“A drive-by estimate occurs when a senior manager corners a subordinate and demands an immediate answer to the estimation questions: “When can we get this project done?” “How much will it cost?” and “How many people do we need?” Depending on how much pressure is applied, the unhappy estimator must produce some numbers and do it quickly, usually without much research. Estimates derived this way are normally of low quality and making any kind of critical business decision based on them is dangerous and often costly.” The Goldilock Estimate, Communications of the ACM, Oct 2012.
I see this everyday it seems. We complain about being asked to provide a quick estimate and are not given the time to “do it right.” The problem, however, is not that we’ve been surprised with an unreasonable request for a quick estimate. The problem is, in my experience, that we have not prepared ourselves to give quick estimates.
I’ll ask folks how many times have they’ve gotten these demands for quick estimates? They say all the time. Ok, great, so what are we doing to be able to meet this need for quick estimates? Nothing.
Why nothing? Well, because we have a formal process that takes weeks or months to crank out an estimate and that is how we “should” do estimates. So, how well does this process work? We don’t know because it is rarely used and when we have used it completely, the project didn’t perform (on time, good quality) any better than other projects that didn’t use the formal method. It just took more time to do the estimate. But next time, I am assured, it will provide a great estimate!
I had an account manager ask me when I was the development director how long it would take to deliver a new software feature. Before he could explain the details in the feature, I told him nine months. He freaked. We delivered it in nine months. The customer thanked us for finally meeting our promise.
The demand in the emergency meeting was for when would we fix the defect just reported by the customer? I, as the project manager, said it should be fixed by this time next week. Everyone howled. It was fixed by next week. The project delivered on time, for the first time any project had delivered on time in the memory of the organization.
How could we answer these demands so quickly and accurately? Simply, we knew we needed to do this kind of thing and so we prepared for it. We didn’t argue that it was unreasonable or that we needed to follow a different process. We just found a way to do it.
Once we change our own mindset and stopped railing against the assumed unreasonableness, we came to realize that we could do good estimates quickly. People were often shocked when we quickly provided good estimates. The shocks were almost always because it was longer and more expensive than people were imagining — which is common when finally providing accurate estimates!
For more details see: Yes, You Can Quickly And Accurately Estimate And Commit Your Project
What cushioned the impact was that our customers were rarely shocked by our estimates and that we then delivered as promised on schedule and on budget and with good quality. We often got congratulations from our customers for finally providing good estimates and delivering on them.
If we know senior managers will regularly be asking for quick estimates, than we quite clearly need to be prepared to make such estimates. Once we decided to try and solve this problem, we found it much easier and more doable than everyone assumed. The project management tool that works in this case is to be willing to accept a challenge that conventional wisdom would never even consider.
What would you need to know about your projects to be able to make quick and accurate estimates?