Episode 195 – Estimate This: Managing Project Estimation

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34 Minutes
Home Manage This Podcast Episode 195 – Estimate This: Managing Project Estimation

About This Episode

Bob Mahler, Ren Love

What obstacles do project managers commonly face when making project estimates? In this episode we delve into the intricate world of project estimation, aiming to demystify the process and highlight key factors essential for accurate projections. Project Managers Bob Mahler and Ren Love share insights on the realities we face when estimating projects, underlining the common gap between theoretical knowledge and practical application.

Some questions we address in this episode include what needs to be estimated on a project, essential factors for accurate estimates, and the influence of organizational culture on estimating. Other topics include the significance of historical data, participants in the estimation process, and strategies for managing costs in alignment with estimates. Bob and Ren also speak to the dangers associated with underestimating or overestimating project requirements or timelines and provide guidance on implementing a sensible estimating process effectively.

Bob Mahler brings over 20 years of project management experience to his role as Velociteach Senior Director of Business Development. His PM career began in the U. S. Army where he became a communications expert as a Green Beret. Bob’s technical skills led him to the telecommunications field where he managed a range of infrastructure projects for regional and national projects including disaster recovery projects. Ren Love is the Manager of Curriculum Development at Velociteach. Having started her career working in zoos, science centers and Disney’s Animal Kingdom before joining one of the Big Four accounting firms, Ren brings 10 years of unique management experiences. Bob and Ren are proud to introduce the new Project Estimating instructor- led course for group or corporate training, offered by Velociteach.

Find out more about our group training course: PROJECT ESTIMATING (8 PDUs)

Favorite Quotes from Episode

"…every time you sign your name on the dotted line, your credibility as a project manager is going to be in question and scrutinized. And the larger the project, the more visible, the more scrutiny you’re going to have. You should welcome that, and you should rise to that challenge."

Bob Mahler

"One of the biggest pieces of feedback I’ve had in previous projects I’ve worked and previous workplaces where the people doing the work are really frustrated with the people not doing the work telling them how long the work should take."

Ren Love

you mentioned the garbage in/garbage out. I would say, even with AI, …we still have to be very careful …that we’re truly looking at something that’s similar to our industry, to the tasks that we’re going to be doing, …to make sure that we’re using accurate information. Otherwise we’re just – we’re still dressing up garbage; right?

Bill Yates

The podcast by project managers for project managers. We are taking a fresh look at project estimation. Topics include the estimation obstacles project managers commonly face, key factors essential for accurate projections, the impact of organizational culture, implementing cost management strategies, and navigating the risks of underestimating or overestimating project estimates.

Table of Contents

02:10 … Project Estimating Course
03:56 … What do We Estimate?
04:46 … Factors in a Project Estimate
06:26 … Ensuring Accurate Estimates
08:30 … Experience and Experiment
10:26 … Choosing the Best Approach
11:41 … Estimating Tools
12:38 … The Problem with Culture
14:27 … Who Participates in the Estimating Process?
15:55 … The People Side
17:31 … Significance of Historical Information
20:16 … Managing Costs
22:17 … Underestimating your Project Estimates
23:44 … The Issue of Risk Management
25:26 … Dangers of Overestimating
27:56 … How to Combat Overestimating
29:03 … Implementing an Estimating Process
33:54 … Closing

BOB MAHLER:  …every time you sign your name on the dotted line, your credibility as a project manager is going to be in question and scrutinized.  And the larger the project, the more visible, the more scrutiny you’re going to have.  You should welcome that, and you should rise to that challenge.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Welcome to Manage This, the podcast by project managers for project managers.  I am Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates and our sound guy, Danny Brewer.  We’re so happy you’re joining us today because today we’re going to dive into the world of project estimation.  We’re going to discover the essential elements that demand estimation and the crucial factors driving accurate projections.  With our guests, we’re going to navigate the landscape of estimation tools and strategies as we discover a seamless approach for crafting dependable estimates.

Now, the experts we’re going to talk to on project estimating are Ren Love and Bob Mahler.  You all know Ren.  She is part of our Velociteach team.  She also does our Projects from the Past snippets that we sometimes include in our podcasts.  And she is the manager of curriculum development at Velociteach.  She’s also worked in zoos, science centers, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom before she joined one of the Big Four accounting firms; and she has 10 years of unique management experiences.  We’re so glad to have Ren on the team. 

