Project Estimator – How to Play the Commitment Game

Dick Billows, PMPProject estimators know how to play the commitment game. The sponsor wants commitments from the PM very early in the project. The process is often political and involves much more than numbers. The Project estimators play the estimating game properly and don’t get caught committing to numbers that have a low probability of success.

Let’s look at some of the games surrounding project estimates and then discuss what the Project Estimator should do. In the real world, estimating a project’s duration and cost is a high stakes game. The client or executive wants an accurate estimate of the project costs and duration with a commitment from the PM to hit those numbers.When asked for those project estimates by an executive during the initiation process, a project manager may answer with any of the following Project Estimator Tactics:

  1. I’m 60% confident that we can finish the project within a duration range of 3-8 months and a cost between $50,000 and $250,000.
  2. We’ll be done in 5 months or so and the cost will come in at about $110,000, but that’s just a rough guess!
  3. I will have no idea until we detail the deliverables, estimate the work and find out how many people I will have to do that work.
  4. When do you want us to finish and what’s the budget?

Answer #1 – It’s truthful but enrages executives.
Answer #2 – Executives quickly forget “rough guess” and are happy.
Answer #3 – It’s the whole truth but it’s useless for executives.
Answer #4 – It’s very ingratiating but a project deathtrap.

Which choice do most project managers make? Choice #2. It deals with the reality of the situation. Executives are under the gun to make cost/benefit and priority decisions about projects. There are also strategic realities that force certain completion dates on everyone.

The project estimator is caught in a narrow vise when asked to provide estimates, particularly when the scope of the project is vague and the availability of resources is largely unknown. Project Estimator Tactics are a must. That’s how we make this situation a little better for everyone with a four-step estimating process that we announce during the initiation process. We explain the estimates executives will receive in each of four stages in the project lifecycle.project estimator

The Four Stage Project Estimates Process with Project Estimator Tactics

  1. Initiating: Project level analogous estimates based on similar projects.
  2. Early in planning: Project level and major deliverable analogous estimates.
  3. Final project planning: Bottom up estimates from the team members.
  4. Weekly status reporting: Rolling estimates weekly until completion.

Let’s look at a four stage estimating process that we might use on a very simple project. An executive invites you into the conference room and says, “All these weekly reports from the branches come in with different data in different formats and I want you to develop a consistent template, pronto. This is a high priority for me and you’ll get everyone’s cooperation. Listen, I have to run to a meeting right now but come back at 3:00. I want to know when you and your team can get it done.”

So the PM thinks through prior experiences with similar projects and accesses the archives for similar project estimates. At 3:00 the project manager is ready and says, “During the project I will give you 4 different estimates. The accuracy will get better and better as we know more and more. The best I can do now is give you a project-level, order of magnitude estimate based on prior experience. I’m 60% confident we can have that done in 18 to 35 working days.”

The executive gives the PM a poisonous look and says, “Okay, come back when you can give me a better estimate.”

The PM says, “I can give you a better estimate as soon as we have finalized the scope and major deliverables and you have signed off on what you want.”

The executive frowns and replies, “I was planning to delegate that.”

The PM smiles, “I would still need a sponsor’s signature on the scope and deliverables.”

The executive nods glumly, “OK lets get to it tomorrow at 8:00 am.”

After the following day’s 8:00 o’clock session, the executive frowns at the PM and asks, “Now, how long will the project take?”

The PM looks over the notes on a yellow pad and says, “At this point, I can give you a better project-level estimate. We’re still working top-down based on similar projects, but I can give you a somewhat tighter estimate and also apply some ratios to that so I can give you project estimates on each phase. I’m 75% confident we can finish in 23-30 working days. Using my experience and the ratios between phases on previous projects, I can also say that I’m 75% confident on the following phase estimates:

  1. Branch office managers sign off on requirements: 4-7 days
  2. Development test – Test group can complete the template < 60 minutes: 5-8 days
  3. Training- User can complete template in 45 minutes: 4-5 days
  4. Roll-out and enforcement – 95% compliance: 10-15 days.”

The executive scowls again and asks, “When will I get better numbers?”

The PM answers, “As soon as I detail the work estimates and get commitments on the people here at headquarters and in all the branches. Then, I can give you a bottom-up estimate, which will be more precise than the top-down estimates we’ve been using. Bottom-up is more accurate because I’ll be using estimates from the people who will be doing the work and aggregating them into the overall numbers.”

A few days later, the PM returns to the executive’s office and says, “Here’s the bottom-up estimate I mentioned. With the work breakdown structure done and the resource commitments I’ve noted, I’m 60% certain we can finish within 24-28 working days.”

The executive gives another slightly less venomous sigh and says, “Okay, this is getting better but I’d still like really tight project estimates.”

The PM nods and says, “The fourth type of estimate I’ll be giving you is a rolling weekly estimate. As we progress further into the process, the uncertainty will decrease and I’ll regularly give you new estimates. We call these rolling estimates. As an example, once the requirements are approved the uncertainty in the development work will go down a lot and that estimate will get much tighter.”

Are These Project Estimates and Project Estimator Tactics Statistical Hocus Pocus?

The simple four-step process we’ve gone through illustrated how a project manager gave project estimates and changed estimating techniques as the uncertainty about the project declined. In the example, the PM used analogous estimates based on information about previous projects. Next working top-down, the PM estimated by major deliverable using ratios from previous projects. However, this information could have come from an organizational project databank, from commercial estimating methodologies or from elaborate statistical analysis of previous projects. Whatever the source of the data, the top-down estimates provided relatively broad ranges in the overall estimates.

In the third and fourth estimating techniques, the PM used the work breakdown structure and duration/work estimating techniques at the level of individual assignments. Then the numbers got a lot better because the PM could use a bottom-up approach and aggregate the estimates of project team members to develop the overall project estimate. In this bottom-up approach, the PM based the estimate on the team member’s own estimates for their individual assignments. The fourth estimate type was the rolling estimates, also based on a bottom up approach, with the team members making regular weekly re-estimates of their work/duration. As we complete tasks, the uncertainty decreases each week and the estimates become more accurate.

The one consistent thread through each of the steps was that our PM had the benefit of a clear and unambiguous scope definition and equally measurable outcomes for each of the deliverables and assignments in the project. Estimating is difficult enough without the burden of a vague project scope or mushy team member assignments.

Enterprise Project Estimates Project Estimator Tactics

A major step to consistent project success and vastly improved project estimates comes from a modest investment in archiving data from previous projects. This whole estimating process becomes more effective when the organization stops playing those fantasy games with project estimates and adopts a consistent methodology for developing the kind of “better and more accurate” estimates we’ve been discussing.

To learn more about these estimating techniques consider our advanced project management courses over the Internet as well as our in-person seminars for organizations.

Feedback That Changes Behavior

 

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Feedback is not just sharing your evaluation of a team member’s work. An important part of a leader’s job is setting clear expectations and norms of behavior. These help the team members work together effectively and efficiently. You, as the leader, must set and enforce these expectations and norms of behavior. You reinforce positive behavior and change negative behavior by giving feedback to team members.    Leading Teams Main Page

Feedback in the form of constructive criticism is one way to change a team member’s bad behavior. It is best to do this in private but occasionally it can be in public. It has the most impact early in the life of a team. During the “forming” and “norming” phases of team development, team members are most sensitive to your efforts to steer their behavior. A small disappointed frown from you when one team member criticizes another is often sufficient to stop that behavior. Later on, it is harder for you to change or stop undesirable behaviors. That’s because they have become ingrained.  It is important to avoid punishing people with your criticism. Punishment doesn’t change how people behave and it can produce negative results.

Let’s look at the right and wrong way to handle several feedback situations.

Feedback Situation #1: Team Member is Late For a Meeting

You had e-mailed the project team the agenda for a 30 minute planning meeting.  The group assembled several minutes early, except for one team member.  There was informal and light–hearted conversation since most of the team members knew each other.  Then you started the meeting at the appointed time.  After 15 minutes, the missing team member arrived and made a couple of humorous comments as he took his seat.

