Project management can sometimes present a web design, development or creative agency, with a Catch-22-like conundrum. Given the unique and customized nature of many web sites and web-based applications, it is difficult to estimate how long it will take to develop, manage and deliver a new project until we’ve actually gone through the process. For a new project manager or new class of project, it can be overwhelming to the point we get stuck in an infinite loop of analysis paralysis.
How do we estimate a project we’ve never completed before? How do we complete a project we’ve never estimated before? There isn’t an easy or one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. We use a process we’ve dubbed “Predict, Track and Learn.” This process is one of the guiding principles behind our online project management software, Intervals. Whether you practice Agile or Waterfall project management methods, this process is applicable..
What does “Predict, Track and Learn” mean?
Every creative agency has its own way of managing projects. Some of us prefer Gantt charts and Waterfall methods, while others prefer Agile and Scrum techniques. Both require that the project manager and her team be able to estimate how long different tasks, stories, or phases will take to complete. Estimate how long the project will take — if you don’t know for sure, make an educated guess. Track your estimated deliverables closely. Once the project is completed, learn from the successes and failures and improve the next time around. Repeat with each project.
Estimating a project is not an easy process. It takes time and a number of iterative estimates to accurately predict a project. To make the estimation process go easier, break the project up into smaller chunks, for example, individual phases or tasks. As you begin to calculate the number of hours it will take to complete the smaller parts, the estimate will come together with less effort. When in doubt, guess at the number of hours. It’s better than nothing, and you can learn a lot by guessing. Once you’ve got the first draft completed, go back through the individual phases or modules, tuning each one until the total number of hours is at the desired level of accuracy. Depending on the complexity of the project, you may want to increase the total number of hours by 25 to 33% — a multiplier that helps address unknowns and our tendency to underestimate projects.
Tracking your time effectively and accurately requires discipline. Our advice is to track your time as you work. Don’t wait until the end of the day or the week to jot down your time or the results will be incredibly inaccurate. There are several online time tracking applications that will help you. Once you start using one don’t be surprised to find your tracked time increasing by as much as 30%. When it comes to tracking time, paper time sheets and Excel spreadsheets are, literally, a waste of time.
When the project is completed and the clients have been billed, go back through the data and compare the actual time tracked against the estimates. Some parts of the project will have been underestimated, some overestimated. The actual time, if tracked properly, will show which areas need to be improved next time. The important thing is that now you have a history of time tracked on a specific project, broken down by it’s parts. This data will become invaluable to your business as you move forward.
This whole process is meant to be repeated over and over again, your estimates getting more accurate with each project. In the beginning, expect a 15% margin between the estimated and actual time tracking data. That margin will decrease to less than 5% after you’ve gone through this process enough times. The number of times it takes to hone your estimation skills will depend on your abilities, luck, and the amount of custom development required for each project. Web designers and developers tend solve the same problems repeatedly, however, our development projects are not always homogeneous. By breaking down each project into smaller parts you will end up with a library of plug-and-play estimates that can be assembled for your next project.
Photo credit: Myxi