BILL YATES:  Now let me tell you just a bit about Bob Mahler.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Yeah, it’s been a while since we’ve talked to Bob.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, Bob started his career with Velociteach similar to what I did, as an instructor.  So he taught for a number of years.  And then he migrated into sales, a natural role for him.  He’s director of business development with Velociteach now.  His background, he started out with the military.  As a matter of fact, he served our country as a Green Beret through the U.S. Army; served in Egypt, Kenya, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, many places.  After 12 years of service with the military, he moved back into the private sector and was a telecommunications specialist there. 

Project Estimating Course

WENDY GROUNDS:  Bob and Ren have developed a project estimating course which you can find on our website. This is an instructor-led course for group or corporate training. This course will teach students the most common and effective practices, tools and techniques for project estimating. You can email manage_this@velociteach.com if you would like more information or you can find a link to this course on our transcript.

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ren and Bob, it’s so good to have you both back on the podcast.  I wanted to ask you a little bit about the course.  You developed a course for Velociteach on project estimating.  Can you give us some background to that?

BOB MAHLER:  Well, of course.  First and foremost, it’s always a pleasure to be here with the Velociteach team, my home, my family, my livelihood.  So project estimating was an interesting and fun course because, as everyone knows, practitioners go through this vacuum towards achieving their PMP where they answer questions about project estimates without any external factors.  And it’s usually very simplified.  Then, once you start doing real work, you realize, oh, wow, there’s a lot of other things that go into this, like who’s doing the work, and when are we doing the work, and what about risk, or what about quality, and what about stakeholder tolerance?

When a recent client realized that studying for the exam and reality were very different, they reached out and said, hey, we need help.  And since you’ve made every possible project mistake in your experience that could be made and then corrected it, you’re the right guy.  So that led us through course development for this particular client.

What do We Estimate?

BILL YATES:  It was fun for me to watch, Bob, you and Ren collaborate on this.  You were getting requirements from the customer, a large hospital system, to develop this course, helping them identify their pain points.  And then you and Ren were looking at it going, okay, what should be covered in this estimating class, you know, based on just the knowledge that we have, the experience that we’ve had from different industries, and then also specifically for this hospital system.  But let me just back up.  Ren, let me throw this one at you.  What kind of things do we need to estimate on a project?

REN LOVE:  There are lots of things that can be estimated on a project.  The three biggest ones that I think come out the most when we talk about project estimating are project costs, how long your project is going to take, and the number of resources that you’re going to need to be getting the work done.

Factors in a Project Estimate

WENDY GROUNDS:  What are some of the factors and the considerations that are essential when you’re building out your estimates?  What’s the information that you need?

BOB MAHLER:  So as Ren previously stated, there are a lot of things that go into any particular estimate.  And I’m fond of saying, and I may have just made this up, that estimates are the anchor between scope, cost, and schedule because, if you get the scope right, hopefully, then the estimates, sound estimates, are going to lead you into a solid schedule.  And since time is money, it will lead you into a solid budget.

Some of those factors are, how experienced are you at this particular work?  How solid are your estimates for this particular material?  Who’s doing the work?  What’s your efficiency?  When are you available?  What about inflation?  What about interest?  And what about the vendor?  The list goes on and on.  And whenever you think you’ve done enough due diligence, you’re probably only halfway there.  If you’re not scared, then you haven’t done enough work on it.

BILL YATES:  That’s a good litmus test.  I like that, yeah.  When you start to feel overconfident, that’s when you’ve probably forgotten to ask a key stakeholder a key question or turn over one more rock.  That’s a good point.

BOB MAHLER:  And I didn’t even mention risk.  As we know, I’m a risk manager, too, and I didn’t even mention risk.  Another key consideration is based on the kind of work.  Is it dangerous?  Do you need to estimate more time and cost?  And that list is a whole ‘nother rabbit hole to go into.  But I think I’ll stop right there.

Ensuring Accurate Estimates

BILL YATES:  All right.  So key question here.  How do you ensure your estimates are as accurate as possible?