There are two parts to getting the change in behavior you want.  The most important part is to set the standard for timeliness. It may sound silly that you need to tell professionals to be on time for meetings.  However, being late for meetings might be OK on some teams. You must make your expectation and the standard clear because it may differ from the norms they have on other teams. Let’s look at the ineffective and effective ways to handle the first part. Team building

Ineffective Feedback: Setting Standards

“By being late you have wasted all of our time. That is unprofessional and inconsiderate. If you do that again, you and I are going to have trouble.”

You are trying to punish the late arrival and this threat is an overreaction.  It only makes you look silly. There is a better way to define what you expect from all the team members.

Effective Feedback: Setting Standards

“When people are late for meetings I can respond two ways.  I can interrupt the meeting to let them catch up. But this wastes everyone else’s time. Or I can let the late arrival figure things out as we move on.  Those are both bad choices. So please, let’s all be on time for meetings.”

The next part of the criticism is changing his behavior, not punishing him. So you should talk to him in private and give effective criticism. Two approaches to that next conversation with the late team member are below.

feedback

Ineffective Feedback: Giving Criticism

“I find that people who are late also do sloppy work and are very unprofessional.”

Stating stereotypes of people who are late as being sloppy and unprofessional is insulting. It may actually get in the way of changing the person’s behavior. You need to focus only on the behavior you want, not on personality traits.

Effective FeedbackGiving Criticism

We are all too busy to have our time wasted by someone who is late.  Please help me enforce the standard that everyone arrives on time.  Thank you.”

There is no personal criticism in this feedback. There is no implication that the person who arrived late is a bad person.  This is a clear comparison of the behavior you want, compared to what you got.  The request for their help is a nice touch to make the criticism more effective.

Feedback Situation #2: Functional Turf Wars

As you continued to work with the team, you noticed sharp remarks exchanged between the team members from Marketing and Operations. The barbs seemed to focus on a previous, failed project.  Each side was implying that the other was to blame for the project failure.  You quickly decide you have to do two things. First, you have to define the norm and the kind of behavior you want from the team.  Second, you need to effectively criticize the barbs being made by each side to make clear how their behavior deviates from what you want.

Ineffective Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“I don’t want to hear any more of these inter-departmental turf wars.  It’s stupid and completely unprofessional.”

That statement is publicly criticizing certain people on a personal level. It produces resentment, not better behavior.

Effective Feedback: Defining Norms of Behavior

“Let’s focus on the future and the brilliant things we will deliver as a team; not on failed projects from the past.”

Next you need to speak privately to the people involved about how their comments differ from the behavior you want. Let’s look at the effective and ineffective ways to do that.

Ineffective Feedback: Past Grudges 

“You can dislike the people from (pick a department name) on your own time. On my project, you have to work with them. So get used to cooperating with each other.”

Effective FeedbackPast Grudges 

“Everyone will have a separate, measured accountability on this project. And we will know if someone is not pulling their weight or trying to shift work off to other departments.  So let’s not re-fight old wars. Let’s focus on making this project a success.”

Feedback Situation #3: Not Meeting Assignment Requirements

You cannot wait for team members to deliver bad assignments to define your expectations. You must do it upfront during the initial project planning phase. Leadership and Team Assignments

Ineffective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“Top management is watching this project very closely and they will know very quickly if someone is not doing a good job on their assignments.  So don’t let bad work on this project ruin your career.”

This is the perfect way to have people start working on their excuses for avoiding blame. They’ll do this even before they start work on their tasks.  There is a better way to define your expectations.

Effective Feedback: Meeting Expectations

“The most important part of my job as project manager is to make sure you understand exactly what is expected of you. That’s why we are developing a work package that defines what each of you must do to succeed.  The work package describes the deliverable you are responsible for producing. That deliverable is defined with a metric and the standards you must meet. The work package also lists all the documentation that you must produce. If you produce what’s in the work package, your assignment will be a success.  If people in the organization want something that is missing from your work package, that is my fault. It’s not yours.”

As you execute the plan, there may be assignments that fall short of the expectation defined in the work package. Let’s look at the wrong and the right ways to handle that situation.

Ineffective Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“You have not given me what I asked for because you didn’t listen.  This is all wrong due to your poor work.”

This is too vague and does not tell the team member what they did wrong.  It also heaps a lot of personal accusations on them. This will not change their behavior for the better.

Effective Feedback: Falling Short of Expectations

“I guess the work package I wrote was not clear.  I would like you to complete the deliverable with this new, better defined work package.”

Taking some of the blame, whether deserved or not, will make the criticism more acceptable to the team member. And, with the focus on the future, it may improve their attention to detail going forward.

Effective Feedback Summary

It’s easy to handle situations that involve good news, like finishing early and under budget. But it’s challenging to manage situations when the project that is late and over budget due to team members’ poor performance. You need to focus on changing their behavior, not punishing them. You do this with effective feedback delivered in private. It’s easy to lose sight of how your own behavior and emotions can get in the way of building a high-performing project team.  To master skills for giving effective feedback, you need to practice handling these situations the right way.

You can learn and practice these skills in our private, online Project Management Basics course. You will work individually with an expert PM on a realistic project case study. You have as many e-mails, phone calls and live video conferences as you need.

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Project Team Assignments

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

There are two different techniques you can use when you are making project team assignments. The easiest way to assign work to your project team members is to give them activities to complete, like items on a “To Do” list. That technique doesn’t take much thinking and the assignment is usually a little vague. The more effective technique is to make the team members accountable for producing a specific deliverable. Each deliverable must have a measurable outcome. This technique takes a lot of thinking because you must specify exactly what you want the team member to produce and how you will measure it.  Deliverables are always better assignments than a list of To Do’s. That’s because the team member will understand exactly what you expect of them before they start work. People perform at a higher level when they are accountable for deliverables and that is the key to consistent project success.  Let’s discuss how to define and assign deliverables. Leading Teams Main Page

There are several components when you assign a deliverable to a team member. You need an estimate of the amount of work the deliverable will take. You also need to identify the risks in producing the deliverable. A team member often needs to receive work products from others to be able to produce their deliverable. All that information should be stated in a work package.  The work package is a one-page document that gives clear assignments to team members. It also lets team members participate in defining the approach to the task and estimating the amount of work it will take. But let’s get back to the key element, the performance expectation.

Project Team Assignments: Deliverables versus Activities

There is a clear distinction between project team assignments that are activities and those that are deliverables. Activities are “To Do’s” like “teach the payroll system training class.” Deliverables are end results like, “After the payroll class, 85% of the attendees can enter 30 pay changes per hour.” After receiving each of these assignments, a team member can teach a payroll class. But the content will be different with the deliverable assignment because the trainer is not just conducting a class. They have a measured result they are accountable for delivering.  Project managers who design team member assignments as deliverables have significant advantages over those who use activities. Before listing these advantages, let’s make sure you’re clear about the differences between team assignments with activities and those with deliverables. Effective Feedback

Project Team Assignments Example #1: Assignment to a Teenager

The Activity: “Clean up your room.”

The Deliverable: “Put all the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can.”

With the activity assignment, the parent have only told the teenager to perform an action. They have not defined the expected outcome. The teenager has to guess what the parent wants. There can be many interpretations of what the “Clean up your room” activity involves. So it is likely that the parent won’t get the end result they’re looking for. The key flaw in this (and any) activity assignment is that there is no clear performance expectation. There is no performance standard to measure the teenager’s actions against. There is only a vague idea of what a “clean room” looks like. As a result, the parent can’t gain the teenager’s commitment to the assignment. And they can’t reasonably deliver consequences for the teen’s good or bad performance. Team building

With the deliverable of “All the empty Pepsi cans and candy wrappers in the garbage can,” the teenager has the potential for better performance and commitment. The expectation is clear and it is possible to get the teen to commit to it. If there are still empty cans and candy wrappers on the floor after the teen says they’re done, they will have to agree that the standard wasn’t met. On the other hand, if they also put their textbooks and computer on the desk, the parent must agree that the teen exceeded the standard. In this example of a deliverable, any rewards and punishments have a better chance of being seen as fair because the standard was clear.

leadership & team assignments

Project Team Assignments Example #2: Assignment to a Team Member

The Activity: “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”

The Deliverable: “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.”

