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What Are You Estimating

Part 2 of my Exploration of Estimation

In part 1, I posed the question of Why are you estimating! I hope that you thought about it and may have found an answer or two.

The next question I’d love for you to think about is What are you estimating?

I was just in a meeting that was discussing a RFP for a client. This is pretty common in the consulting industry where we see a Request For Proposal and in that, we need to define the scope of work that we can address, align our skills and services to deliver  that scope of work and then provide an estimated cost for that service. Seems kind of normal. But then we are also sometimes required to provide an estimated calendar duration for the project. So in essence, we are being asked to provide 2 estimates. We then present our guess (educated) at how much work needs to be done, and here is our guess (educated) about how long it will take the team to execute on that vision.

So when the developers were being asked to provide estimates to the work in the RFP, what do you think were they estimating?

I haven’t had a chance to ask them yet, but based on my experience (as both a developer and a person being asked to provide project duration estimate), the development team is probably estimating effort and not duration.

So who estimates duration then? How do we get duration from effort? And if we stacking a guess (how fast we deliver) on top of a guess (effort), are we getting a meaningful expected duration value?

If you go back to my rant on estimation (which I will reference often in this exploration series) you will see how most organizations, in my experience, do mental and mathematic gymnastics to come up with an expected duration value.

My belief is that we are not getting a useful duration value. But everyone treats it as useful, starts building elaborate project plans and organizational activities around this duration value, and then we are all shocked when we have to change request the project, drop scope, or scramble like crazy (and usually with questionable quality) in the latter half of the project when it becomes painfully obvious that we’re not going to make our original duration estimate. Either way, the initial setting of expectations based on the layer of several guesses seems to be a Bad Thing™.

So I’ll leave you with this final question, what are you estimating?

p.s. I will explore better ways soon! Just bear with me for a bit longer! Open-mouthed smile


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