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Getting the Team to Use Ranged Estimates

Dear Elizabeth:

I work on a project team for a manufacturing company. For the last year, we’ve been using ranged estimates to build out our schedules. For the most part, our customers love it. We have one customer who is putting up a fight, saying they want a hard deadline. How do we convince them to go with a two-point estimate? –Living in Reality

Dear Reality:

Ranged estimates are awesome, so I’m totally with you on that one. I’m not surprised that most of your customers love the way you schedule.

I would start a campaign of education: Talk to your customers about why two-point estimates are actually a more mature and realistic way of scheduling and why that should give them more confidence. Talk about transparency and managing risk. Talk about why your other customers like it and the benefits that they have seen because they’ve used dynamic planning. Using case studies and real examples are also a winner when it comes to convincing others.

In this conversation go back to the beginning, and talk about why your customer chose you: because your company has a mature and professional approach to doing the work, supported by cutting-edge tools and methodologies including ranged estimates, which puts you ahead of competitors (and by association, gives them a boost too).

In the event you fail to convince your customer to go with ranged estimates, here’s something to consider. Could you use ranged estimates for your internal planning and then only publish the later of the two points to your client? They’ll get the worst case scenario but it meets their requirement of a single date and gives you the flexibility to use ranged estimates as you intend.

And if you come in earlier, you’ll have fair notice to let them know. They might even be pleased about it!

Every month, project management expert, Elizabeth Harrin, fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog. This selection is used with permission.

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Written by Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth Harrin, MA, FAPM, MBCS is Director of Otobos Consultants Ltd, a project communications consultancy specializing in copywriting for project management firms. She has over fifteen years’ experience in projects. Elizabeth has led a variety of IT and process improvement projects including ERP and communications developments. She is also experienced in managing business change, having spent eight years working in financial services (including two based in Paris, France). Elizabeth is the author of Shortcuts to Success: Project Management in the Real World, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers and Customer-Centric Project Management. She also writes the award-winning blog, A Girl’s Guide to Project Management. You can find Elizabeth online at GirlsGuideToPM.com or on Twitter @pm4girls.

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  1. I have had leadership who would only accept a single date or single number for anything. It took me several years to get in their head to understand what on earth could they be thinking. What I’ve found so far – and this is still pretty imperfect – is they are black & white thinkers. All or nothing. Success or failure. Done or not done. Up or down. There is no grey area to them, no middle ground. A range means (to them) that you don’t know what you’re doing and they can’t trust you. This view is highly risky and counter productive, not to mention a morale killer, but these kinds of stakeholders will never change. They say things that sound brutal and don’t bat an eyelash. No amount of progress is good enough until it’s complete. If it’s not a booming success for them, it’s an utter failure. There are no incremental wins. Conquering big issues along the way doesn’t even register. Creative problem solving doesn’t register. There are no maybes in this world. To me, that feels like walking on legos barefooted.

    Even if it makes you uncomfortable, you have to speak in terms of absolutes to win trust and confidence – even when there are none. The other thing you have to figure out early on is their tolerance for replacement “constants”. You had to give an absolute finish date last month. This month the forecast says different with high confidence. You need to have a stakeholder management plan based on analysis to know how to deliver that news. They will not want context unless they ask for it – and they probably won’t. Communicating with black/white or rigid thinkers is a very special skill you can cultivate, but you have to be the one to put the effort in. Never hedge or waffle. Never contextualize. It’s looked at as weakness and incompetence.

  2. Our philosophy that we teach our clients is that there’s a Target date, a Real date and there’s nearly always a gap. The Real date is typically driven by the tasks on the critical path and in reality are just estimates (assuming you’ve never done them before). It is normal at the start of a project to have a gap. The goal is to close the gap over time so at the end you end up hitting the Target date.

    Closing the gap is one through a concept we call “Refresh planning”. Each week (which is typically the frequency), we update the schedule with actuals (Has the task started? Has the task finished? If not, how many days are remaining?) so the task owners get to re-estimate how long a task will take. Don’t forget, these were originally estimates, and we all know that somethings don’t always quite go as planned, so this way, you get to re-estimate how long something will take each week. After the update, you look at the tasks on the critical path, you discuss what changed, but the real time spent in the meeting is engaging the team to figure out ways how to pull-in the schedule. The meeting general takes 1 hour, 15 mins to update, 45 mins to pull-in.

    Although this sounds “simple”, we find it typically takes teams anywhere from 6 weeks to 3 months to get the hang of it. But once they do, the results can be startling and they usually get pretty close to hitting the Target date.

    Another metric we use is to track the trend of the gap (Real date vs. Target date) over time. After a few refreshes, you will know pretty quickly whether you have a fighting chance of hitting the Target date. If not, it’s an opportunity to engage the customer. First you get them to see if they can help pull-in the schedule (this could be reducing scope, throwing out the “nice-to-haves”, finding the Minimum Viable Product, adding resources, etc.), and it not, to renegotiate the Target date.

    But the one thing we all agree on is that planning should be “reality-based planning” and not to build a schedule that unrealistically shows the team can hit the Target date. Our experience is that if you show the schedule can hit the Target date (and it’s unrealistic), first the team will disengage because they really know it’s unrealistic and second, the team won’t stop to find different ways of doing the project, but will just march down a path that will ultimately lead to the schedule slipping and missing the Target. When this happens, you will be well into the project meaning you have lost all that time when something could have been done earlier. Knowing you will be “late” at the start and having a gap, means the team looks for other ways of doing things differently at the beginning when there is enough time to prevent the schedule from slipping in the first place.


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