With the activity assignment of “Develop recommendations to reduce turnover.”, the project manager must continuously check the team member’s work to guide them. That’s because the team member cannot have a clear idea of what the PM wants. (It’s also possible the PM doesn’t know what the assignment should achieve.) The team member doesn’t know whether to develop 200 recommendations to eliminate all turnover or just a few to bring it down a little. This leads to a game of “Did I get the right answer?” each time the team member thinks they are done.  The team member does some work and brings their recommendations to the PM asking, “Is this what you wanted?” The answer to this question is usually “No.” Then the PM blames the team member, saying, “You didn’t understand the assignment.” So the team member goes back to the drawing board, frustrated and irritated.

These problems are solved with the deliverable assignment of “Get management committee’s approval of policy changes that will cut turnover by 10%.” The project team member knows what’s the PM expects them to deliver and doesn’t have to guess. The PM has a better opportunity to gain the team member’s commitment and positive or negative consequences will be clear and fair. Additionally, the team member can get a sense of satisfaction from meeting the expectation.

So why do PMs assign team members activities rather than deliverables? The answer is because it’s much easier and safer than assigning achievements.  There are two reasons for this. First, by assigning activities, the PM doesn’t have to think through the situation and commit to exactly what he/she wants. They have some wiggle room to change their mind on what they want. Second, it is difficult for the PM to make a mistake when assigning activities. Only the person doing the work can be wrong. Weak PMs always use activity assignments because it’s safe for them and always leaves them wiggle room.

Now let’s look at some more good and bad assignment examples. The bad ones are more entertaining so we’ll start with them.

Project Team Assignments Example #3: Counting the Wrong Thing

Here are a few examples of counting the wrong thing on a customer service improvement project. The project scope is defined as “Provide World Class Customer Service that Delights the Customer.”

  • A PM measures the engineers’ performance by the number of lines of code each one writes. The engineer with the highest total gets a lunch with the CEO.
  • A PM measures the trainers’ performance by the ratings that class attendees give each trainer. The trainer with the highest rating receives a certificate of appreciation.
  • A PM measures the performance of customer service reps by counting the number of interviews each person conducts with customer service managers. The team member with the most interviews gets publicly recognized at a status meeting.

What performance will the PM get from project team assignments like these? In the first example, the engineers will write a lot of lines of code. Some of it may benefit the customer service division but a lot will not. In the second example, the training class attendees will have a fun time and give the trainer a high rating. But they won’t learn much. In the third example, the team members will conduct a lot of interviews. But much of the information will be gathered in a hurried manner and may be useless.

The project managers in these examples counted the activities being performed and got the results they deserved. These activities produced high volumes of whatever the PM was counting, even if it contributed little value to the project. The PMs probably didn’t know what business value the project needed to deliver. So they created assignments that were activities they could identify without much thought.

Project Team Assignments Example #4: Counting Only Dates

Another form of counting the wrong thing occurs when the project due date or duration is the only measurable result. The due date usually comes from an executive. It doesn’t consider the amount of work required or the availability of the people to do it. Next the project manager picks the due date of each assignment to support the entire project’s due date. In this situation, the team members have no commitment to their assignments’ dates because they were forced upon them.  They often recognize that the dates are impossible even before work starts.

At each status meeting the PM asks, “Are you on track to hit your due dates? You committed to them.” Most team members give the PM an optimistic thumbs up. Then one day a truthful person says, “No, that date is impossible. There is no way I can hit it.” The PM gets angry and from them on, everyone is afraid to tell the truth about their assignment. So they report they are on target to meet their dates. They don’t mention that they’re counting on miracles to do so. When the due date draws near, the team members slap together whatever they can and turn it in. It’s poor quality work, but at least it’s on time. The organization then spends months and thousands of dollars to fix the failed project.

Project sponsors drive much of this “due date behavior” when all they focus on is the due dates of the entire project and the team assignments. I don’t mean to imply that the dates are not important; they are. But delivering junk by the due date does not make the project a success. Unfortunately, most project sponsors are used to to having only dates for tracking the project’s progress. Too many project managers don’t report anything else that is measurable. Everything else they report is vague, subjective statements. So it’s not surprising that sponsors like dates because they are objectively measurable and unambiguous.

What project managers need to do is to count the right things. They need to count the end result (the business value) the project produces, the date, the cost and the risk. These techniques take a more time but they yield enormous benefits. Let’s see how you do that.

Project Team Assignments: Assignment Deliverable Hierarchy

To be a successful project manager, you must work with the sponsor to define measured deliverables for the project scope. Then you define the major deliverables that lead to it. This includes the acceptance criteria the sponsor will use to measure the project’s success. Let’s use the customer service project example again. This time the scope definition the sponsor sets is “Complete 95% of customer phone calls within 3 minutes team assignmentswith less than 3% calling back about the same problem.” This is a clear measured outcome. Then you break it down into smaller achievements that support the scope.

As you break down the scope into its IT system deliverables, you come to the GUI (screen display) that an engineer has to develop for the customer service reps to use. That measured achievement could be “Customer service reps see 6 months of customer history within 4 seconds of entering the customer’s name or number.” Please note that this achievement is measured in the users’ business point of view. It is not measured in the IT system engineering department’s business point of view. This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than lines of code (like the PM used in the earlier example).

The trainer has a different achievement, too. Their assignment could be “80% of the class attendees can answer the top 20 customer questions in 120 seconds or less using the new GUI.” Again, what you are counting is more relevant to the project’s scope than whether the attendees enjoyed the class and the trainer.

The team members interviewing the customer service managers could have a measured business outcome like, “Managers reach consensus on the ten most important customer service problems.” This is much more supportive of the project’s scope than counting the number of interviews conducted.

That sounds pretty straightforward but it takes time, thought and planning to create this assignment deliverable hierarchy. You must think about what to count and measure. They must be relevant to achieving the project’s scope. Performance expectations must be clear to the team members before they start work. So you must define team members’ assignments in measureable terms. That encourages their commitment and makes estimating and tracking much more precise. It also lets you spot problems early, when you have a chance to fix them. It plays an important role in managing projects that deliver successful results. When you assign a project team member a deliverable, it is easier to clarify your expectations, gain their commitment and give them rewards that are based on performance. All the techniques in this article are part of our private,  training courses and certifications delivered over the Internet or as in-person seminars for organizations.

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Team Motivation

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Project team motivation is every bit as important as developing a clear plan & deliverables,creating a tight schedule and spotting problems early. Too many project managers assume that their team members are robots that will not be affected by their management behavior.  Thus, they think that how the PM assigns work, solves problems and makes estimates will have no impact on the team member’s attitude about the project. This view of team motivation is comfortable for leaders who believe their technical/creative knowledge make the team want to follow them. That is very far from the truth which is why the technical or creative guru types fail so often;  the think they can ignore team motivation.

The three leadership challenges above are what we call a project manager’s moments of truth with the project team. How the project manager treats the team members and how he values their input, and how he reacts to problems go a long way to determining the teams overall motivation. Let’s talk about these three moments of truth. Project Management Skills Main Page

Are you leading your team from in front or marching behind them carrying a snow shovel like that poor guy marching behind elephants at the circus? There are three moments of truth for project team motivation when leading your project team goes a long way to determining their motivation and if your project will succeed or fail. Those critical moments are; gaining commitment to estimates, handling “bad news” and reporting status. The first moment of truth happens while you’re estimating with a project team member. If you have an open discussion and the team member feels that they were able to participate in setting the work estimate for their tasks, you will get a much higher level of commitment to the estimate than if you arbitrarily set the number. The second moment of truth occurs when you deal with variances on a project. Your behavior in the face of this “bad news” largely determines whether your team members tell you about problems early or hide them from you because they don’t want to be blamed. The last moment of truth occurs when the sponsor is disappointed in the project progress. How you handle this is critical for your credibility, particularly if you blame team members for the problem rather than accept responsibility yourself.

