Friday, October 2, 2009

"Estimate your time and then double it."

An intern and I were recently estimating how much time it would take us to do certain tasks on a master planning project, and it was proving a bit harder than it would seem to be. We had to consider the time it would take to visit and review the existing facility, conduct staff interviews, go back to the office and produce the drawings and images and site assessment...oh, but we should sit down before we ever go to the site and talk about what we want to look at, measure, take pictures of...and perhaps we should allot some time and fee for an engineer and a landscape architect to survey the site and provide some input.... Like I said, the more we thought about the time and effort involved, the more we realized that it wasn't as simple as just saying "three weeks."

As the intern and I bounced ideas and timelines off each other, a well-meaning manager within earshot said half-jokingly, "Figure out the time it'll take, then double that. That's what should be on your proposal to the client." We all laughed and commiserated the way that projects seem to always take more time or be more involved than we originally thought. The manager then corrected himself a bit and said, "Actually, you should add about another 20% to 30% onto the time you think it'll take."

The intern and I did just that, and then we presented our estimate to our project manager, who was writing the proposal. His estimate was even higher than our 125% estimate, maybe even more like 150% of our guess. He took an average of the two estimates and wrote that into the proposal. What struck me was how, even though the intern and I are the ones that do this work on a regular basis and know how long it takes to do, the boss thought we needed longer to do it. Strangely enough, it is often those very bosses and managers that will push us to do whatever the task at hand is in less time that it truly takes to do a good job.

Estimating how long it takes to do a job or a task gets easier as your career progresses, then it gets harder again. After you have a few years of experience, you have a really good idea of how long it takes to do something. You're familiar with the software, you know the consultants pretty well and how long it takes to get back to you, and you know your way around a project. But then, your success gets in your way. By being good at your job, you get put on more than one project at a time, and maybe you even get more involved with the project by working with consultants on a regular basis and trading emails and taking phone calls. You become known in your office for being good at this or that--codes, Revit, equipment clearances, etc. So suddenly, what used to take you two hours now takes you three because as you were drawing this or putting together that, someone asks you what's the ADA clearance at the pull side of a door (18", you say, but 12" at the push), and then as you start working again, someone else asks you how to fix this stupid error message in Revit (split the wall, then demo the part you don't want, then align the part you do want with the door frame, etc.), and then you start working again, and then someone get the picture.

Granted, there are some tasks that you can truly say, "That will take me ten minutes." But as you get better at your job, I urge you to consider lightly padding the estimated time it takes to complete more complex tasks. If it takes you that long or a bit longer, then at least you prepared them for it, and if it takes you less time than you said, then fantastic--overpromise and underdeliver, I always say. At the very least, be aware of what it takes to complete even the seemingly simplest requests.

A project manager in my office recently asked me to make a phone call to a local code official for him, knowing that I was on professional but good terms with this official (she seems to always call me back within a few hours of leaving her a message, and she answers my questions and explains things patiently). I was in the middle of assembling a program for a master plan (a different one than the one I described above), and I knew I really couldn't help this manager. I can hear you asking, "But why, Lulu? It's just a question!" Ah, but it's not. This particular manager has a very specific way he wants things done--everything--and he has a need to know the why beyond the why beyond even that why. Despite the fact that I was accustomed to this fellow and would try to ask questions of various code officials and consultants and product reps that I know he would ask, I would invariably not think of one or two questions for which he would want answers. So, his "just a question" would be me on the phone with the code official for ten minutes, then I would take five minutes to email him an answer, then an hour later when he finally read my email and I was working on something else, he would interrupt me and interrogate me on my conversation for ten minutes, then I'd have to call the code official back but this time I'll have to leave her a message, and then fifteen minutes later she calls me back and I stop what I'm doing for another ten minute conversation...again, you get the picture.

So I said that I was unable to help him at that moment, that I could make the call for him tomorrow, when I'd gotten somewhere with my master plan program. He pushed back, insisting that "it was only a couple of phone calls." I finally had to call my own project manager in to back this fellow of off me, but it was worth it. If had given in, my primary project (and frankly, a little of my sanity) would have been compromised, and I wouldn't have done as good of a job as I could have for that manager, knowing that I had a bunch of other work waiting on me. Having worked with that fellow enough, I knew that I had to estimate the time it took to do "a few phone calls"...and then double it.

I'd love to hear about phrases or habits/behaviors that make you curious or crazy. And it seems I may have a couple of managers reading the blog. If so, welcome! Feel free to ask questions or make suggestions for future posts, either in the comments on via email in the sidebar. Thanks!

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