Accurate Duration Planning for a Project
To the untrained eye it would seem that when you are planning for a project all you need to do is pull a date out of the air and say that’s the date everyone needs to hit.
You only need to go down that path as a project manager one time to realize that just doesn’t work. Worse yet, the consequences for not meeting the date are fierce, many, and long-lasting. Why is it so hard to determine exactly how long something will take?
Why accurate duration planning for a project is complicated
People are involved
Estimates for activity durations when planning for a project many times come from the resources that are responsible for the work. This sounds like a great place to start…and it is. There’s no better place to get an idea of what is really involved in getting the work done than the person that is responsible. It’s also a dangerous place to just take their word for how long something will take when planning for a project. Why? Because they’re human. People have an uncanny way of taking something that is very complicated and incorrectly breaking it down into something that won’t take any time at all. This could be for a number of reasons. They may have glossed over the details and didn’t quite understand all that was involved to complete the task at hand. Or, they may not want to look bad in front of their peers and supervisors as to how long something will take and come in with a low-ball estimate. And then there’s the other end of the spectrum of a ridiculously high estimate based upon overstating the complexity of the project. Neither too high nor too low is acceptable. It needs to come in “just right” and accurate so you can move forward with confidence when you are planning for a project. But, because people are involved in this process, this accuracy can be at times elusive.
Processes are involved
second reason why activity durations are hard to estimate is because processes are involved. Processes have been put in place for the purpose of saving time and this is usually the case. Processes can streamline how long a project takes to move through its phases until it reaches completion. But, processes can also break down and orphan a project somewhere along the way waiting for approvals, sign-offs, or other checks and balances that have been imposed for the benefit of the project. It’s hard to estimate when these processes will bog a project down and this will throw your answer to “how long will this take?” into a tailspin.
Technology is involved
A third reason why accurate duration planning for a project can be more of an art than a science is because technology is involved. Most projects today rely upon existing, and more often than not, new technology. This could be in the form of equipment, software, or even hardware. The long-term benefit of utilizing new technology is ultimately shorter times to work on a project. But, the short-term reality is that there are unknown learning curves that are involved that can throw a monkey wrench into accurate duration planning for a project.
How can you improve the accuracy of your duration estimates when planning a project?
The above provides a better understanding of the challenges that can surface from people, process, and technology when it comes to planning for a project. What are some of the things you can do to improve the accuracy of your estimates and keep your emotional sanity?
Be clear about the final deliverables
It’s your job as a project manager to make it extremely hard for a resource to not understand what is involved in completing a particular activity. Make sure all elements of the deliverable are fully documented and explained clearly. Sit down with the resource that is responsible for putting the estimate together and work with them through the details. Answer any questions they may have. Eliminate any areas that may come across as vague. Look them in the face and make sure you feel 100% comfortable with the fact that they understand the breadth, depth, and nuances of what is needing to be delivered before you leave them alone to put the final estimates together. Spending this extra time will give you the confidence you need for accurate estimates when you are planning for a project.
Look to the past
Have you done something like this before in the past? Pull out old project plans, lessons learned documentation, and other artifacts from previous projects that will help you with new estimates. Better yet, add to these paper artifacts the real people that did the work and you’ll have a solid basis for activity duration when planning for a project.
Define activity start and stop point clearly
There are certain areas that are black and white when it comes to putting together estimates for a project. For example, the marketing department is not going to accidentally stumble into the deliverables that the Engineering department is responsible for completing. But, this could happen with departments that are a bit more closely coupled. For example, there needs to be an extremely clear hand off between the Engineering function and the QA function. What can happen if that clear handoff is not in place is that Engineering may feel they are responsible for performing a certain aspect of QA on the product. QA may not know that Engineering is performing this function and provides an activity duration estimate. This is in addition to what Engineering has already provided and is now creating double, unnecessary work. Make sure your project plan clearly defines who is responsible for what activity while you are planning for a project and prevent this miscommunication from occurring.
Activity duration planning for a project is not an easy task. But, it is something that over time that can become easier. You’ll begin to develop a relationship and track record with the resources that put the estimates together. You’ll learn which estimates you can trust, which ones you need to add a little extra time, and which estimates can afford to take a bit off the top. Provide continuous feedback to your teams on how long something actually takes when it’s all said and done, building this type of shared knowledge can prove valuable when the next project gets underway.
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