REN LOVE:  I can chime in a little bit on this one, Bob, which is historical information can be really, really valuable here.  So here’s where you can look at similar projects in the past and say, you know, that took us two years.  So let’s start our estimating there and adjust for some of those other factors and assumptions that Bob just mentioned a minute ago.  That’s a great starting point, but also making sure that you have the best information possible as inputs to that estimating process.  You may hear the phrase “garbage in/garbage out.”  If you’re using historical information that is not accurate or effective for some reason, then you’re not going to have the most accurate estimates on this project.

So, for example, if your historical project that you’re looking at took a year off in 2020 because of the global pandemic, thus took three years to do, and you’re looking at this historical project estimate saying, okay, well, that project took three years, this one will probably take three years, too, well, you’re less likely to encounter a global pandemic, hopefully, than that project did.  So that’s something to think about, too.

And then the last one I want to mention is estimating in good faith.  So you can’t truly get accurate estimates if you have already been given a target in mind from some external person.  So let’s say you have a key stakeholder that says, oh, it would be really great if this release coincided with the major holiday a year from now.  Well, now you may find yourself trying to estimate your schedule into fitting that timeline, and that is not estimating in good faith.  You really cannot work backwards. 

So what should happen there is that you do all of your estimates to the best of your ability, go back to that key stakeholder and say, all right, based on what we know, we’re going to need more money and more resources to hit that deadline that you want.  And so that’s what I mean when I say “estimating in good faith.”

Experience and Experiment

BILL YATES:  Okay, Ren, you mentioned historical information, which is so important for estimating.  We’ve got to have historical information in order to really feel like we’ve got a solid anchor for our estimates.  I remember you did some research on the Sydney Opera House.  I don’t think there’s another Sydney Opera House, I think that’s a one and only.  Do you recall, did they deliver that one, you know, on their original estimate?

REN LOVE:  Oh, no.  Oh, no.  They were, I mean, they were somewhere like a thousand percent over budget.  So the original budget, I think, was seven million.  And then the final cost came in at over a hundred million.  So they wildly underestimated the cost and the time.  I mean, it took a long time, as well.  Good question.

BILL YATES:  There’s a book I’m reading that actually refers to that project and a bunch of other ones.  It’s called “How Big Things Get Done.”  And there are two authors, but the main guy who has the database of all these massive projects is a professor, Bent Flyvbjerg.  And in that, he talks about two keys for accurate estimates.  One is experience.  Does the team have experience with PMI and the study for the exam and all that?  We refer to historical information.  And then can you experiment?  So can we do experiments to see if this approach we’re going to take is actually going to work the way it did on past projects or the way we think it’s supposed to work?

And it’s just so interesting to look at that and hear where you guys went with this project estimating class and seeing how similar that is.  We have to have good experience in what we’re doing in order to get a good estimate.  And we need to be able to experiment to see, okay, this approach we’re taking, is it really going to take two weeks per cycle, or is it going to be more like two months per cycle to get this built out?

Choosing the Best Approach

WENDY GROUNDS:  How do you choose the best approach or the best estimation tool to use?

BOB MAHLER:  My favorite method for choosing the appropriate approach is to ask my Magic Eight Ball.  And so far it has not let me down.  Another approach might be to, a better approach might be to determine how much information do you have, and where are you in the project lifecycle?  If you’re early and you’re short of information, you can use a more generalized approach.  But as you iterate through progressive elaboration and gather more information – that’s an accidental rhyme, and I do it all the time – you can choose more detailed, more exact approaches, and slowly meander your way to something that makes sense.

But don’t get sloppy, and don’t become complacent.  You still need to take a look at what you did before, if ever, or compare it to projects in your industry of a similar nature.  You should have some sort of justification when you get to the end results.  Otherwise, like Ren previously said, you might only be a thousand percent off, and in some industries you get fired for that.

Estimating Tools

BILL YATES:  That’s true.  So Bob and Ren, when you guys were building out this part of the course, which is very tactical, you know, what tools do you use, did you have any surprises?  Were the list of tools that you were researching and recommending that would be a part of the course, was it like, oh yeah, those are things that we’re familiar with? 

REN LOVE: I think, none of the tools really surprised me because a lot of these estimating tools are well known in lots of different industries.  So top down, bottom up, parametric estimating, which you may not know like the term for what that is, but that’s the kind of estimating we use every single day.  So top-down estimating is very popular.  It’s a very common estimating tool.  It’s also what I like to consider kind of a quick and dirty estimate.  Bottom-up estimating takes a lot more time investment, and it provides a little bit more accurate estimating information.

