How to Achieve Zen in the Art of Resource Estimating

Zen’s stacked rock symbol can be a metaphor for resource (2005) offers a definition of Zen: “Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.” But what does that have to do with resource estimation?

At this point in the 52 Project Management Success Tips, I’ve defined:

We now have arrived at the moment of truth – estimating the activity resources. Specifically, the subject matter for this series of 52 Project Management Success Tips focuses on the people aspects of Project Management; therefore, this tip focuses solely on the exercise of estimating the human resources required to execute the project.

Incidentally, “human resources” is another term that I dislike, as it signifies to me an impersonal collection of faceless, interchangeable pawns to be manipulated for the benefit of the project. It’s hard for me to speak about placing focus on the people aspects of project management and project delivery when using a term like “human resources” to describe the living, breathing, diligent individuals who will be working in the trenches to make the project successful. But I digress. And yes, I will use the term “human resources” in keeping with current terminology.

Resource estimation is both art and science. It is art in that the estimating team must determine what will sell. It is science in that the team must determine what can be delivered within the available budget and timeframes.

As I have stated several times in this series, much of my career was spent as a contractor delivering competitively procured, fixed-price projects to large government entities. Every proposal that we submitted was hard fought. The award of a contract almost always came down to the staff that we proposed and the resource estimation on which our bid price was based.

Was resource estimating critical to our business? Only if we wanted to stay in business.

But whether bidding on RFPs (Request for Proposals) for a fixed-price effort to an external organization, or providing project cost estimates internally to one’s own corporate executive, the process is the same and the effects are similar. It comes down to the ability to estimate the level of human resources required to deliver the project successfully. In that estimation there is a fine line between estimating low enough to win the project (or to convince corporate executives that it can be done for the allocated budget), and estimating high enough that the project can be delivered on time and within budget without staff burnout and without having to de-scope business requirements.

Therein lies the mystery of resource estimating – so mysterious that the PMBOK® Guide offers this sage advice: “Expertise should be considered from individuals or groups with specialized knowledge or training in team and physical resource planning and estimating.” (Project Management Institute, 2017, p.324). That’s it. That’s all that the PMBOK® offers at this point in the Guide – expertise and specialized knowledge.

Of course, I say this tongue-in-cheek because the PMBOK® Guide is exactly correct. Whether an organization is estimating a $200 thousand or a $200 million project, then past experience, specialized knowledge, subject matter expertise, and project delivery expertise all comprise the expert judgment needed to estimate well. This is where that fine line between estimating low enough to win the project and high enough to deliver comfortably comes in. More accurately, this is where tension between the staff tasked with the win and the staff tasked with the delivery begins.

Caught in the middle of that tension are the people aspects of Project Management. If we bid too low and get the win, the delivery staff will pay the price with long hours and a stressful work environment. If we bid too high and lose the bid, the delivery staff may pay the price in job loss.

I have participated in dozens of proposal efforts, and have witnessed this sales/delivery tension on every bid. Sales staff, who are typically good at their ability to ferret out the client’s “hot buttons” and budgets, want to bid low enough to get the win. Typically, they have not been the ones pulling all-nighters trying to meet a tight deadline because of a low bid. At the same time, delivery staff, who have been the ones pulling the all-nighters, want to bid high enough to be able to deliver comfortably.

So how do we walk this fine line, this tightrope, this tension between the sell and the delivery? How can we ensure the sale while avoiding the “death march” of a too-tight project?

I go back to the PMBOK® Guide advice provided earlier. Expert judgment. And an understanding that the tension between the sale and the delivery is a healthy tension. Both sales and delivery expertise are needed to estimate project resources well.

Enter Zen and the art of resource estimating. “… the word Zen conjures up an image of motionless Buddhist monks lost in deep meditation. This mysterious image becomes less mysterious when you realize the monks are simply practicing being here now. And even cats frequently practice that.” (Espericueta, re-posted by Martin, 2018).

Oh, that project resource estimators would practice that (“being here now”) as well.

Lest you think that I am advocating that resource estimators assume the lotus position and meditate the estimates into existence, I am not. That invites injury. What I am suggesting, however, is that the resource estimators “practice being here now.” No slavish fixation on the future state of what one believes the customer’s ultimate budget is. Yes, that’s important, but not at the risk of forcing a low-ball estimate. No whining about past states of too many all-nighters and lost weekends. Yes, we want to avoid that, but lost nights and weekends are not always the result of poor estimation.

I began this article with an definition: “Zen involves dropping illusion and seeing things without distortion created by your own thoughts.” Let me put that into our world. Project resource estimation involves dropping the illusion that if we bid solely based on what the client wants, all will be well. Resource estimation also involves seeing things without the distortion created by thoughts and memories of past difficult project deliveries.

Estimation is simply that – estimation

To “practice being here now” is nothing more than understanding the job at hand, taking into consideration the client’s requirements and budget, taking into consideration the team that we can realistically propose, and applying solid expert judgment to the entire exercise. Each job must be estimated on its own merits. The client is NOT always right. Past difficult deliveries are NOT always indicative of what the next job will be like.

As a delivery person, one of my most often used estimating techniques was bottom-up estimating. My team and I would review the project activities and their sequencing in the proposed project schedule. We would decompose those activities into more detail where warranted. We would then estimate each work package at the activity level – sometimes based on available staff; sometimes based on average productivity if the delivery team was not yet known. The estimates would then be aggregated to the project level and summarized into a resource breakdown structure for pricing.

Using this estimation technique, we would purposefully refrain from discussion of past project deliveries, good or bad, and focus specifically on the task at hand for this client at this time. Why? Because whenever we looked back at past delivery experience, our expert judgment would become tainted because of the experience. As I mentioned earlier, the estimates are not always the cause of bad or good project delivery experiences. The companies for which I consulted had good estimating metrics collected over many years of project delivery, and we employed these to develop realistic resource estimations.

At the same time, in aggregating the activity estimates, the overall project estimate was necessary to assist the sales executive with his ultimate decision. If the estimates were significantly greater than the client anticipated, then a no-bid might be warranted. Or the sales team might elect to submit a bid with more realistic estimates, with the intent of showing the client why their initial assumptions were incorrect. Or we may submit a bid showing how de-scoping some of the requirements would fit their budget and still deliver major benefits to the organization.

I remember, as clearly today as the day it happened, losing a major bid to a competitor that we thought underbid the job to meet the client’s expectations. I remember hearing later that the winning vendor lost its shirt on the job. Better them than us. There are times when losing is winning.

It comes down to this

The planning process, as much as the actual delivery process, is critical to the overall success of the project. Fooling oneself into believing that the client has budgeted the job well can lead to poor resource estimation. Relying solely on past performance when estimating the next job can lead to poor resource estimation. It takes concerted effort, a repository of solid metrics, expert judgment, and a combination of both sales and delivery perspectives to estimate well.

And when you win that job, or convince your organization of what it will take to deliver the project, your staff will thank you, your client will thank you, and your project will have a far better chance of success.

Footnotes (2005, July 27). Definition provided by justanotherperson.

Project Management Institute. A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) – Sixth Edition. Newton Square, PA: PMI Publications, 2017, Print.

Martin, Steve (2018, August 26). What is the Meaning of Zen? Re-posted article by Rafael Espericueta.

Get Your Free Guidebook

Subscribe and receive your free guidebook,
5 Ways to Master the Art of Managing People, Projects and Profits.