Project managers are asked to provide effort, duration, and
cost estimates as a primary part of our jobs. You know then, that the
estimation process is partly an art and partly a science. However, once you
learn good estimating processes and techniques, you will hopefully be able to
move more toward the “science” side of estimating and rely less on
the “art” side. One way to move from art to science is to recognize
and avoid the common errors and biases that plague the estimating process
today. These errors and biases include the following:

Not taking all the work into account

This is perhaps the most common problem, especially with
earlier, high-level estimates. You may just miss some major work that you
didn’t understand to be a part of the project, such as documentation or
training. Typically, however, you underestimate the size of deliverables that
need to be completed or you do not include all of the activities required to
complete the deliverable.

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Wishful thinking

Anyone who provides estimates of work knows that there can
be pressure from your client to make the estimate as low as possible.
Ultimately, the client wants to get what he needs for as little effort (and
cost) as possible. In many cases, there is a tendency on the part of the
estimator to get caught up in that mindset as well. The estimator ends up
“wishing” the work ends up within the client expectations.

Committing to best-case scenario

The client wants it done as quickly as possible. Your
manager wants it done as quickly as possible. You think it can be done quickly.
However, you get into trouble because you think about what it would take to
complete the work if everything goes right. You might even think in terms of a range
of effort for the work, but then too often you end up committing to an estimate
at the lower, or optimistic, end of the range.

Assuming higher quality work than you can deliver

This error occurs when you think that you can build
everything right the first time. (This is similar to the prior best-case
estimating scenario.) However, as the project is executing, you realize that
your ability to build to a right level of quality the first time is limited,
resulting in overages for rework, bug fixes, retesting, etc.

Committing based on available budget

In this case, the client has a fixed amount for the budget.
The project manager thinks there is a chance the project team can get it done
within available budget, so he commits based on that budget number. Estimating
work based on the available budget is so obviously wrong that it’s almost a
cliché. However, how many times have you fallen into this trap?

Not recognizing estimating biases

Your personal biases can sneak into your estimates. Some are
optimistic and some are pessimistic. Optimistic biases will result in
underestimating the work and can include:

  • Tending
    to think the work is simple (everything is simple to you).
  • Thinking
    your team can accomplish more than they really can.
  • Estimating
    based on what it would take you to do the work, not the average person.

Pessimistic biases will result in overestimating the work
and can include:

  • Overestimating
    the work because you had a bad experience on a similar project in the past
  • Overestimating
    because you don’t really want to do the work. You might estimate high and
    hope the project will be cancelled.

All of us can fall into these estimating traps and biases if
we’re not careful. Recognizing the problems to begin with can help you avoid
the traps when you’re creating estimates on your project.