Dear PM Advisor. July 9th 2012

Dear PM Advisor,

Recently I had a new client ask me to estimate resources for a project; my estimate was 5 times larger than they expected. The client actually laughed when they saw my estimate, and my credibility suffered. