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The Art of Project Estimation

// 2018 Sep 12

Part of the series “The Accidental Project Manager”

By Dr. Surya Ganduri, Rutgers University

No matter the size or budget, estimating a project can be a daunting task. Every project request comes with a mystical, gray area that makes the project manager nervous about expectations concerning cost, timelines and level of effort. Because the gray area changes from project to project there is no magical potion for creating a solid estimate.

To create a workable estimate you should know your team, deliverables, tasks and process like the back of your hand. You also should be comfortable asking questions to figure out the things that you (and maybe even your potential client or customer) do not know. One of the biggest problems project managers face is having a solid understanding of what each team member does on a daily basis. 

LEARN EVERYTHING YOU CAN

A career in project management means you have to always stay on top of trends, changes, and deliverables in your industry. It isn’t easy, but it’s worth it because it will directly affect your success as a project manager. 

UNDERSTAND THE ROLES ON YOUR TEAM

As a project manager one of the best things you can do is be genuine and be honest about what you don’t know. It’s better to admit what you don’t know and ask questions. Doing so gives you an opportunity to connect with your team on an individual level and it will help you to understand the inner workings of your projects.

UNDERSTAND THE PROCESS AND WHAT WORKS

Once you have a good grasp on who does what and how, you need to figure out how all of your project’s moving parts fit together—or could fit together.

Do everything you can to understand your process, but don’t just read a book or a manual. Talk to your team, ask questions about what you don’t know, and feel free to question how, why, and when things are done. It’s best to always to include your team in any discussions related to estimating projects and process. 

STUDY HISTORY

Without a doubt, historical data can help you with new projects. When history is documented, you can analyze the information to help you create better estimates. A great place to start is asking your team to track their time on tasks which will give you a better sense for a project’s overall level of effort.

ASK MORE QUESTIONS

One of the biggest culprits behind misestimated projects is the lack of pertinent information and background provided on would-be projects. Encourage your clients to clear up that gray area and help you break the project down into pieces. That way you’ll be able to create an estimate based on what they need, not what you think they need.

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO KNOW

It’s often easy to take a project request at face value. The problem with doing that is the fact that there are likely a lot of details to uncover. So put your thinking hat on and scrutinize the request. Here are some things to think about on any project request:

  • What is the goal of the project?
  • What range of services does the project require?
  • What is your client’s budget for the project?
  • Who will participate in the project on the client side?
  • Is there technology involved? If yes, what is the technology?
  • Does your client employ anyone with expertise on the topic?
  • What returns will you and your clients see as a result of the project?
  • How will you and your client determine if the project is successful?
  • What is the timeline for the project?
  • Will your client require your services after your work is complete?

APPLY A WORK BREAKDOWN STRUCTURE

We are pulling out some basic, old school project management knowledge here. Do you know what a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) is?

Creating a work breakdown structure for any plan helps you get granular about project tasks. 

Using this technique as a foundation to create your estimate will help you with the next step: turning it into a project plan.

ESTIMATING PROJECTS WITH GANTT Chart

Another easy way to estimate a project is to use Gantt chart which makes it easy to set up a potential project and assign tasks and timelines to your team. You can create those timelines based on effort and assign resources (or people) to tasks. From there, you can schedule people against other project work.

JUST GET IT DONE

You’ll find that there is no right or wrong way to create an estimate. Your own art of estimating projects will include a mixture of project knowledge, historical review, client inquisition, and a ton of gut instinct.

Dr. Surya Ganduri is an Instructor/Advisor for the Rutgers University Project Management Certificate Program. The certification is based on PMI’s PMBOK Guide Sixth Edition. For more information, visit Rutgers University Project Management Certification.