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Mastering the Art (and Science) of Time Estimation

Speeding up task execution is not always the solution to hitting our targets on time. Sometimes, the root cause of delays in our projects is faulty time estimation.

This happens when we fail to calculate accurately the amount of time needed to accomplish a task. Or we don’t make allowances for unexpected hurdles.

As business leaders, our ability to produce high-quality goods on-time is extremely crucial. Unfulfilled timelines can cost us our clients or our reputation. Our speed and agility in research and product development could position our brands on the cutting edge.

I have a list of time-saving tips for project managers that I cling to. But one of my most trusted time-saving techniques is making accurate time estimates for tasks. Did you know that wrong time estimates are the root cause of 25 per cent of failed projects, according to a 2018 study by the Project Management Institute?

It’s time to add this tool to your project management kit.

How to make accurate time estimates for better project timelines

We’re not reinventing the wheel here. There are established techniques that have helped entrepreneurs and project managers for decades, such as the following:

Bottom-up estimating involves breaking down big tasks into smaller tasks, and further down to much smaller tasks until you’ve reached the most basic task. Then you estimate how much time each task will take and add it all up to find out how much time you need for an entire project. The idea is, the more detailed you get, the more accurate your estimate will be.

Top-down estimating is looking at a project from an end-result perspective, where you consider the purpose and target deadline before tackling the planning part. You also look at similar projects in the past as a guide. It’s best to combine the top-down and bottom-up approaches and tweak aspects of your project based on these two.

Comparative estimating consults historical data or experience for the ideal time estimates.

Three-point estimating projects three possible outcomes for completing each task: the fastest, the normal, and the delayed or worst-case-scenario.

For example, if driving to your office usually takes 15 minutes, you can say that you will either arrive in 10 minutes if you take shortcuts and drive at maximum speed, arrive in 15 minutes if go the usual route and pace, or arrive in 30 minutes if there’s unusual traffic.

Though all these look easy on paper, we all know that it’s trickier in real life. Whether we admit it or not, we’re all prone to the Planning Fallacy.

Psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky proposed that we are all inclined to underestimate how long it takes to get a task done even though previously, it already took us or others a longer time to get it done. One reason this happens is that there are always unpredictable events that may delay our plans. Does this sound familiar?

Set yourself apart, don’t fall for the planning fallacy

Even experienced managers fall prey to this. Our consolation is that experience can teach us in ways that stick unless, of course, we’re too stubborn and choose to keep repeating the same mistakes instead.

To avoid falling prey to a planning fallacy, remember three things:

  • Anticipate possible sources of delay. Use your imagination and think of worst-case scenarios. Base it on experience, yours or others.’
  • Seek advice from experienced project managers who’ve handled projects similar to yours
  • Apply the three-point estimating technique by always preparing for a delayed-case scenario
  • Never think you’re exempt from the planning fallacy! We all have this tendency and so be cautious and always provide margins for error (or safety, if you prefer to be positive)
  • Be teachable. It’s better to apply principles right away than learn the hard way, things that books and counsel could have taught you.

Now let me close by quoting from William S. Burroughs, “The best way to keep something bad from happening is to see it ahead of time… and you can’t see it if you refuse to face the possibility.”

It takes experience, lots of it, to polish our time management and time estimation skills. But if you’re teachable, this is an invaluable skill that will give the delivery of your goods and services a level of precision that many of us only dream of.