Estimating isn’t just a nuisance task

This past month, I was a customer to a contractor. I hired someone to complete a house project for me. And I’ve been a contractor for a customer. I was hired to complete a body of testing. In the same month, I bartered testing services for html work with a web designer.

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It’s been interesting to experience both sides of the professional table at the same time. The basic task of estimating is the same despite the work being vastly different. I learned that estimating isn’t just a nuisance task to get management off my back. Or to fill a Gantt chart to appease a project manager. It turns out that estimating is an essential task because without good estimating, how can I tell if I’m truly available?

Estimating inaccurately hurts. It hurt when my contractor accepted more work than I wished and I was forced to wait for his services. I finally had to request that unless services could be performed within a specified period of time I would get someone else. I thought carefully about how to say this in an effective way since I wanted this particular contractor to take the project.

It hurt when I took on more than I could and I knew I had frustrated someone like my contractor had frustrated me. I’m grateful the two experiences aligned in time so that a message about estimating was beaten into my head because sometimes subtle doesn’t work for me.

Estimating is about gauging a body of work. Past a raw number of how long the work will take, I think there are three questions often being asked within a request for an estimate. What clients truly want to know is:

Are you available?
And to what extent are you available?
And where on the coming calendar does my work fit in
your schedule?

That’s certainly what I wanted from my contractor. How does the body of work being estimated fit into the current or coming calendar with other work and competing demands? No wonder estimating is difficult because inside an estimate request there is often an unspoken expectation about scheduling the work. And an estimate and scheduling are not the same.

Scheduling includes gauging the coming calendar. How the work will fit into the current or coming calendar? A holiday week can throw a schedule. But that’s obvious what’s more challenging is how one body of work may align in time with another body of work to create an unexpected mess of time. Otherwise known as chaos.

Preventing chaos is enough incentive to make scheduling a distinctly separate topic.

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