 

Leading Teams: Six Techniques For Success

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

The correct steps for successfully leading teams are challenging and so they’re often missed. Highly motivated, problem-solving teams are a key reason for every project success. These teams are committed to the goal and to completing their assignments on time and within budget. The proven techniques you’ll learn here include:

  • selecting the right team members
  • crafting the right-size assignment for each person
  • accurately estimating hours of work and duration
  • gaining team member commitment
  • receiving status reports
  • giving constructive feedback.

Leading Teams: Techniques for Three Sizes of Projects:

The techniques are different for each project, depending on the size and scope. Here are the project size definitions:

Tier 1: Small – they’re done within one department
Tier 2: Cross-functional – they affect multiple departments and cross organizational boundaries
Tier 3: Strategic  – they’re organization-wide programs (or projects for clients) with strategic impact.

Leading Teams Technique #1: Selecting Team Members

In the selection process, you’re trying to get the best people for your project team. But you’re also gathering information about their work habits and personality so you can craft the right assignment for them.
Tier 1: Small projects: You are usually familiar with the potential team members’ work performance and quality standards when you all work in the same department. You need to ask the boss for the people you want on your team during the project planning phase. That’s when the boss is focused on the project and can give you hints about the correct assignment for each of them.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: When you have to borrow your team members froLead Teamsm other departments or organizations, it is more difficult to make sure you get productive team members. If possible, you should interview potential team members to assess their work ethic, problem solving style and quality standards.
Tier 3: Strategic projects: On large projects for your organization or your clients, you may not be able to select the team members. If personal interviews are possible, you can gather information about potential team members’ experience and work standards. You will use that information to design the right assignments for each person.  If interviews aren’t possible, you will have to make an on-the-spot judgement about the right assignment for each team member. Leading Remote Project Teams

Leading Teams Technique #2: Designing Appropriate Assignments

You must design the assignments so they fit the capabilities and personality type of each team member. You want to give larger/longer assignments to people who have solid technical experience and are skilled problem solvers. This will give them a challenge. You should give shorter assignments to people who are experienced and/or less capable. This will let you easily track their progress and help them when it’s necessary.
Tier 1: Small projects: You usually have flexibility about the duration of assignments. For trainee-level team members or less capable people, you want assignments that are 1 to 3 days long. For the average team member, 5-day assignments are usually the right size. For experienced professionals, you should design assignments that are 2 weeks or longer to give them a challenge and independence.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects: With people borrowed from other departments, it is often acceptable to talk with their boss about the right size assignment and the level of challenge you should give them.  If that’s not possible, then you will adjust the complexity and length of the assignment as they work on the task and you learn their capabilities.
Tier 3: Strategic projects: On larger projects with people who are accountable for major deliverables, you need to engage them in the design of their assignments. You must avoid micromanagement of these experienced people who are very capable.  On the other hand, you should give “rookies” assignments that are within their capabilities in terms of time and complexity. Team Micromanagement

Leading Teams Technique #3: Work Packages

You must clearly describe, in measurable terms, the deliverable(s) the team member should produce. And you must document their availability, as approved by their boss.
Tier 1: Small projects: This level of documentation is often skipped on small projects with three or four team members working on project within a department. But having a simple work pack for each team member avoids confusion about your expectations for their deliverable.
Tier 2: Cross-functional projects & Tier 3: Strategic projects: For larger projects, you should document a work package for each assignment. It will make the assignment clear and document the deliverable you expect the borrowed person to produce. The work package also provides a standard format and information base for estimating the hours of work for the tasks and identifying their risks. It is best to document the work estimate and give a copy to borrowed team member’s superior. Team Building Techniques

Leading Teams Technique #4: Estimating Task Work and Duration

A project management best practice is to estimate the required hours of work so you can measure progress during the assignment. Team Types
All projects: Regardless of the size of the project, you should engage the team members in the process of estimating the amount of work their assignment will take. The work package is the basis for the estimating effort. You are estimating the amount of work (50 hours, for example), not the duration (Oct. 21 through Nov. 7, for example). You should always estimate the amount of work, such as 50 hours. You never estimate just the duration, such as Oct. 21 through Nov. 7. The amount of work required for the task provides you with the ability to more accurately track progress and spot problems. Their availability to do the work (halftime, 2 days a week, for example) is also documented. Team Building

You should also discuss the assignment’s potential risks with the team member and what can be done about them. This helps you avoid, eliminate or mitigate those risks. Finally, the work package should list the required deliverable, the approach to take and the inputs the team member requires to finish their task. Team Building video

Leading Teams Technique #5: Status Reporting

Team members should report status on their tasks every week. This allows you to find problems early so you have an opportunity to fix them before the task or project is late or over budget.
All Projects: Data can come to you by phone, e-mails, a form, template or on “sticky notes.” The important thing is that each week you get the hours of work competed (as of that date) and the estimated hours required to complete the task. No narrative is necessary. You should make status reporting easy so people will do it.  It is a best practice to then give all team members updated status data on the entire project. Effective Feedback

Leading Teams Technique #6: Giving Feedback

All projects: You must give feedback to team members on a timely basis. People want to be praised for a job well done. Remember that public praise is the most effective. People also need to be told when their performance does not meet your expectations. This should be done in private and include what they can do to improve. You must deliver feedback in a way that encourages people to tell you about problems early, when you and the team can define a solution or a “work around.” Constructive Feedback

It is extremely ineffective for you to get angry with team members who report bad news. This action (or reaction) dooms you to find out about problems when it’s too late to fix them. Dysfunctional Project Team video

Leading Teams Summary

Use these proven techniques to successfully lead project teams:

  • select the right team member for each task
  • assign the right size task for their capabilities
  • create a work package to define their deliverable
  • involve the team member in estimating the amount of work required and the duration of their task
  • receive weekly status reports from the team members. Team Member Personality Types video
  • give team members constructive feedback and praise

Matrix Teams

Project Team Culture

You can learn these techniques and enhance your skills for leading teams in our online project management courses. You begin whenever you wish and control the schedule and pace. You work privately with an expert project manager and have as many phone calls and live video conferences as you wish. Take a look at the courses in your specialty.

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Constructive Feedback

Constructive Feedback That Changes Behavior

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com

Some time in every project manager’s and team leader’s career, they will have to give constructive feedback to a poor performing team member. Poor performance can include attitudes as well as assignments that do not meet your expectations regarding quality, timeliness or completeness. Constructive feedback is an effective tool for changing a poor performer’s behavior. It is also useful to give constructive feedback to team members whose assignments do meet all the requirements and your expectations. It can reward great performers and encourage them to keep up (or even improve) their good work.  Leading Teams Main Page

If your feedback is destructive, the team member will repeat their poor performance and your working relationship with that person will be adversely affected.  Even worse, your negative actions could cause other team members to perform less well. You need to know the best way to deal with poor performance. That requires following a proven procedure and using constructive feedback.

Constructive Feedback: A Typical Situation

Here is a typical situation you might face:

At the end of a long day, you received a phone call from a very influential stakeholder. She complained that her department did not receive the instructions that Pat (a member of your team) was supposed to give them last week.  She went on to explain that they need those instructions to be able to use the deliverable your team has produced.  As a result, the first phase of the implementation was going to be at least a week late, maybe more.  You wanted to ask why she waited a week to tell you about it. Instead, you apologized to the stakeholder, verified that you understood the problem, and hung up.   Leadership and Team Assignments

As you dialed Pat’s extension, one hand gripped the phone and you clenched the other into a fist. That idiot Pat’s screw up had cost you at least a week’s delay by not giving the stakeholder the instructions she needed.  This was the last straw with Pat.  All the other team members competed their tasks on time.  Pat was lazy and careless and didn’t give a rip about the project. Well, today Pat was going to learn a harsh lesson about doing the job correctly.