The Problem with Culture

BOB MAHLER:  Well, I started with the easier, more commonly used estimates.  But I knew we would run against the biggest blockade of all in any company, and that was the culture.  And as soon as I started dropping those bombs on my contact, he immediately said, yep, you’re right.  We’re actually pretty good at estimates.  The problem we have is the culture.

I think there’s a line, someone important and famous said it, it may have been me, culture eats strategy for breakfast every day.  And this class and the implementation of it with our customer really highlighted the fact that you can have the best of intentions and be estimating in good faith.  And culture, the company’s environmental factors can come along and step on your head like a bug.

BILL YATES:  So talk more about that.  You know, you could think of very popular approaches like a bottom-up estimate.  Are you saying, you know, okay, there are places where the company culture says, yeah, we’re just not going to do that.  I don’t have time for that.  Is that what we’re talking about?

REN LOVE:  I think where the culture comes in is understanding the value of investing time in creating proper estimates.  And so one of the things that you also want to avoid, is you may have a culture where they want fast numbers really quickly.  You may be sitting in a meeting with a key stakeholder, and they say something like, okay, off of the top of your head, just give me a number. 

And I would encourage project managers to push back on that and say, I haven’t done enough research to give you any number.  I can tell you it’ll be less than infinity and more than zero, and that’s all I’m going to tell you.  That’s where that culture can come in and kind of take a chunk out of what should be a thorough, it doesn’t have to be months and months long, but definitely a thorough estimation process.

Who Participates in the Estimating Process?

BILL YATES:  So Bob, who should participate in the estimating process?

BOB MAHLER:  At a minimum, I would say key stakeholders initially.  And Ren actually brought an interesting point up a moment ago without realizing it, while in class, their speed to implementation was the biggest factor in the poor estimates that they were getting.  And several key stakeholders would do exactly what Ren alluded to.  Hey, what’s your best guess?  And they would just say things like five million trillion, plus or minus five trillion.  Okay, we can run with that.  And it came up so often, I was a little bit scared.

So I think key stakeholders, the sponsor perhaps should be there; the primary end user if possible should be there.  And the project manager/program manager who’s actually going to be accountable and responsible should be doing this.  And if you can’t give a solid answer in that moment, and I never recommend it unless you’ve done due diligence, you should ballpark it somewhere between like Ren said, zero and $5 trillion, and then really get to work and come up with a solid, justifiable answer.  Your key stakeholders really need to understand that you need some time to get this right.  Otherwise, like Ren also said – she’s pretty smart – garbage in/garbage out.

The People Side

BILL YATES:  Mm-hmm.  And you’ve got to have the people, not just the project manager, but those that are backing up that person that are going to be actually doing the work.  I want the people that are doing the work in there so that when we commit to an estimate, there’s buy-in.  They’ve been able to have their voice heard.  They’ve raised the right questions.  And they’ve helped do the due diligence that will support those estimates.

REN LOVE:  Yeah, one of the biggest pieces of feedback I’ve had in previous projects I’ve worked and previous workplaces where the people doing the work are really frustrated with the people not doing the work telling them how long the work should take.  And I think that is something to remember, too, is that if you’re estimating how long it should take a resource to do something, of course use that historical information, but also talk to your resource and see what they have to say.

And they may give you some clues on things that you weren’t aware of, that you’re using an outdated version of software, or they have been told by their functional manager that they’re only on your project 50% of the time, and you thought they were on your project for 100% of the time.  So those people should be a part of that estimating process, as well.

BOB MAHLER:  I also think you’ll find that projects or industries and companies who work on a profit-and-loss basis will have better estimates.  Some organizations, some industries, perhaps state, federal, local governmental projects, those are all loss projects.  They’re not trying to turn a profit.  So the estimates in my experience are oftentimes a little more wonky as a technical phrase than the ones that are actually trying to turn a profit.

Significance of Historical Information

WENDY GROUNDS:  Ren, you did mention historical information.  Could you just go a little deeper into the significance of historical information when you’re refining your project estimates?

REN LOVE:  Yeah, absolutely.  So that historical information, you know, that goes back to making sure that your estimates are as accurate as possible.  When you’re looking back in your organization’s history, and you’re using old projects for those estimates, that is really valuable information, but it’s also pretty critical to take a look at that.  So one of the anecdotes I read when I was researching some of the estimation types for this project was that one project manager looked back and was using salary information from the ‘90s to estimate the cost of resources on their project in 2015.  And that’s a very, very different number than it was.

