Project Management

7 Project Estimating Techniques That Leverage Basic Psychology

As it so happens, project estimates are often influenced by psychological factors. Yet as a manager, you must deliver accurate estimates in a complex environment full of psychological intrigue. So, aside from going on your gut instincts, Anna Mar offers seven ways to measure the psychological costs of making projects happen.

Padding vs. Underestimating

As a matter of historical precedent, it’s always best to (1) pad your estimates. There’s just always more to a project than you could ever expect. The reverse of the previous approach applies to complex tasks. The “Well-Traveled Road Effect” is one in which individuals will overestimate the time it takes to complete a new task. The “Hard-Easy Effect” is one in which individuals tend to overestimate for complex tasks in general. In both cases, you’ll want to (2) underestimate if possible.

Outside Influences

Mar warns against influencing the individual doing the actual estimate, since this is a proven way to (3) scramble the estimate. The individual closest to the estimate will (by and large) have the most accurate picture in his or her head. The same goes for (4) estimating as a group – unless you want a political estimate that reflects the interests of the group.

Dread and Excitement

Is your team excited about the project? Chances are they will (5) underestimate tasks. Therefore it’s your job to pad the project estimate. Or perhaps your team is afraid or reluctant about a project. In this case you’ll need to make sure their estimates are not inflated to reflect their fear.

Simplicity and Complexity

Also be sure to guard against illusions of (6) the simple and of the complex. For instance, fancy math equations are often great for soothing project fears. However, they can also give the illusion of complexity where none exists. The solution is to simply know the personalities of your team members (who aren’t math-bots). On the flip side, be careful not to generalize on certain tasks. (e.g. – If you’re building user interfaces it’s common to come up with generalizations such as “a page takes a day.”) What about pages that only take five minutes or that take five days?


Lastly, never (7) produce estimates while under any kind of duress, if possible. It may seem inconsequential, but a brisk walk might do wonders for your state of mind.

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Eric Anderson

Eric Anderson is a staff writer for CAI's Accelerating IT Success. He is an intern at Computer Aid Inc., pursuing his master's degree in communications at Penn State University.

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