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Effective Estimating and the Courage to Push Back

When it comes to setting the expectations that are the foundation for project success the courage to push back against unrealistic demands from sponsors, senior managers and clients is a critical factor.  In an earlier blog entry, I discussed the importance of setting realistic expectations and how that relates to the fact that we will probably never be 100% accurate when making estimates early in project life. 

Courage is the quality of mind that enables a person to act effectively when confronted with difficulty, danger, pain, etc., even in the face of fear.  It is the ability to act in accordance with one’s beliefs in spite of criticism or fear of consequences.  Why would a project manager or project performer need courage?  It is because we are often faced with some difficult choices, particularly when it comes to estimating and scheduling.  Choices like telling a client that his or her desire for a delivery by a critical date is a pipe dream or informing a senior manager who has just told his boss’s boss that a project will be performed for some ridiculously low cost and within a time frame that is virtually impossible without the use of magic.

So how do we manage to muster the courage we need under such circumstances?  First we begin by understanding that the more we rely on effective estimating and presentation skills the less courage we need.  Our estimating skills enable us to build an objective foundation for our estimate.  We use objectivity to overcome irrationality.  These estimating skills include the use of scenarios based on well founded assumptions, accurate scope definitions, the use of past performance data, effective task analysis and realistic assessments of resource availability and capability.

Effective presentation skills are needed because objective reality is not enough by itself.  While we would like to think that the people we deal with are rational beings who simply need the facts to make good decisions, there is much evidence to the contrary.  When people are driven by the desire for something they really want, their brains become clouded.  They discount even the most irrefutable facts and believe what is most convenient to believe in the moment as opposed to what is more likely to be the case in the future.  In other words people are easily deluded.

Effective presentation skills not only present an objective argument but do it in a way that engages the participants and gets them to confront their own thinking in light of the facts.  We present the facts and assumptions and ask for feedback.  We say things like “While I would love to tell you we can deliver by next Tuesday, the estimates say that we probably won’t be able to.  Please let me walk you through the estimate and let’s see what we can do.”  When the client says things like “well if you can’t do it we can get someone who can.”  We need to respond with “You may be able to get someone who says they can do it but that’s different than actually doing it.  If you spend a few minutes with me now to look at the reasoning behind our estimates you may very well avoid some serious disappointment later.”

If you get their attention, then present a brief argument that focuses on what they can understand.  Summarize.  Be ready to go to different levels of detail as needed.  Ask questions like, “Have I left anything out or made any erroneous assumptions?”

Courage is not about not being afraid.  It is about working through the fear to remain calm enough to think and communicate clearly and effectively.  With courage we can push back and protect our clients, sponsors, teams and ourselves from the consequences of beginning a project with unrealistic expectations.

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George Pitagorsky

George Pitagorsky, integrates core disciplines and applies people centric systems and process thinking to achieve sustainable optimal performance. He is a coach, teacher and consultant. George authored The Zen Approach to Project Management, Managing Conflict and Managing Expectations and IIL’s PM Fundamentals™. He taught meditation at NY Insight Meditation Center for twenty-plus years and created the Conscious Living/Conscious Working and Wisdom in Relationships courses. Until recently, he worked as a CIO at the NYC Department of Education.

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