So that’s part of it there, as well, which is when you’re using historical information, that gives you a great look at the skill set of your resources and what you might be capable of as an organization, but also make sure you’re keeping a critical eye on that.  The cost of materials may have changed significantly.  I know that the price of lumber peaked in May of 2021.  It was the highest price since 1993.  So people who were estimating materials costs in the early 2000s were having a different cost than people who were in 2020, 2021, 2022 estimating lumber costs.  So that’s something to think about there.

BILL YATES:  I alluded to this book before, “How Big Things Get Done,” and in that the author talks about our bias that we bring into estimating.  And we tend to look at our project as something that’s never been done.  It’s so unique.  And he really challenges that because, again, back to experience and historical information, he says you’ve got to be able to have a solid anchor in your estimate.

So to me, I think it drives home the need to break down the work into smaller and smaller pieces, whether it’s on a backlog or a WBS.  At some point, we’re going, okay, wait a minute.  That piece, that big chunk that we have to do, we’ve done that before, or this other company has done that before, or we have accurate information in our industry that we can point to and go, this should take X dollars or should take this many days.

You know, Ren, you mentioned the garbage in/garbage out.  I would say, even with AI, even with artificial intelligence, we still have to be very careful with that when we go to estimating, that we’re truly looking at something that’s similar to our industry, to the tasks that we’re going to be doing, whatever our output of our project is to make sure that we’re using accurate information.  Otherwise we’re just – we’re still dressing up garbage; right? 

Managing Costs

BILL YATES:  Bob, what controls are in place or should we establish to manage costs in alignment with project estimates?

BOB MAHLER:  Wow, that is a big question.  So first and foremost, justification and approval of estimates before expenditures begin is really important.  You shouldn’t be moving so fast that you’re spending money before the boss really has a chance to look at your estimates and bless them, or before you’ve had a trusted advisor take a look at them and say, “You know what?  These are pretty good.  You could have done something a little better here or there, or this is spot on.”  So that’s control piece number one.

Control piece number two is what’s your spend authority?  How much room can you maneuver as it relates to your project budget when you’re actually implementing this spend?  Because small variances equal small adjustments.  And if your estimates are good, you should have small variances and be well within your authority limits.  But if you have been wildly wrong or something has changed, then you should immediately stray outside and rescind authority, and it should get escalated.  And that is the project moment when you need to begin fixing things, not $5 million down the road where you go, “Oops, my bad.”

I would rather have a tiny bit of egg on my face right now because a risk event happened and changed my project estimates, rather than six months down the road because we’re moving so fast and I decided not to bother anyone.  And now the project, the entire project is in jeopardy of simply being canceled because we’re wildly over budget or wildly behind schedule.  You should have controls in place that clearly show things have gone from bad to worse to catastrophic.  And any project manager worth his or her salt is okay with having those boundaries in place.  Otherwise you shouldn’t be doing this project.

Underestimating your Project Estimates

 WENDY GROUNDS:  All right.  So this one’s for either of you, whoever wants to take it.  What are some of the dangers or some of the pitfalls that are associated with underestimating your project requirements or your project timelines?

BOB MAHLER:  Well, I will take the easy one all day, every day.  And if I underestimate, I’m obviously going to need more time.  If I need more time, I need more money.  If I need more money, I go back to the boss with my tiny cup in my hands, and I say, “More, please.”  And then I have a very uncomfortable conversation about how we got to this point.  Hopefully, customer requirements change, the project environment change, a known or identified risk event occurred, and that justification is easier.  The “worserist” – and that’s a Tennessee word – of the situation is I didn’t do enough due diligence, and now my credibility is going to be in question.

Again, if you’re not scared, you haven’t done enough work.  Even if you’ve done enough work, there should be a little bit of fear because, let’s face it, every time you sign your name on the dotted line, your credibility as a project manager is going to be in question and scrutinized.  And the larger the project, the more visible, the more scrutiny you’re going to have.  You should welcome that, and you should rise to that challenge.

