PM: Obtaining Time Estimates

One of the more important tasks a Project Manager has is obtaining time estimates from team members for completion of their assigned work. To do so effectively, a great deal of finesse can be required…

As we embark on this exercise there are two key things to realize:

First, some people simply do NOT want to provide a time estimate because once they’ve done so, they’re on the hook! That is exactly what the PM needs: people accountable to completing their task(s). That said, our goal is NOT to shove dates down people’s throat. Instead, we take a much more collaborative approach to “tease out” this information.

Second, when seeking to obtain this information, we must recognize and help our team member acknowledge that the work associated with their task has a few dynamics to consider in our plan which are necessary to reflect fair, accurate and reliable dates, including:

  • Work Effort
  • Work Duration
  • Dependencies

Now, let’s cover each, in context with how I perform this exercise with team members…

Work Effort

As we are working towards establishing a time and completion estimate for your task, the first thing to consider is if you (team member) had 100% dedicated time to the task (which no-one actually does), how many total hours or days do you feel it will take to complete the work.

Let’s say they answered, 8 hours. That is the total work effort.

A novice PM might put 8 hours in their plan and assume that it will take their team member a single day to complete the task. The reality is that this is seldom the case. That is, our team member has a day job, other projects they may be supporting, an upcoming conference they are attending or a vacation they’ve planned, all of which needs to be baked into the plan.

Work Duration

Now that we have an estimate for the work effort, I ask, how much time on a daily basis can be dedicated to this task, once it is time to get started? To that, they may answer that they only have 2 hours a day to work on the task. As a result, it will take them roughly 4 calendar days (excluding weekends, holidays and any of their planned away time) to complete the task. That is the work duration, which must be reflected in the plan to project our timeline.


The final step is asking: is there anything you are depending on to begin or complete this task? That is, are you waiting on someone to complete their deliverable as an input to your task? Do you have all the resources needed (e.g., people, technology, etc.) to complete the task? Essentially, what might prevent you from starting or completing this task on the timeline specified (the 4 business days for the 8-hour task)?

As part of this step we’ll also need to share the “when” this task needs to be completed; when it is in support of another team member starting or completing their activity. Knowing the desired start date for the subsequent task we can simply take the information gathered above and back into the required start date for our team member’s predecessor task. Doing so ensures they have the time to complete their task within the timeframe necessary for the other teammate to begin work on their subsequent but related task.

To be fair, there are times when the individual I’m meeting with doesn’t (yet) have all the necessary information to make an educated estimate or share the dependencies to completing their work. To that, I ask: when will you have this information? Assuming it is a reasonable request and timeframe, we’ll get back together at that time to complete our planning exercise.

Upon taking the approach outlined above I have helped my teammate understand that I’m not looking to arbitrarily force a date on them. Instead, we are developing the time estimates together, within the constraints of their availability and the requirements of the project.

As a result, I’ve ALWAYS been able to obtain time estimates, even from the most weary or insecure of team members.

In closing, if you are looking to improve PM competencies in yourself, or organization, please reach out so that we can chat about how I can help. And, if you find this content useful feel free to follow this blog to receive an email when new content is published.

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