This project manager is going to have a conversation with a poor performing team member when they have built up a lot of anger and frustration. They’re ready to say things that will make the team member angry. This conversation will probably hurt their working relationship. Effective Feedback

The phone rang and rang until you realized Pat had gone home for the weekend.  

That was actually lucky.  The PM now has time to calm down and handle the situation the right way when they talk to Pat on Monday. Team Building

Constructive Feedback: Measuring Success 

Let’s first talk about what successful constructive feedback is. Is it making Pat feel guilty and embarrassed about letting the project team down? Is it making Pat promise to never do this again? Is it making Pat frightened of the punishments you may impose?

Success is none of those things. Success from giving constructive feedback is changing Pat’s behavior so he delivers the required instructions to the stakeholders.  Success is also changing Pat’s behavior so he finishes one task before moving on to the next.  Additionally, you’d like your relationship with Pat to be a good one. In a good relationship, Pat feels an obligation to meet your expectations.

With those constructive feedback measures of success in mind, let’s start over and do the advanced preparation necessary to correctly give constructive feedback. First, dealing with a poor performer is never the opportunity to vent your own frustration. You need to be calm and in control of your emotions.  You must design and execute your plan for the session, not ad lib it.

Constructive Feedback: Timing 

The need to control your anger often conflicts with the need to immediately address the poor performance.  In the situation above, it was lucky Pat had left the office because it allowed the PM time to cool down.  However, letting too much time pass before you deliver constructive feedback is bad because it reduces the impact of what you say.

You could wait two more days until Monday or try to meet with the team member over the weekend.  Your organization’s culture should affect your decision on how reasonable it is to ask for a weekend meeting.  A good middle ground is to send the employee an email today, asking for a meeting first thing Monday morning.

Constructive Feedback: The Medium You Useconstructive feedback

Another consideration is what medium you will use for the constructive feedback discussion.  Ideally, you want a face-to-face meeting, in-person and private, with just the two of you.  In this day of cubicles and virtual teams, private meetings can be a luxury but you should try to make it happen.

Conducting the constructive feedback session in writing via a memo or email is very stiff and legalistic.  Lawyers like performance warnings to be documented.  But written communication can set the wrong tone for building the kind of relationship you want with the team member. A phone call is less formal but the downside is the difficulty in delivering your message with the correct body language and facial expressions. It’s also difficult for you to “read” the team member’s reactions when their words and tone of voice are the only feedback you get over the phone.  A video meeting over the internet improves that situation but you need to ensure that both sides of the conversation are private.

In the example situation with Pat, you might email him and ask for the meeting on Monday. Specify a place and time that will be private.  You might also add that you won’t be available for email discussions this weekend; you want to talk in-person on Monday.  Hopefully, that decreases the odds of an email exchange.

Constructive Feedback: Content and Sequence 

The next element of constructive feedback is planning the information you’ll deliver and the sequence in which you’ll deliver it.  It’s a mistake to assume you know the truth about what really happened, who was accountable and what behavior Pat exhibited.  Starting off with an incorrect version of what happened can bring the constructive process to a halt.

You have only the stakeholder’s view of the situation. You need to start with an open-minded inquiry into Pat’s side of the story.  You don’t want to assume that Pat made the error. There are many other possible explanations for what the stakeholder told you. So the first step in constructive feedback is to tell Pat about the stakeholder’s phone call. Then ask Pat what happened and get his side of the story.

This allows you to avoid accusing Pat of wrong-doing before you know if Pat actually did something wrong. Too many project managers start these sessions with words that assume the guilt of the team member. That makes the PM look judgmental, biased and unfair in the team member’s eyes. PMs often do that when they enter the meeting angry.  You should always start the conversation without prejudgment and let the team member tell their side of the story.

If Pat says, “I put the instructions on the stakeholder’s desk a week ago,” you can say something like, “I didn’t think you’d make that kind of mistake.” Then you can start a discussion about dealing with the one week delay in the implementation.

But if Pat agrees that he didn’t deliver the instructions to the stakeholder, you go on to step two in the constructive feedback process. That is verifying the team member’s accountability for the deliverable’s quality and completeness.

Constructive Feedback: Accountability Verification 

The next step in the constructive feedback information flow is to verify that Pat was responsible for creating and delivering the user instructions.  The purpose of this step is to compare Pat’s actual behavior to what it should have been.  So you ask him who was accountable for giving the instructions to the stakeholder.

If Pat agrees that the instructions were his accountability, you can talk about the importance of closing out tasks completely. And you can discuss the damage that failure to do so caused in this specific situation.  This part of the discussion is focused on Pat’s actual behavior versus his accountability.  Don’t praise other team members who close out tasks completely.  The only reference outside of this current situation might be to mention how well Pat did on the last task he closed out correctly.

Why should you follow all these steps?  If you are going to change the behavior, Pat needs to believe that the criticism was earned and fair and that his behavior was wrong.  That will bring about a change in his behavior and build your working relationship.

Constructive Feedback: Reinforcement 

Dealing with Pat’s performance is not over.  You need to complement Pat when he correctly closes out his next task. That will complete the constructive feedback cycle.

Constructive Feedback: Summary

Constructive feedback on a team member’s poor performance can yield big benefits for the project manager and team member. The project manager must control their anger and the impulse to accuse or punish. Constructive feedback includes learning the facts, verifying the team member’s accountability and reinforcing their improved behavior.

You can practice using these techniques in our private, online courses that include live simulations. You will practice dealing with poor performing team members in private meetings with your instructor who plays the role of the team member. You will learn how to successfully plan and deliver constructive feedback and “think on your feet”during these live online meetings.

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Team Building Techniques

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Leaders use team building techniques to increase the team members’ motivation, work attitudes and performance.  These techniques are used for three Moments of Truth (MOT). If team leaders handle them properly, these Moments of Truth (MOT) produce team members who actually try to do the following:

  • finish assignments early
  • take responsibility for solving problems
  • try to find better, faster ways of producing their deliverables.

When these MOTs are handled badly, they produce a team that does the following:

  • let the work fill the available time
  • wait for someone else to solve their problems
  • focus their attention on avoiding blame for failure.  Leading Teams Main Page

Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #1 – Team Commitment to Their Assignments

The first Team Building Technique Moment of Truth comes early, during the project planning phase when you’re building the plan and schedule. You’ll work with your team to define their assignments. You are clear about the deliverable they will produce and how you will measure if it is acceptable. You will document all that in a one-page work package so there is no confusion or misunderstanding. Finally, you’ll speak to their boss and pin down the team member’s availability for the assignment.

Working with the team member, you’ll estimate the amount of workteam building techniques the deliverable will take.  The two of you will calculate the task’s duration (how long it will take) from that data. It is important that the team member is clear on the assignment and has input into the estimate. You create a work package that is like a contract. That’s because changes to the assignment also require changes to the estimate. That’s the best way to do an estimate because it helps build the team member’s commitment to their assignment.    Leadership and Team Assignments

Team Building Techniques: What Gets in the Way?

