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10 top tips for creating timing plans: Ask, don’t guess

Creating great timing or project plans is a bit of a dark art. Essentially we’re at predicting the future. But as much as possible, we want to make those predictions about the future as accurate as possible. In the last post we began to look at how we do this – the importance of taking tasks and breaking them into sub-tasks to allow accurate estimation. In this post we’ll explore the importance of accurately producing a timeline for each of these components using effort interrogation – asking someone who knows.

Don’t skip the asking step

When you’re under pressure to produce a timing plan or project plan the easiest thing to do is just to guess how long each of these constituent parts might take to complete. That’s an option, but not a particularly clever one. Guessing will not only just give you a poor timing plan, it’ll give you no foundation for discussions with the client, and there’ll be no one else to share the blame if you guesstimate incorrectly.

Be careful what you ask

But beyond just asking someone to estimate how long something is going to take to complete you need to help them understand the context around their estimation. It’s no good just asking someone how long something will take in isolation.

As they provide you a timeline estimate, ask how they came to that number. You’ll often find that as you begin to tease out the details of their estimation, they’ll begin to spontaneously think of elements that they forgot to include and you’ll begin to get an understanding of dependencies around individual tasks.

Get a second opinion on your project timeline

Once you’ve been given one estimate it’s always useful to verify the estimate and get a second opinion. Reduce the risk of someone being overly optimistic or pessimistic by getting a second or third opinion on someone else’s estimates. You’ll find that as you run the estimate by others, efficiencies or additional elements will begin to be uncovered.

Start talking

It can be tempting to quickly nip around and talk to the different people that you need to, getting quotes from each of them. The challenge is that in doing that, you’re not effectively capturing the dependencies between each discipline. It could be that one department is inadvertently making an assumption from another department. Or it could be that they’ve forgotten something entirely, and that by discussing it with another department, they suddenly remember elements that they should have included.

Harness the power of team planning. Get everyone together in a room and run through the timeline together so that all dependencies and any efficiencies of potential parallel workstreams can be captured.

Get it in writing

People are forgetful. After someone’s agreed on the timeline, send them a copy. You’ll be surprised how frequently they’ll change their mind or notice something when they see it a few hours later in their inbox.  Conveniently, it also doubles up as a nifty little insurance policy for you too.

I can’t estimate this…

Sound familiar? ‘I can’t estimate the length of time for this because I don’t know XY or Z.’ When no one knows how long something might take because they’ve never done it before, we have to base it on something. So try and find examples from their own work which you think form the foundation of what needs to be estimate a timeline up from that. Build your timeline first around the bits they do know and then extend it beyond, making sure you’ve heavily caveating your assumptions and dependencies.

What do you think?

What do you think we’re missing? What else is there to defining the idea that should PM’s be thinking about when creating timing plans? We’d love to hear if you’ve got any more tips – why not share them using the comments below?

10 top tips for creating timing and project plans

This 10 top tips blog series has been written as a guide for estimating and approaching creating cost estimates in the midst of it all. In this series of posts we’re looking at the following:

Ben Aston

About Ben Aston

I’m Ben Aston, a digital project manager and VP of Client Services at FCV, a full service digital agency in Vancouver, Canada. I’ve been in the industry for more than 10 years working in the UK at London’s top digital agencies including Dare, Wunderman, Lowe and DDB. I’ve delivered everything from video virals to CMS’, flash games to banner ads and eCRM to eCommerce sites. I’ve been fortunate enough to work across a wide range of great clients; automotive brands including Land Rover, Volkswagen and Honda; Utility brands including BT, British Gas and Exxon, FMCG brands such as Unilever, and consumer electronics brands including Sony.


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