What’s a little padding between friends?

You need to come up with an accurate schedule for your project – well, as accurate as you can – but you suspect your team members are adding extra time to their estimates.

How can you overcome this and get to a realistic, reliable schedule?

If a little padding is added to this task, and a little is added to that task, pretty soon it adds up to a real significant change to the schedule!

A little padding's not that scary....
A little padding's not that scary....

The problem with padded estimates is they are not treated as a contingency.  Fred thinks he can do his task in 3 days, so he tells me it will take him 5 days.  Instead of starting his task on Monday, he starts it on Wednesday, since he has extra time.  Then once Friday comes, he realizes that there are other conflicts, and he’s unable to deliver on time.

Estimates are only as good as the estimator is at predicting the future, and most of us aren’t working as psychics on the side.  The situation is even worse with junior employees, who have less experience in estimating.  If her estimates come up short, she will be penalized.  If her estimates are padded, she may be found out, her manager may think she’s dishonest, and management will cut all her estimates in the future. This can lead to an ugly arms race, where she pads her estimates more, and management cuts her estimates, completely breaking down the planning process.

If your schedule turns out to be wildly inaccurate, that will cause others to question your estimates in the future, and you’ll find your budget and schedule cut.

So how do you get to a real, trustable estimate?

First of all, build consensus on project estimates with the whole team.

Team members build padding into their estimates in order to feel confident in their ability to be successful.  Most folks don’t think this is bad; it’s just a form of contingency planning.

Your team member may be thinking, “How long will it take?  I have no idea!  I’ll take my best guess and double it!”

If you have worked with your project team for a while, you’ll get a feel for how each individual modifies his estimate, and can tweak it accordingly in order to get an accurate result. I know that everything Jerry gives me, I need to add 50%, because he’s an aggressive estimator, while I know that I should reduce 20% from anything Floyd tells me, because his estimates are overly conservative.

But if you have a brand new team, who you haven’t worked with before, you don’t have that knowledge. You don’t know how to modify each estimate in order to get to an accurate schedule.

You can avoid the problem of chronically padded estimates by having the team reach a consensus on their estimates in an open meeting, where team members would be less likely to pad their numbers. In that meeting, team members can go over assumptions and risks, and feel much more confident in the numbers they’re providing. This way, you can be sure that the project requirements are clearly understood by the folks doing the estimating. A well-informed team will always produce better estimates!

If possible, arrange for another person to facilitate this meeting, as you will be needed as a participant.  You may have a perspective that some of your team members do not about project priorities, constraints and assumptions, and you need to be part of the decision making process.

In this case, more experienced estimators on the team can help figure out where an estimate provided by others might be inadequate, and adjustments can be made at that time.

Instead of blindly increasing padding on schedules, use your risk management skills to determine where risk is greatest, and determine appropriate strategies.  When you create a good risk plan, you’re reducing uncertainty, whereas padding your numbers only increases uncertainty. If your project is new and unique, that will make the process of getting good estimates more difficult, and that issue is best resolved using the risk management tools you already know and love.

Also, if your project team members know that some overall contingency is built into the schedule, rather than on each individual task, they will feel less of a need to pad their dates.  Make sure to communicate to your team about project level buffers, so everyone understands and is on the same page.

Tomorrow I’ll add some more ideas of what to do about padded estimates from your team members. Is this a problem on your projects?  If so, how do you deal with them?  Let me know!

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