by Alan S. Koch, PMP, CSM, Certified ITIL Expert:

Note: This is Part 1 of a 2-part series on estimating and negotiating project constraints.

Estimation Is the Key
“This is what we need. You can use these resources. And you must deliver it by that date.”

Does this sound familiar? If so, you are not alone. Many project managers find themselves in just such a situation. There are lots of dictates, no flexibility, and more often than not, little realism in the demands.

What value is there in estimation when your sponsor has no interest in finding out what it will really take to do the project? The constraints have been chiseled in stone and we can’t change them. End of story. Our job boils down to trying to keep the project from being too much of a disaster.

Although it may not seem to be true, we can negotiate unrealistic project expectations. And the key to being able to do this is to do a good job of estimating what it really will take to do the project.

No One Wants A Failed Project
The first step to negotiating project constraints is to realize that your project sponsor does not want your project to fail. (If your sponsor does want your project to fail, then it is time to get out!) Like everyone else with an interest in your project, your sponsor wants success, and may need it more than you do!

Your sponsor has considered the costs and benefits of doing the project and concluded that there is a good business case for taking the project on. Of course, both the costs and the benefits are initial estimates, not final reality. Your sponsor doesn’t know what the actual costs will be any more than you do. But the initial estimate is as close as he or she can get during the project initiation phase.

If your sponsor thought the project was doomed to failure, he or she would not have gone forward with it. Failure is not the objective, success is! And your sponsor is counting on success.

Having received your mandate, your first job is to figure out how to make it succeed.

Discovering What It Will Take
Most of us believe that the purpose of estimating and planning is to answer the question, “What will it take?” When we are not asked that question, it might seem that estimation and planning are a waste of time. But nothing can be further from the case. In fact, in the face of project mandates, careful estimation and full planning are our most potent tools!

Our first step toward being able to negotiate unrealistic project constraints is to fill in the knowledge gaps. We can discover the cost and schedule information that was not available to our sponsor when the project was initiated. This information is a gold mine, because it can allow our sponsor to replace his or her initial rough estimates with much more concrete and specific ideas about the nature of the project and what it will take to achieve success.

There are many good estimation and planning methodologies, so we will not detail them here. In brief, we must do these sorts of things:

  • Identify a reference project – one that we did in the past that has as much similarity to the new project as possible.
  • List all of the activities that will have to happen on this new project – using the reference project as a pattern. Try to be sure that the activities you missed in planning the reference project don’t get missed this time!
  • Estimate the effort that each of the project activities will take – again, using the reference project as a pattern. Even if you don’t have good historical data, you can come up with reasonable approximations based on who did what when on the reference project.
  • Spread that effort over time based on the availability of people and other resources – Don’t forget that people cannot work 40 productive hours each week because of overhead and interruptions. Many experts recommend planning for only 20 hours of productive work per week per full-time person.
  • Consider any special complexities or challenges in this new project and adjust your estimates accordingly

If you find that the cost and schedule you come up with are in line with the initial project constraints, then you can probably manage the project to a successful conclusion. Go for it!

Read part 2 to discover what to do if you find that the cost and schedule are not in line with initial project constraints.

Previously published at

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