Monday, September 17, 2007

Breaking Down a Project: How Much Detail?

The Undocumented Features blog is exactly right that we should be aiming at a detail of tasks that are around 1 day in duration when beginning development. But there is a cost associated with having a person crank out those estimates. Often a project will need to “get the go-ahead” from the project sponsor before you can spend development team resources doing detailed estimates.

Those high level estimates are what often are so wrong. I think that one of the biggest reasons is that as project team members we’re giving estimates like “2 weeks”. “2 weeks” isn’t really an estimate, it’s a guess, a prediction.

An estimate is something like “1-4 weeks” or “3-5 days”. It really should be a range. One big downside of single-point guesses is that the guess is likely to be treated like a promise. On the other hand, giving a ranged estimate opens the discussion of what could happen (risks) that would push the effort towards the worst case end of the estimate or bring it in towards the best case end.

One of the primary problems is that project managers need a single number to plug into MS Project (or any number of similar tools). That coupled with the observation that these single-point guesses (especially at the high-level) are treated as promises pretty much make a person want to give up on high-level estimation altogether.

If you always give all of your estimates in ranges (e.g. 4-6 person weeks, 1-3 days, 6-9 staff months, etc) it is quite clear that it is an estimate, not a prediction or a promise. Giving a range opens the discussion of what could happen (risks) that would push the effort towards the worst case end of the estimate or bring it in towards the best case end.

Another nice thing about ranged estimates is that when you are asked to estimate something with poorly defined requirements you can give wide ranges to communicate the uncertainty. Well defined, believable requirements get estimates like 5-7 weeks whereas poorly defined, nebulous requirements get estimates like 4-20 weeks. This is especially true when giving high-level estimates.

There’s pretty much no way to get around doing high-level estimates. Your business needs some idea of the investment required to complete a project in order to make trade-offs. Hopefully this happens before your development team spends a bunch of time doing detailed estimates. Also folks in other departments (e.g. marketing, operations, manufacturing,…) need some idea of when they are likely to take delivery of the software. A team that can accurately (not precisely) give high-level estimates for these things gives their company a real competitive advantage.

So while it is frustrating, there are ways to do it and retain your sanity.


Anonymous said...

Can I read between the lines here that LiquidPlanner will allow you to enter estimates as ranges? And perhaps allow you to break down and refine these estimates throughout the project so that you can derive an expected completion date with a defined level of certainty?

Anonymous said...

Giving a range of dates is one approach to estimating effort. Adding chance to time estimate is another. Anyway estimates are always connected with some risks. The more aware of those risks the person is the better estimates she will bring.

The issue with MS Project schedules should be resolved with putting pessimistic options into the schedule. As far as you can have the realistic schedule of course, which isn't so obvious.

By the way: I'd like to see salespeople with estimates varying by 400% (4 versus 20 weeks).

Pawel Brodzinski said...

There's a meme about successful projects. I'd like to invite you to join.

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- Kris