The Issue of Risk Management

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Bob, you mentioned risk, you know, risk management, risk analysis before and how closely tied this is to it.  And you brought it up again.  I agree.  I feel like this is a strong area for the project manager to, I don’t want to say “justify” their first estimate, but it’s like, okay, here’s our estimate.  Here are the assumptions that go into it.

Now, this is tied directly to these items on the risk log or the risk register, whatever they want to call it.  As we get updates on these, you know, we pass these hurdles, and we know it won’t impact us, or when we’re facing them, sponsor, I’m going to give you a heads up because this could be where I need to have more money, or this could be where the schedule slips.

This is the analysis that we did.  We’re approaching those risks that I said, you know, are tied to these specific estimates.  I almost feel like the more success I had in this area of a project was when I was – I was communicating more.  I was being proactive with the sponsor, almost giving them a, you know, a daily or weekly update on where those risks are in terms of my project schedule and my project budget.  Does that make sense to you?

BOB MAHLER:  No, we’re fully aligned on everything you said.  And the weekly, the bimonthly, the monthly updates should start tying risk, potential risk events, those that have occurred, their issues now, and those that might occur, to what the impact is to the budget and the schedule.  If you’re not doing that, you’re really missing an opportunity to educate up because some project sponsors really don’t have an insight into what you’re doing until things get sideways.  And then it’s too late.

Dangers of Overestimating

WENDY GROUNDS:  All right, Ren, talk to us about overestimating.  What are the dangers that are associated when you have too high of an estimate on your project?

REN LOVE:  I love this question.  So I’m going to start by saying underestimating is something that we’re all very aware of.  And there have been a ton of high-profile projects like the Sydney Opera House.  I know another one is the opening of Disneyland in 1955.  The concrete was still so wet that the high heels were sinking into the concrete as people were entering the park.  So because as people we know that underestimating is so dangerous, we then sometimes overcorrect and overestimate.

So what’s interesting about that is it’s very common when we’re also talking on individual resource estimates.  Remember I told you it was important to talk to the people doing the work to see how long it’s going to take them to do something.  But let’s say you’re a project manager, you’re on a team, and you’re talking to five resources.  You talk to one, and you say, all right, how long is this task going to take?  And they say to you, oh, it’s going to take, well, it’s going to take four days.  In their heads they’ve said, okay, that’s going to take two days, but I might need a buffer.  So let me tell them four days.

And so you as a project manager, then you say, okay, well, they said four days.  Let me just go ahead and estimate it will take them a full work week to do this.  Five business days.  Well, you have now more than doubled the estimated time of a task from two days to five days.  If that happens with every single resource across the life of your project, your schedule has now ballooned enormously.  And this can actually cause your project to have the plug pulled.  A sponsor may say, that’s ridiculous.  It should not take 15 years to do this.  Or that’s ridiculous.  It should not take $15 million to do this.

So the biggest danger of overestimating is losing your project entirely.  And then the secondary danger there is, even if the sponsor signs off on it, there’s, what is it, Parkinson’s law, where it started as a joke, but it’s a little bit true, which is work expands to fill the time allotted for that work.  So, you know, you said you had two days; or, you know, you told your project manager four days, so I can take four days.  It’s fine.  And then you’re losing efficiency.  You’re losing momentum.  Those are some of the dangers there of overestimating.

How to Combat Overestimating    

BILL YATES:  This feels like a culture issue, too.  What can you do to combat overestimating?  How do you avoid it?

REN LOVE:  One of those things is allowing a space for your resources to tell you exactly what they need and also creating a culture of honesty and acceptance of that feedback.  So part of the reason why resources want to give you an overestimation is because they don’t want to be yelled at when it takes them a little longer than they said it would.  I told you it would take four days.  It really took three.  Yay me.

But what I really wanted to hear was that it should have taken two days.  Why didn’t it?  Did you not have the tools you needed?  Did you not have the resources you needed to get this done?  Was somebody interrupting you who shouldn’t have been interrupting you?  So part of that culturally is making sure that your team feels safe and provided for and also not afraid of you as a project manager.  You’re not supposed to be a figure who sparks fear in the hearts of others.  Really, you’re a servant leader.  So you’re the person that they should go to when they say, “This took three days.  It should have taken two.  I need some help.”

Implementing an Estimating Process

WENDY GROUNDS:  What is a good way to begin if you want to implement your sensible estimating process, particularly in a fast-paced environment?  How does one start?  Bob, do you want to take that one?