Lots of things can destroy the success of this team building technique. Trust between you and the team member is a key component.  Sponsors and lazy project managers who won’t do their work are one cause of problems.  These people need to take the risk of being wrong rather than hedge their bets with vague expectations.  Here’s an example. Let’s say that during your project initiation meeting with the sponsor, he was quite clear about the required completion date and repeated it often.  Successful project managers always respond with, “I understand when you want the project done.  But I won’t know if that date is possible until I understand exactly what you want. Then I must determine how much work that will take and how many people I will have to do it.” The sponsor won’t like that answer, but it is the truth.  A foolish project manager commits to the due date without having all of the necessary  information. Effective Feedback

As you get deeper into planning this example project, it becomes obvious that finishing all the tasks by the sponsor’s due date is impossible. It’s not just tough. Even with lots of overtime, it’s mathematically impossible. So you are waiting for exactly the right moment to tell the sponsor that their date is impossible. You are also hoping for a miracle breakthrough that will make the date feasible. You’re working with the team members on estimating their tasks and starting to squeeze them on their estimates.  Eventually you abandon their participation and just make the task durations hit the sponsor’s completion date. Team Types

Bad Team Building Techniques: Due Date Determines the Schedule

This is the dilemma of the first Team Building Technique Moment of Truth. You can confront the sponsor with the truth about the date and take the heat. Or you can yield to the temptation to continue postponing the confrontation. In the latter situation, you show the sponsor acceptable dates by backing into the schedule from his completion date. You do this silly process by starting from the sponsor’s desired completion date and working backward. You pluck task completion dates from the sky like this, “Jack has to be finished by June 23 so Mary has to be finished by June 5th and Pat has to be finished by May 19, etc.”

When you are done with this exercise, you will have met the sponsor’s required date. Then you tell each team member when their assignment has to be finished. If anyone protests, you blame the sponsor directly or shrug and point up to the executive floor. This lets the project finish precisely on the sponsor’s due date, at least on paper. That makes the sponsor happy, at least for awhile.  You may be thinking, “We’re smart and hard working; maybe we CAN finish by then.” Team Building

This technique is widely used. In fact in some organizations, plucking dates backward from a due date is their project management best practice. Of course these organizations have 70% project failure rates. More to the point, the imaginary finish dates that you plucked from the sky cause you to fail at Project Team Building Moment of Truth #1. The project team feels they have been plucked themselves. The younger and more innocent members of the team are discouraged, knowing that they will fail to finish on time. The more experienced team members also know they’ll finish late. But their experience tells them they will get to spend months after the project’s “finish” date cleaning up the mess that was frantically slapped together to finish “on-time.”

Worst of all, what kind of commitment do you get from your team with this kind of process? People who know they have no chance of hitting their “committed” dates have little dedication or enthusiasm for their tasks. Even if you and the team use every ounce of creativity, you must squeeze the plan and develop shortcuts to slash the duration. 99.9% of the time these efforts will still fall short of the sponsor’s completion date expectation.

Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #2 – Handling Bad News

Whatever happens during planing, every project next faces the second Team Building Technique Moment of Truth. It starts at an early project team meeting and continues until the project is complete. Here’s how it goes. One of the members says to you, “I’m gonna finish a week, maybe two, later than planned.” Visions of the whole project collapsing flash through your mind. But you have choices on how you handle the situation.

This bad news may tie your stomach in knots because the slipping task is on the critical pathThat means it will delay the entire project completion date. It’s very easy to react emotionally. You might even treat this bad news as a personal betrayal by the project team member.  So you you get angry and act as if it’s something for which you can punish them. That action stops the team members from telling you about problems.  The team member who spoke up will not tell you next time and the rest of the team won’t either. Even if your anger is delivered to the team member in private, the rest of the team will hear about the incident within hours.

Some project managers (and executives) think refusing to listen to bad news is a sign they are dynamic and aggressive leaders. The truth is just the opposite; they are stupid. When project managers teach people not to give them bad news, they deny themselves the opportunity to solve slipping tasks when they are small problems. From then on, team members will wish and hope they can finish on time rather than tell the PM about the problem. They won’t lie. They’ll just use a bit of optimism when reporting the status of their assignments. The PM who doesn’t view bad news as an opportunity to fix a problem dooms himself to learning about big problems when it’s too late to fix them.

You need to learn to handle bad news positively and show appreciation for the opportunity to solve the problem. Keep in mind that the team member with a late task often is not to blame. Even if they are the culprit, it shouldn’t be obvious that you’ve reached that conclusion. You should handle the variance as a problem you and the team member have to jointly solve. You want your team members to continue to trust you. When they do, you get the valuable opportunity to solve problems early, when they’re small. If you discourage your team members from giving you bad news, you doom yourself to discovering problems when it’s too late to recover.  Leadership & Team Performance

Bad Team Building Techniques: Moment of Truth #3 – Micromanagement

Even if you are able to plan correctly and handle the bad news properly, you will still face Team Building Technique Moment of Truth #3. The temptation for many technically savvy PMs is to react to every problem by diving right in and making all the decisions. For many project managers, this is a very comfortable position. It’s much easier than trusting the team members and giving them room to make mistakes and own their results. These PMs even relish the sight of a line of team members outside their cubicle waiting for decisions. You know the micromanagement disease is raging when these PMs start complaining about how their team members, “lack initiative and the ability to work independently.” Of course, none of the team members feel ownership of any result or have a sense of achievement because the PM is making all the decisions.

Micromanagers want to “make things happen, now!” so they stick their fingers into everyone’s assignments. They may have built a commitment foundation where the team feels accountable for their achievements. But as soon as they make the decisions and treat the team members as drones, they’ve reverted to micromanaging. It’s difficult to keep your hands off people’s assignments when the sponsor is putting pressure on you about missed deadlines and budget overruns. But that is exactly the moment when you need the benefit of a project team that feels accountable for their achievements. Then they have some incentive to meet and, hopefully, exceed their assignments.

Team Building Techniques: Summary

When you succeed in each of these three Team Building Techniques Moments of Truth, you substantially increase the likelihood of project success. Each of the Team Building Techniques Moments of Truth involves both personal leadership techniques and sound project management processes.

You can learn these processes and our proven project management methodology in our online courses with individual coaching and mentoring. You will practice every tool and technique you are learning in assignments and role-playing exercises with your instructor. Whenever you have a question or want to discuss a technique, you can telephone or e-mail your instructor and always get a response within 24 hours. You have as many live online meetings with your instructor as you need.

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3 Point Project Estimating: Padding, Accuracy, Commitment

Dick Billows, PMPEstimating is tricky for project managers who have to balance conflicting pressures from the sponsor, stakeholders and their team:

  • The customer or user wants the project done quickly and cheaply.
  • You, as PM, want to finish on time and within budget.
  • For commitment, the team needs to participate in a process their perceive as fair and not feel like they are sure to fail because their estimate is impossible.
  • The estimating technique should yield accurate numbers and some assessment of the accuracy.
  • Decision makers need information of the certainty of the project finishing on time

That list of requirements is a tough one for any project estimating process. The only process that meets all those requirements is 3-point estimating, which formerly called PERT (Program Evaluation and Review Technique).

Briefly, 3-point estimating has three-steps.  In each, the PM works closely with the people who will be doing the work. The first step is to discuss the deliverable the team member will be accountable for producing. This discussion includes the “good” risks that could cause this task to take less work and the “bad” risks that could cause it to take more work. Second, the PM notes these risks on the work package form that also contains the approach the team member will use. Third, the team member makes three estimates: an optimistic estimate, a pessimistic estimate and a best guess estimate. The PM applies the 3-point formulas (at the end of the article) to those three estimates to come up with the actual data that you will use in the project schedule.

Common Estimating & Risk Issues

Two mindsets often plague the estimating process:

  • Executives often believe that projects have no risks that affect duration or budget.
  • Team members think that padding their estimates will protect them from blame.

Both of these mindsets are false but they certainly get in the way of accurate estimating.

The 3-point estimating technique deals with both these mindsets. It gives PMs a data to communicate the risk of a work estimate. It also lets everyone stop pretending that task #135 is going to finish in precisely 15 days or that the project will absolutely finish by August 30.  Three-point estimating is a straightforward process for developing estimates using just a little bit of statistics. It gives you a tool to address the issue that most projects are launched with less than a 35 % chance of finishing by their promised due date.  Because no one talks about that issue, executives think the completion date is 100% guaranteed. It’s only missed when someone goofs off.

