Estimating Your Work Like Ferris Bueller

Estimating your work
Estimating your work like Ferris Bueller

I live in the Chicago area and I love the city of Chicago.  As an extension, I love the movies based in Chicago.  From The Blues Brothers to The Untouchables to all of the National Lampoon Vacation movies (including that Marshall Field’s scene in Christmas Vacation), I always love the great movie scenes in Chicago.

One of my favorite Chicago-based movies is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  For the unfortunate few of you who have not seen it, I’ll give a brief synopsis:

Ferris, a high-school student, plays hooky with his girlfriend and best friend to see the sights in Chicago.

They hit the town in his friend Cameron’s father’s 1961 Ferrari.  They have lunch in a fancy restaurant, go to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field, go up to the Skydeck of the Sears Tower, visit the Art Institute of Chicago, tour the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and then top the day off by attending – and participating in – the Von Steuben Day parade.

It’s a great movie showcasing this beautiful city.

Reality: Estimating your work

The problem comes when we start thinking about reality.  Considering that lunch probably took at least an hour and the Cubs, as poorly as they play, still take about three hours to lose (full disclosure: I’m a Cubs fan).  It’s a good thirty to forty minutes to even get downtown to the Sears – now Willis – Tower and it’s a good hour to an hour and a half, depending on the line, to go up the to the Skydeck and back.

And after all that, they managed to pick up the Ferrari from the parking deck, fight the traffic back to the north shore suburbs, run the car backwards on a jack to remove over a hundred miles, and get home just before Farris’s parents get home from work.

Every time I watch it, a little part of me says “They couldn’t possibly do all that in one day.”  But it doesn’t bother my enjoyment of the movie.

In the project-based world of consulting, we ask our team members to estimate their work.  These estimates often go to one extreme or the other.

Some people estimate every possible thing that could go wrong.  I could get sick, my co-workers could get sick, there could be a hurricane, I could have a flat tire.  (They may have a day like Jake Blues on his supposed wedding day, but that’s a different Chicago-based movie).

At the other extreme, you get someone who thinks they’re Ferris Bueller.  They think they can accomplish a thousand things in a single day and still plan to go home at 5:00. What ends up happening is they end up either working well into the night or not even coming close to meeting their estimate.  Often, both situations occur.

Both of these extremes can be harmful to a project.  If you overestimate and finish your tasks extremely early, people who planned their dependent tasks for a later date may not be able to start sooner than planned, causing unnecessary gaps in productivity.

Underestimating your tasks can have the opposite effect.  People may have dependent tasks and are planning for you to finish a task on time.  When they end up waiting several days until your actual completion, it can set off a chain reaction of delays, causing the entire project to be late.

See my related post: Consulting Priority: Billable Hours

When estimating  your work, it’s important to instill in people the importance and effect the extremes can inflict on a project. Some ways to reduce the extremes are as follows:

  • Document assumptions. If they’re worried about hurricanes, flat tires and epidemics, have them document the assumptions that these situations will not occur.
  • Perform risk analysis. When they do document assumptions, assess the risk of these occurrences.  If the hurricane is unlikely, it’s a valid assumption that it won’t occur.  If a lot of people are already out sick from a contagious bug, you may want to allow some extra time as risk mitigation.
  • Allow for some contingency.  If they estimate a task to be four days, allow an extra day and make it a week.  Not every task will be late, but over the course of the project, it will hopefully even out.
  • Focus on the critical path.  The critical path is the longest line of dependent tasks in the timeline.  There may be slack time in other lines of dependent tasks, but there is usually one that defines the duration of the project.  If any task in that path is delayed, it will most likely delay the entire project.

Estimating your work is exactly that; a best guess considering the limited information available.  It’s rare for tasks to be completed in the exact time they were estimated.  But it’s important that estimates be made as realistic as possible in order to complete the project on time.

In the meantime, save Farris.  Bueller?… Bueller?…

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at Amazon.com

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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