Estimating how long a project will take is a tricky thing. Reality never seems to quite mesh with the estimates that have been provided by those who are responsible for doing the work. Sometimes the gap between the estimate and reality is so substantial (by orders of magnitude) that you wonder if it was even the same project that was estimated.
This causes all kinds of problems within any company that doesn’t have estimating and time management down to a science. First, companies can quickly run into trouble if they blow the estimate on a fixed fee project where it will cost no more, or no less regardless of the time it takes to complete the project. You can quickly see this discrepancy if you use any sort of time management software. Or, even if a company can invoice a project based on time and materials, project schedules can quickly become blown and unmanageable if not estimated properly. Finally, the morale of the people that are working on the project can begin to wane if it requires long hours, late nights, or even adjustments to pay schedules if money starts being lost.
Why is estimating how long a project will take and time management so complicated and what can be done to increase accuracy?
Can Someone Tell Me the Truth Around Here?
One reason why estimating projects or even completion dates is so complicated is that it’s hard to get the truth out of anyone for how long something really takes. It’s not deliberate, but people have been trained through years of bad project or executive management to put up self-defense mechanisms for self-preservation.
You can tell when someone is protecting themselves or feel as if they are being threatened when you begin hearing the following answers to how long, or how much longer, something will take:
“I only have 5% more to go and I’ll be done.”
This classic has been around for a long time. It basically is saying that the vast majority of the work has been done and there are just a couple of things left to do (usually just a matter of hours or days to go), and this part of the project will be done. The only problem with this is that you’ve heard the exact same estimate of how much time is remaining for the past 2 months! It doesn’t jive with what has been reported in the time management software and you really want this task to just be done!
“This will take 20 hours to complete.”
No matter how complex or how simple the task may be, it is always estimated to take the same amount of time. “Oh, that simple task will take 20 hours to complete.” “Oh, that very complicated task will take 20 hours to complete”. How is that possible? It’s not. What is possible is that a very busy resource is just giving you an answer in the hope of getting you off their back so they can get back to work that is already behind.
“That’s so easy, it will just take a day or two to get done.”
This oversimplification of whatever task is at hand usually comes from those who are in senior level positions within the company. Nothing is ever very hard or complicated and is only a simple matter of doing this or that and it’s wrapped up! The only problem is that the resources that are directly responsible for this work see things very different and it will usually take exponentially longer once it is shown the light of reality. The ones who are on the frontline of time management will have a very different perspective from those in the corner offices.
Why Don’t People Tell the Truth about Time?
People don’t like to tell the truth about time because YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH! People and resources throughout the years have been trained by out-of-touch management and clueless and defenseless project managers that if they really told how long something would take, they would get laughed at or lose their job.
This is what that conversation sounds like. “How long will it take to do this certain part of the project?” you ask a competent resource on the project. “About 200 hours”, they reply. “200 hours?? Are you crazy?? You know the client will never pay that and we don’t have the luxury of taking that much time,” you snap back. “This should take anyone that knows what they are doing no longer than 50 hours. Can you do it in that much time?” you ask. “Sure…” they quietly and despondently reply. If this happens time and time again, you are quickly training your resources to not tell you the truth.
Other reasons people don’t tell the truth about how long something will take is that they really don’t know. This could be because it’s a new person or the technology or implementation is something that hasn’t been tried before. Others take this as an opportunity to increase their job security by saying something will take much longer than it actually will and it makes them look busy. Or, there is always the natural phenomenon that work will expand to fill the time allotted. If a task is given 100 hours to complete, then that task will take every bit of that 100 hours to finish. Amazing!
How to Get to the Truth
Have the conversation with your resources that are responsible for estimating time on your projects that you understand why they do what they do when it comes to time management. You understand that they pad their estimates to protect themselves, or they come in with ridiculously low numbers to make themselves look good out of the gate. However, they also need to understand that reality will always catch up and show how long something actually took, especially if you use the time to track software.
Make a deal with them that if they shoot straight with you, you will respect and protect their hour estimates. You won’t overreact and say “no, you must do it in this amount of time if we’re going to price this right to get the work”. The amount of time it takes to complete a project is 100% separate from how much something will cost.
Let your people know they can tell you the real number and you will work with that. The only thing you ask in turn from them is that they have truly done their due diligence in putting this number together and there is an extremely high degree of probability that it is accurate.
Finally, document reality. Have people keep track of how long project work actually takes to complete using their time management software. This can be used as a starting point for similar projects in the future that can help save everyone time. You’ll never be able to get project estimates 100% accurate, but you will be able to get them at least in the right ballpark. Learn from each win or loss and apply those lessons to all projects going forward.