The best project managers have risk data for their sponsors.  They can document why a project has a 65% chance of finishing by August 30, as an example. These PMs also explain what they can do to increase those odds to 75% or 90% and what it will cost. Those same PMs manage the assignments of their project team members with an understanding that there is risk on each assignment. They use 3-point estimating techniques to get data on the risks.

Three Point Estimating in Detail

The 3-point estimating process starts with a discussion with the team member about the risks inherent in their assignment. You discuss the bad risks that will make their assignment take more work and duration (time). You also discuss the good risks that will cause it to take less work and duration (time). Why should you do this step? Because you need an estimating process that addresses the team member’s legitimate concern that bad things will happen on their assignment and they’ll be blamed for not meeting the completion date.  With agreement on the risks in the assignment and work package notes what you will do about them, you go on to the estimates work and duration.

As the name implies, 3-point estimating requires three estimates for each task. That sounds like it will take a lot of work but it takes a matter of minutes.  You and the team member develop an optimistic estimate, a pessimistic estimate and a best guess estimate for each task. By developing those three estimates, we get estimates that are more accurate from team members and assess the assignment’s degree of risk and the range of durations.

Padding Estimates

Before we go on, we need to talk a little bit about risk. When you ask me how long it will take to read this article, I might estimate five minutes. Am I guaranteeing you that no matter what happens I’ll be able to read the whole thing in five minutes? No, what I mean is that 5 minutes is my best guess. That means there is a 50% chance it will take me less than five minutes and a 50% chance it will take me more than five minutes.

However, if you were my project manager asking me for a task estimate, I would be a little hesitant about giving you an estimate in which there was a 50% chance of an overrun. What I would rather give you is an estimate where I’m 90% confident that I can finish in that amount of time or less. As the project manager, you would probably regard that estimate as padded. As the team member, I feel more comfortable with a 90% estimate. Unfortunately, there is no consistency in the amount of padding your team members will use.

Reducing Padding

You want your team members to leave the estimating process knowing that you considered the fact that things can go wrong on a task assignment. That’s why you identified risks at the beginning of the discussion and documented what you could do about the risks. With that recognition of the risks, we move on to gathering data on the impact those risks could have on the assignment. Using the three estimates enables you to do that. It’s better than having a team member give you a single estimate and play the padding game about how certain that estimate is. The three estimates tell you the variability in the task.

Best Guess, Optimistic and Pessimistic Estimates

Now let’s start the estimating process.  Your team member estimates that a task has a best guess estimate of 80 hours of work.  That means that 50% of the time it will take more work and 50% of the time it will take less.

Next, the optimistic work estimate is less work than the best guess.  The optimistic estimate is low enough that the team member thinks they can get the task done for less than the optimistic estimate only 20% of the time.  The task will require more work than the optimistic estimate 80% of the time.

The pessimistic estimate is more work than the best guess. It is not a “disaster” estimate but we want an estimate that’s based on the bad risks that we identified happening.  The pessimistic estimate is high enough that the team member thinks they can get the task done for less than the pessimistic estimate 80% of the time.  The task will require more work than the pessimistic estimate 20% of the time.

Now let’s dip our toe into the statistics and look at two tasks, Alpha and Beta, and the calculated work estimates we would use at three different level of confidence (* see formulas below).

What we did was take the three estimates and use some simple formulas to calculate the task’s work estimates and calculate the mean and standard deviation.  Using standard statistical tables (z-scores from a table of standardized normal deviates); we can take those means and standard deviations and use them to calculate levels of confidence of finishing within the estimate.  In other words, for task Alpha we could say that we have a 50% chance of completing the task with less than 54 hours of work.  For an 80% confidence level, we would calculate that 69 hours of work would be required.  This is the data to use with a client or project sponsor to quantify the cost of higher levels of certainty about a completion date. In the previous example with Alpha, we have to buy an additional 15 hours of work to move from 50% confidence to 80% confidence of getting the task done within the work estimate.  The beta is much less risky task than alpha. The mean work estimates are very close but the standard deviations are very different. To move from the 50% level of confidence that is 50 hours on task beta we would need to increase the work estimate to 51 hours. So for task beta higher levels of certainty a relatively inexpensive. Extending these calculations to the entire project is very easy with a spreadsheet such as the one we use in our classes. It gives project managers the ability to discuss the cost of higher levels of certainty. Sponsors always say they want to be 90% confident of finishing on time. When you present them with the cost of that level of certainty, it often is the case that lower levels of confidence would be acceptable.

Using 3-Point Estimates

All of the better project management software packages, such as Microsoft Project®, enable you to use 3-point (PERT) estimates and create a variety of reports that communicate the project’s risks. You can take estimates like those above and calculate the odds of finishing the entire project within various durations.  That information is a solid basis for a discussion with the sponsor about the tradeoffs between cost, scope, duration, risk and staffing levels.

To learn these 3-point estimating techniques and the entire estimating process, consider our private, online courses where you work individually with your instructor. They are available by phone, video conference or e-mail whenever you have a question or need help on an assignment. We can also deliver a customized training program at your site for up to 25 people. Call us at 303-596-0000 and speak to an instructor.

*Three point estimating Formulas

Mean= (4*bg)+OE+PE/6

SD= (PE-OE)/6

Probability level = work= Mean + (z-score for probability)*SD

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Work Breakdown Structure Tasks

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) tasks are the basis for the project manager’s assignments to the team members. They are used to estimate costs and the schedule (duration). It is also the framework for reporting the project’s status to the sponsor. The WBS is central to everything a project manager does and plays a major role in determining the project’s success. You build this network of tasks by breaking down the project scope and major deliverables. The Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) contains everything that the team must produce to deliver the project scope.  Main WBS Work Breakdown Structure Page

Work Breakdown Structure Tasks – Questions

People always have questions about how to build the Work Breakdown Structure (WBS). They often ask how big the WBS should be and how many tasks it should have. There is no magic number of tasks in a project. The number in your work breakdown structure depends on the capability of your team members. You need to consider a number of factors.

  • What is the correct duration for the assignments I’m going to make to my team?
  • How frequently do I want to receive status data and estimates to complete from my project team and vendors?
  • How often do I want to update the project schedule with current data?
  • How risky are the tasks in this project?

Work Breakdown Structure Tasks and Team Capabilities

As you can see from this list, you design the tasks in the Work Breakdown Structure to fit your management style and the capabilities of the project team members. In this article, we’ll consider the team member’s capabilities. If you have a project team made up of experienced professionals who have performed their tasks dozens of times, your work breakdown structure will have a small number of large tasks. The tasks will have longer durations because these experienced professionals can handle assignment durations of 7 to 21 days. you should give experienced professionals larger, more challenging assignments and the independence and decision-making freedom that go with it.

WBS Work Breakdown Structure

However, not every team is composed of project superstars. You’re going to have some people on your team who have some experience with projects and know their jobs but for whom a two-week assignment would be discouraging and maybe even intimidating. So for these people you’ll design task assignments that are about 5 to 7 day’s worth of work.  You’re still giving them responsibility for an important deliverable but you’ve broken it up into smaller pieces. That lets you track their work more frequently.  Frequent deliverables are a major factor in the accuracy of your status reports.  That’s because even before a deliverable is finished and accepted, your team members report how much work they’ve completed and how much work remains to be done.

Finally, you may have a team with new hires or people who have little experience with your company. Or they may have limited expertise in the technology of their task or no experience working on projects. With these people, you want to break the assignments into small pieces where they have a deliverable to produce every day or two. You would have a large work breakdown structure containing smaller tasks with short durations. That kind of Work Breakdown Structure works best with inexperienced people because you will be expecting several deliverables from them every week. This gives you the opportunity for frequent feedback on their work and coaching to improve their performance. With these newer team members, it is a valuable motivational technique to increase the size of their assignments as they demonstrate their ability to produce deliverables on time and within budget.

