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.

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?”

“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.” top casino games for pc

Coming Soon: A User’s Guide to Dan Pink’s Motivation 3.0

Posted by: Timm J. Esque | Posted on: August 27th, 2014 | 0 Comments

Do you think about how best to motivate individuals on your project teams? We recommend that you don’t. Instead we recommend you think about what general conditions would help most professional performers consistently create high levels of value. Dan Pink, in his book “Drive” does a nice job of formulating motivation research into what these general conditions might be (in short, autonomy, purpose and mastery). But he stops short of prescribing step by step, how to set these conditions up.

So when Timm was recently asked to contribute to a special issue of Performance Improvement JournalPI Journal Pic
on motivation, he decided to take on this challenge. The result is his upcoming article “Motivation 3.0: A User’s guide.”

It was very interesting to peruse through some of the more recent literature on what motivates human beings. Researchers have only recently gotten beyond the behavior of isolated individuals performing one or a few specific tasks and delved into the motivational dynamics of groups in collaborative environments. There are still multiple motivation frameworks competing for mindshare. In looking at the research it became clear that Pink had left one of the more popular frameworks – goal setting theory – out of his formulation. This is puzzling because this particular framework, while having some self-conflicting components, probably includes the most documented examples of real world performance improvement.

Given our bias towards commitment-based management, we believe the motivation literature is also missing our approach to defining and measuring commitment. Like motivation, one of the challenges of studying commitment is the inherent difficulty in measuring it. As a result the literature contains many different approaches and operational definitions, most of them quite subjective (e.g. self-reported). We think the notion of counting personal commitments made and met (as measured in our Performance Against Commitment or PAC Chart) is an objective and very powerful definition and measurement that is missing from the discussion in the literature base. If there are researchers out there interesting in collaboration on addressing this, please let us know.

Chart Graph

Example Performance Against Commitment (PAC) Chart, from “No Surprises Project Management,” ACT publishing, 1999. © Timm J. Esque.

The PAC chart shows teams at a glance the extent to which they have done what they said they would. Having helped to implement these charts from numerous teams in a large variety of organizations, we have concluded that the PAC chart tells us not only about past performance but also future performance (use this as side bar). Teams that do what they say they will for many weeks running, are very likely to continue that record into the future, not because they are good at predicting the future, but because they have taken responsibility for doing what they said, and they find ways to meet the commitments they’ve made. Creativity also plays a role. When a person takes responsibility for an outcome versus a task, she is both motivated and free to look at all the alternatives for successfully meeting her commitment, including requests for help while there is still time to meet the commitment.

We believe managing commitments deliberately and effectively is part of mastering motivation 3.0. Again, Timm’s step by step recommendations should be published later this fall (publication date not yet available) in Performance Improvement Journal.

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