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Build Your Estimation Skills for Success

written by: Ronda Bowen • edited by: Jean Scheid • updated: 11/23/2011

When you're running a project, it is vital that you are able to break down your tasks and create a project budget and a project schedule. How do you determine how long tasks will take and how much money you will need to complete your project? Becoming a better estimator comes with practice.

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    Ugh - Do I Really Just Have to...Guess?

    Remember when you had to estimate the number of jelly beans in the jar? You can perfect your estimation technique with these tips. One of the biggest weaknesses felt by new project managers involves the ability to accurately estimate the time and cost involved in their projects. It's easy to lack confidence in estimating skills - especially when you're first trying to figure out how long things take. It's really easy to overestimate time - and this isn't nearly as big a problem as underestimating the amount of time that you need to complete a task. When you're undertaking new projects, this can be a problem. It's time to build your self-confidence when it comes to your estimation skills. Here are some tips that will help you to estimate with greater ease and confidence.

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    Make Sure You're Completely Breaking Down Your Project Steps

    If you're consistently forgetting about steps, it is much easier to underestimate how long something will take. For example, if you forget that part of submitting work to a designer involves proofreading the work before you can submit it, you'll underestimate the amount of time that you need in order to complete the task almost all of the time. One way to ensure that you're consistently breaking down your project steps enough is to complete a decomposition of the project tasks. Each time you break a task apart into component parts, ask yourself, is this as broken down as this could be? Are there other parts that I might be missing? Remember, it's much easier to estimate each milestone when you know the tasks that are involved.

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    Don't Forget about Administrative Tasks!

    When you've broken down your project into its component parts, it can be easy to think you're there! You've got all the items you need to effectively schedule your project and budget for its execution. However, don't start your estimation just yet. You need to take all the administrative tasks that need completion into account. It takes time to enter your project into software, it takes time to delegate tasks, and meetings also take up time. You'll want to account for all the running of the project items you can in order to have a more accurate estimate of what is needed in terms of time and money. Too many project managers - especially new project managers - forget about the boring side of project management. You need to account for the time that it takes to do the actual managing of the project.

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    Find a System That Works and Use it Consistently

    One way to help make your estimating task much easier is to find a system for estimation and use it every time. If you're consistent when it comes to estimating, then you will be accurate - and that will make your life as a project manager much easier. There are a few different methods for performing estimations. Naturally, if you've performed a similar task previously, you'll know how long it will take to complete the task. On the other hand, for tasks you haven't completed, you may wind up guessing. One method for estimating when you don't know how long things will take involves the use of the PERT formula. For the PERT formula, you will need three numbers - the best case scenario estimate, the worst-case scenario estimate, and the most likely scenario estimate. You will find the weighted arithmetical mean of the three numbers (worst + 4x the most likely + best all divided by 6) and that will be your estimate.

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    Give Yourself Breathing Room

    Whether you are estimating your project's schedule or cost, you will need to build in breathing room for times when the equipment doesn't work, when your star team member gets sick, or when you've underestimated the time needed to complete your project's tasks. By building in breathing room, you can stave off the catastrophe of falling behind on your project schedule and save yourself from potential project failure. Breathing room can also help you to finish a project ahead of time, which in turn, will make your clients or customers very happy. You should especially give yourself room near the end of a project in case the product isn't coming together as you believe it should.

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    Always Track the Amount of time You Spend on Tasks

    This may sound like common sense, but even when you are working on administrative stuff, track the time you spend. That way, you will be better equipped for performing an accurate estimation for your next project. If you've tracked the time it takes to perform the market research for a new product, you will know in the future how long it will take to do so. Find a way to catalogue the average time spent on routine tasks. By paying attention to this detail, you can make your experience on projects work in your favor.

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    Use Estimation Software

    There is no shame in turning to electronic help for your project estimation needs. There have been many great tools created that are intended to help you to better estimate your projects and come up with more accurate budgets and schedules. By finding an estimation software program that works well for you, you can shave a lot of time off the project planning process. These programs are meant to help you plug-in numbers and keep track of what you've already estimated and worked on.

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    Why Build My Estimation Skills?

    It's important to work on developing your estimation skills so that you can create accurate project budgets and project schedules. By developing accurate budgets and schedules, you'll not only build a good reputation, but you'll also increase the likelihood of having your projects approved by management. In any case, it's good practice to work on building the skills you use for estimating your projects.

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