I used to work for a software engineer with horrible estimation skills.  Our boss always wanted him to give the rosiest estimates possible of when the product would be done.  He always came back with the estimate our boss wanted to hear, knowing full well the team couldn’t deliver.  This was equally frustrating for me – the marketing girl – because I had to create press releases and talk to customers about the product.  The software engineer would tell me the realistic date the product would ship, my boss thought it was two weeks earlier, and I was stuck with a dilemma – what date do I use on the effin’ press release?

I ended up putting the actual date on my press releases, much to my boss’s frustration and confusion.  It certainly didn’t make me look good, and I did worry about getting canned.  The alternative was to outright lie to customers, though, and that seemed like a path to lose my job too (happy customers don’t spread good word about the brand and the brand dies).

So my plea to everyone who is in charge of making project estimates: be realistic.  Giving managers unachievable estimates of when work is completed isn’t really doing the company any favors (and likely one of your co-workers has to deal with your crap down the line).  I understand it can be hard to give realistic estimates, especially if the boss pressures you for short turn arounds, but here’s some strategies on how to do it:

  • Involve the manager in the estimation process:  Sometimes a manager just doesn’t understand why a project deadline need to be so far in the future.  Walking them through how you achieved your estimate can help them see why (and the boss might be able to help you identify areas to cut back on you hadn’t considered).
  • Improve your team processes over time:  New or uncoordinated teams often take a long time to do work.  Miscommunication, confusion, and conflicting priorities push the deadline back.  Let your manager know of these issues and show how these processes can be improved over time for the next project or deadline.
  • Leverage your team for ideas on risky tasks: Your project schedule probably has one or two tasks that has a long estimate because it’s risky.  Get your team together to discuss different ways to solve it.  You may discover a way to mitigate the risk and hence shorten the task.
  • Consider options that cost more money, but take less time:  Consider other options for tasks that might be shorter if you spend more money.  Outsourcing can save some time (although do be aware of the very real cost of managing external people).  New software and tools could also help shorten deadlines.  Talk frankly to your boss about these options and see which ones he prefers.

Project estimation will always be hard; that’s why people get certified to handle these issues.  Even if you underestimate at first, keep working at it by keeping notes of your percentage error and learning to adjust accordingly.

-Deborah Fike

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