Thursday, March 30, 2017

The First Thing They Want, and Why The Shouldn't Get It

clipartfest.com by mrs eva ford from flowermound
clipartfest.com by mrs vivan bennett from little rock








How Much and How Long?

Never fails, the first thing management wants to know for any project are those two things: How Much and How Long. Whether you've been a Project Manager (PM) for a decade or a day, that question will come up, and typically sooner than it should, from the PM's point of view. So, when you are responsible for delivering a project, how do you address the question?

The Project Management Institute's (PMI's) training for the PMP (Project Management Professional) certification will tell you to give a range and the earlier in the project, the wider the range:

$1-5 million dollars

12-18 months

And as the project is more defined you widdle down the answer until you know enough about the project to give an almost definitive answer:

Barring any major change orders, this should take about 13 months and $4.6 million.

The wise leader will put in that qualifier so that when things do change (as they always will) he/she has a way of responding when management says:

YOU said it would be 13 months and $4.6 million, what happened?



StockUnlimited.com ID 1489322
In reality, this is almost a losing battle. There is a concept called Anchoring in negotiations and decision making, where the first number or other piece of information provided is the one that people will associate with the negotiation or decision, and all other numbers will be evaluated in comparison to that first number. Therefore, depending on your situation, in negotiations you may want to say the first figure, knowing it will skew the negotiations.

What you may not know is that anchoring also happens in range estimation. The wider the range, the more likely the recipient of the information will anchor on the more beneficial numbers:

The Project Manager said it could be done in 12 months for $1 million.

Have you ever been on the receiving end of that statement? Or perhaps the more common:

WHAT? 13 months and $4 million (notice the drop of the .6? Already hedging), you said $1 million and 12 months! What happened?!

So what's a PM to do? A well-trained PM will give the range, a wise PM will answer the question with something similar to:

I can give you a range, but it's going to be wrong. Let me fully define the scope, and once I've done that, then I can give you some real numbers.

Why that answer? Why shouldn't management get the How Much and How Long quickly? The truth is that until the scope of the project is fully defined, there is little to no chance of providing an accurate number, whether it's the duration or the cost, let alone both! All you would be doing is guessing, and planning shouldn't be based on an uninformed guess. Scott Adams provided a perfect Dilbert comic for this scenario:

by Scott Adams, @ dilbert.com
or maybe this one:
by Scott Adams, @ dilbert.com
or finally this one:
by Scott Adams, @ dilbert.com
I think I just wasted a Wacky Wednesday post, but you see what I mean. Without scope (design, user requirements, business needs, whatever) there is little to no chance that you can provide a single accurate number, and whatever numbers you provide, the best case scenario for management will be the one you are held to; sometimes even after a final budget is approved and project progress has begun. I had one experience on a 2-year project where the CEO of the company actually said, after 18 months: Why aren't we done yet? I thought this was only supposed to take a year! And he said that after signing off on the original project plan which showed 26 months! But at the very beginning, after project kick-off but before the original plan was finalized I made the comment that it could take anywhere from 12 to 26 months. Can you guess what anchored in his head?

If the manager presses, then this is when you start front-loading the qualifications:

Well, if we don't need 3rd party software, and we don't have a lot of legacy system integrations, then it could be as low as $1 million, but once you start adding these requirements the price could climb as high as $5 million. 

Why do you do that? Because you want management to know that there is a reason why the range is so large and understand that the first number is there only if everything is easy (which it almost never is). Load the qualifications prior to the number, so that maybe the information will be anchored along with the number (it has happened, I swear!).

Rarely do I recommend a course of action that is avoidance, but in this one instance, until you have the scope fully defined, try to avoid putting numbers to duration and cost. Continue to reinforce why it wouldn't be smart to do that until you have a complete scope; and if you must put a number out there, make sure that you provide the qualifiers first to explain why the lower number could happen, but is likely only in a very specific case.

I shared a couple of my experience, how about yours? Ever been pushed into an estimate? How have you worked with it? Have any advice for this difficult and persistent conversation? Share it below so others can benefit.

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