”
This isn’t rocket science but you’d be surprised how often elements get left out. Check that you’ve included all your work packages in your overall estimate.
Then check your workings the other way. If it’s a budget item that you know needs to be spent but there is no work package that goes along side it, should you be creating a work package to cover that element? If not, how are you going to track and monitor that expenditure as the project goes along? Don’t make it easy to trip yourself up later.
Work with Ranges
I am a big fan of working with ranges because they help set expectations for project stakeholders and provide you with a bit of leeway. Cesar says the same. He advises estimating twice for each element. The first estimate is based on the best case scenario (say, $100) and the second on the worst case (say, $200). Together they give you a range of financial confidence (the task will cost between $100 and $200).
It can be difficult to convince your sponsor to understand ranges. There’s a good range (ha ha!) of comments on this article about how challenging it can be to talk to your project sponsors about why this way of thinking is beneficial when it comes to project finances. Sponsors like hard, precise numbers and with many projects that have an uncertain outcome that isn’t as easy as they’d like.
Plan with Confidence
Cesar concludes by saying that your estimating gives you the data you need to plan with confidence. If you’ve done the same for duration estimates as well you are in a good position to know how long your project will take and what you need to pay for it. With this information, you can make decisions about tasks and expenditure as well as the people you need to involve.
“If you can estimate your cost and time based on the requirements of your project, the constraints that are present, and the resources available to you, you can plan with confidence and make promises that you know you can deliver on.”
How do you plan with confidence? Let me know your tips for estimating and planning in the comments below.
Cesar Abeid’s book, Project Management for You, is available in print and ebook. Find out more on Cesar’s website.
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.
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.
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 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.
This article summarises four of the key terms that you'll come across when you start working with project estimates.
Bottom up estimating
This estimating term describes how you break down your project and estimate (as the name suggests) based on the smallest components.
Watch the video here: Bottom up estimating video
This term describes how you can use statistical and logical calculations to work out how long a project will take, based on what you know about the individual activities.
Watch the video here: Parametric estimating video
Analogous estimating relies on previous experience to calculate the estimate.
Watch the video here: Analogous estimating video
Three point estimating
Three point estimating is discussed in more detail in this article but the basic premise is that you use a formula to calculate your overall estimate. The formula is:
This calculation will leave you with a weighted estimate of the budget for the activity (although you could use it for scheduling time and work out your estimate in days). It will be weighted in favour of the most likely cost for that task, but it will also allow for the fact that things might go well – or not.
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:
“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:
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.