Designing your Work Breakdown Structure with these team member considerations also allocates your time properly. You don’t want or need to spend a much time reviewing the work of one of your experienced project superstars. That kind of micromanagement will irritate them and interfere with their feelings of independence and professionalism. That’s why you give them the biggest assignments with the longest duration. The people who need the most review of their deliverables will have the smaller assignments and shorter duration. That’s where you’ll spend most of your time.

Work Breakdown Structure Task Risks

The last consideration in the Work Breakdown Structure is the risk of each individual task. They can affect the risk of the project as a whole. If one or two of the high-level deliverables have a high risk of duration or cost overrun, you’ll break down those major deliverables into smaller pieces. Some examples are deliverables that have a high risk of changes in technology or the technology is uncertain and cost overruns are likely. When you break down those major deliverables into smaller pieces, you’ll get reports on them every day or two. That prevents big problems from surprising you when it’s too late to fix them.

You can learn how to create the Work Breakdown Structure in our online project management courses. We offer online project management courses in business, IT, construction, healthcare, and consulting. At the beginning of your course, you and your instructor will have a phone or video conference to design your program and what you want to learn. We make certain that your case studies, project plans, schedules and presentations fit your specialty. You can study whenever it fits your schedule and work at your own pace.

  1. 101 Project Management Basics
  2. 103 Advanced Project Management Tools
  3. 201 Managing Programs, Portfolios & Multiple Projects
  4. 203 Presentation and Negotiation Skills
  5. 304 Strategy & Tactics in Project management

 

3 Point Estimating – PERT

Dick Billows, PMP
Dick Billows, PMP
CEO 4pm.com
Dick’s Books on Amazon

Estimating is tricky for project managers because the customer wants the project to be done quickly and cheaply. You want your team to be committed to the numbers because they are realistic and fair. On top of that, everyone is concerned with the risk that exists on any project. So the best estimating technique should give you accurate numbers and some assessment of the risk in the tasks and the project as a whole. The best approach is to quantify the estimate and the risk of not hitting it. We use the 3 point estimating technique, or PERT which comes from the NASA space program, to do this.

This process lets you estimate work and duration with the team members and hear about the risks they see on their assignments. It also lets you give project sponsors the opportunity to decide what level of risk they want to accept on the project. Then you can quantify the additional costs that would be incurred to reduce the risks to a lower level.

The 3 point estimating process or PERT, which stands for Project Evaluation and Review Technique, is a three-step process where you discuss the team member’s task and risks. This includes the good risks that could cause this task to take less work and the bad risks that could cause it to take more work. Second, you note these risks in a work package and discuss the approach to the task with the team member. Third, the team member makes three estimates: an optimistic estimate, a pessimistic estimate and a best guess estimate. You apply the formulas* (at the end of this article) to those three estimates to come up with the actual data that you will use in the project schedule.

Common Estimating & Risk Issues

There are two mindsets that often cause trouble in the estimating process:

  • Executives believe that projects have no risk
  • Team members think that padding their estimates will protect them from blame.

Both of these mindsets are false and they  get in the way of accurate estimatingThe 3 point estimating technique or PERT deals with both these mindsets. Three point estimating is a straightforward process for developing estimates using a little bit of statistics.  It gives you a tool to quantitatively communicate about the risk of a task’s estimate.  It lets you stop pretending that task #135 is going to finish in precisely 15 days or that the project will absolutely finish by August 30. It also lets you address the issue that most projects are launched with less than a 35% chance of finishing by their promised due date. Because no one talks about that issue, executives think the completion date is 100% guaranteed. They believe the completion date is only missed when someone goofs off.

As an example, the best project managers tell sponsors that a project has a 65% chance of finishing by Analogous EstimatingAugust 30. These PMs also explain what they can do to improve those odds to 75% or 90% and what it will cost. Those PMs manage the assignments of their project team members with an understanding that there is risk on each assignment. They use 3 point estimating, PERT, techniques to get accurate numbers and reflect the risk.

3 Point Estimating or PERT Process

The 3 point estimating process starts with a discussion with the team member about the risks in their task assignment. You discuss the bad risks that will make their task take more work and more time. You also discuss the good risks that will cause it to take less work and time. Why should you do this step? Because you need an estimating process that addresses the team member’s legitimate concern that bad things will happen on their assignment and they’ll be blamed for not meeting the completion date.

Let’s talk a little bit about risk. When you ask me how long it will take to read this newsletter, I might estimate five minutes. Am I guaranteeing you that no matter what happens you’ll be able to read the whole thing in five minutes? No. What I mean is that 5 minutes is my best guess. That means there is a 50% chance it will take you less than five minutes and a 50% chance it will take you more than five minutes.

But if you are my project manager and you ask me for a task estimate, I would be a little hesitant to give you an estimate with a 50% chance of an overrun. What I would rather give you is an estimate where I’m 90% confident that I can finish in that much time or less. As the project manager, you would probably regard that estimate as padded. As the team member, I feel more comfortable with a 90% estimate. Unfortunately, there is no consistency in the amount of padding your team members do.

You want your team members to leave the estimating process knowing that you considered the fact that things can go wrong on a task assignment. Using the three estimates enables you to do that. It’s better than
having a team member give you a single estimate and play the padding game about how certain that estimate is. The three estimates tell you the variability in the task.

3 Point Estimating: Best Guess, Optimistic and Pessimistic Estimates

With agreement on the risks in the task assignment, you go on to ask for the team member’s estimates of work and duration (time). As the name implies, 3 point estimating requires three estimates for each task. That sounds like it will take a lot of work but it takes a matter of minutes.  You and the team member develop an optimistic estimate, a pessimistic estimate and a best guess estimate for each task. In developing those three estimates, we get more accurate estimates from team members and assess the task’s degree of risk and the range of durations.

If your team member estimates that a task has a best guess estimate of 80 hours of work, that means that 50% of the time it will take more work and 50% of the time it will take less work.

Next, the optimistic work estimate is that it will take less work than the best guess.  It is not a perfect world estimate but you want an estimate that’s based on the good risks you identified coming to pass.  The optimistic estimate is low enough that the team member thinks they can get the task done for less than the optimistic estimate 20% of the time.  The task will require more work than the optimistic estimate 80% of the time.

The pessimistic estimate is that it will take more work than the best guess. It is not a “disaster” estimate but you want an estimate that’s based on the bad risks they identified coming to pass.  The pessimistic estimate is high enough that the team member thinks they can get the task done for less than the pessimistic estimate 80% of the time.  The task will require more work than the pessimistic estimate 20% of the time.

Now let’s dip our toe into the statistics and look at two tasks, Alpha and Beta, and the calculated work estimates you would use at three different levels of confidence.

You take the three estimates and use the following simple formulas to calculate the task’s work estimate for a certain level of confidence of finishing within the estimate.

Mean=(4*BG)+OE+PE/6.  The mean is 4 times the best guess + the optimistic guess + the pessimistic guess divided by 6.

SD=(PE-OE)/6.  The standard deviation is the pessimistic guess minus the optimistic guess divided by 6.

Probability level = work= Mean +(z-score for probability)*SD

For task Alpha you can be 80% confident with an 82.2 hour estimate. But task Beta, with optimistic and pessimistic estimates that are further from the best guess than Alpha, will require an 88.7 hour estimate to reach the 80% confidence level.

Using 3 Point Estimating or PERT 

All of the better project management software packages, such as Microsoft Project®, enable you to use 3 point , PERT, estimates and create a variety of reports that communicate the project’s risks. You can take estimates like those above and calculate the odds of finishing the entire project within various durations.  That information is a solid basis for a discussion with the sponsor about the tradeoffs between cost, scope, duration, risk and resources.

To learn these 3 point estimating or PERT techniques and the entire estimating process, consider our private, online courses where you work individually with your instructor. They are available by phone, video conference or e-mail whenever you have a question or need help on an assignment. We can also deliver a customized training program at your site for up to 25 people. Call us at 303-596-0000.

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