BOB MAHLER:  This actually came up in the class, and this is an education moment for the C-suite.  I absolutely believe, as Ren pointed out earlier, in historical information.  And the easiest way to see if you have an estimating problem is to take a look at your previous projects.  What was the baseline, and where did they end?  And if there is a negative variance there, or a significant positive variance, the next question is, what happened?  Once you dig into that, particularly if it was over budget and behind schedule, you’re going to find that the estimations were just ridiculous.

And then it’s very easy to “quantify,” I love that word, because people notice the dollars and the cents.  No one wants to go from good to great unless it’s for personal development.  In the business sense, they want to save $15 million.  And if you can show them that estimates, bad estimates cause that, they will absolutely pay attention.  As soon as you quantify it, that’s how you begin to change the culture, and you have to start small.  Let’s do it on this project.  Let me show you how it’s going to work.  And then we’re going to slowly expand into this other area.  You can’t turn over a sleeping elephant in the course of a day.  Maybe you can in reality, but a culture that’s so entrenched at rapid high-speed movement that has caused these estimating problems is going to take some time to fix.

REN LOVE:  I’ve also got something there to add, too.  I think that is excellent.  My only one addition to it – well, Bob, you’re a genius.  But my one sub-genius addition to it is more practical, which is the easiest way to start implementing estimating processes as quickly as possible is to first know where your tools are.

As a personal anecdote, I don’t super love yard work, and the easiest way for me to talk myself out of it is to be like, well, I don’t actually know where I put the rake and the loppers.  So first I have to go find those.  I’ll just do that later, and it won’t ever happen, and then all of a sudden my yard is like the worst on the block; right?  So the very first thing is I am sure there are people listening to this episode right now thinking, historical information, where do I find that?  Who do I talk to?  How do I find information on those previous projects?  Do we have a lessons-learned repository?

So the easiest way to start an estimating program, I guess, so to speak, in a way where you can grab that information really quickly is to know where to find it.  Who should I be talking to?  How do I get a hold of these documents?  And then that pairs very well within what Bob is saying because then it’s like, okay, you have all that information now.  Now let’s go for it.  Let’s hit the ground running.

BOB MAHLER:  If I can ask a clarifying question of Ren that was fantastic.  What exactly is a lopper?

BILL YATES:  I know what a lopper is.


BOB MAHLER:  I’m not quite sure I’ve ever heard that.

REN LOVE:  That is a very professional landscaping tool.

BILL YATES:  Yeah.  Yeah, yeah.

REN LOVE:  That you use to lop the heads off of bushes that are too bushy.  Is that not what they’re called?

BILL YATES:  It’s a lopper.  It’s a lopper.

REN LOVE:  Did I not go to Home Depot and see a lopper?

BILL YATES:  Yeah, you go into Home Depot and say, “Where are the loppers?”

BOB MAHLER:  They may be called “long-handled clippers.”

BILL YATES:  It’s a lopper.

REN LOVE:  You use the loppers.

BOB MAHLER:  For the record, I’m in Tennessee, and I knew right away they were not called loppers.  Another way to educate, you know, and really change the estimating culture is to make sure everyone is speaking the same language.  Everyone is calling estimates by the same name.

BILL YATES:  Yeah, that is true.  Thank you both for letting us bother you.  We know how difficult estimating is to project managers and to project team members.  It’s one of those areas that just creates a lot of stress because there’s a lot at stake.  You think about when you publish a schedule or publish milestones or certainly a budget.  You’ve got a lot riding on it.  You know, as Bob’s pointed out, that’s who you are as a project manager.  It represents, you know, your work product.  So you want to be as good as you can be.  And we know that’s an area that continues to be an area for growth.  Thanks, you guys.  Really appreciate it.

REN LOVE:  Thank you so much.  And I’m so happy to be here.

BOB MAHLER:  Always fun to work with Ren.  And I can’t wait to hear this one.


WENDY GROUNDS:  That’s it for us here on Manage This.  Thank you so much for joining us today.  You can visit us at Velociteach.com to get a complete transcript of this show.  You can also claim your free PDUs for listening to this episode by going to our website, Velociteach.com.  Choose Manage This Podcast from the top of the page.  Click the button that says Claim PDUs, and follow the steps to claim your PDUs.  Until next time, keep calm and Manage This.


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