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Not in My Estimation…

Posted by: Timm J. Esque | Posted on: December 5th, 2014 | 1 Comments

A colleague recently sent me PwC’s Third Global Survey on the Current State of Project Management.  The survey collects opinions from mostly practicing PMs and program managers from around the world.  One of the main conclusions of the report is that “poor estimation during the planning phase continues to be the largest contributor to project failures.” This Dec 2014 picconclusion immediately struck me as nonsensical, but I wasn’t exactly sure why. I decided to use this blog to further examine this conclusion and try to sort it out. united kingdom online casinos

The conclusion implies to me that many projects begin by estimating the future project’s duration (probably true) and that that the inaccuracy of these estimates then cause that project to fail. This further implies that more accurate estimations during the planning phase would cause projects to succeed. This would seem to make the following a valid reply.

“How come this project is performing so poorly?” real money slots on iphone

“Because, before we started, we came up with a poor estimate.”

I immediately think back to projects I have known. A few years ago we did a major remodel to our home. The contractor’s schedule and budget estimates were off by over 40%. One big reason was because the contractor installed the wrong floor tile throughout the house while we were out of town. It caused delays not only for the demo and re-installation but for a substantial period of determining a fair way to address the cost overrun. This contributed greatly to the eventual inaccuracy of the time and budget estimates. But clearly the estimates did not cause the breakdown in communication that led to exceeding those estimates.

One could argue that quality estimates would include buffers for just such contingencies. There were some buffers built into our contractor’s estimate. But is it a good practice to include severe performance breakdowns into project estimates? As a customer, I would not choose a contractor that told me we should add on 40% to budget and schedule for major screw-ups.

The point of course is that while accuracy of pre-planning estimates is often a measure of project success, after the fact accuracy (or inaccuracy), does not cause the effectiveness and efficiency of the performance on the project. Hence, I reject the conclusion from the survey. Something else is causing project failures.

The Gantt approach to estimating and scheduling projects was strongly influenced by Taylor’s scientific management. The approach emerged when factories were being envisioned as one large continuous machine, with human labor sprinkled in as necessary. In that context, it made sense to study the average duration of step/task and use that to predict and improve production outcomes. But how many projects today involve the same people and tools doing the same tasks over and over? And while production involved mostly independent steps, project work is mostly collaborative. It is not at all surprising to me that project estimates are often inaccurate. Should we really expect that estimating will give us accurate predictions of highly interdependent and uncertain processes?

More importantly, if we cannot rely on estimating to predict the future, how can we measure reliable and predictable delivery of end products? Estimating is fundamentally based on how long each specific activity is expected to take. But human beings are not machines that perform the same activity the same way over and over. Human beings are capable of learning and breakthrough innovations. When human beings see that they are not on track to meet a commitment they have made, they most certainly will begin making adjustments. Adjustments in how they think, adjustments in how they act* and in the proper environment, adjustments in how they collaborate with others. A commitment from a team member is a totally different animal than an estimate from a analyst or a team member.

Estimating can still be one factor for individuals and small groups as they commit to when they can complete near term tasks and deliverables. Work breakdowns and high level estimates can assist in monitoring progress at a high level and be one of the considerations in coming up with promises to customers. But we really need to let go of the outdated notion that projects will or should occur consistent with the aggregate of many separate task estimates. This exercise is highly inadequate for helping teams collaborate effectively, and it is certainly not causing projects to succeed or fail.

*and unfortunately, when pre-project estimates are used to threaten team leaders and teams, adjustments in how human            beings play the “reporting game.” wheel of fortune casino game online

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Comments (1)


  1. Bill Sanders - Reply
    March 23, 2016

    Couldn’t agree more Timm. One of the frequent mistakes I see teams make with estimates is trying to estimate projects where the unknowns have yet to be identified. Add in mistakes and communication issues and it is surprising the projects aren’t even more over budget.

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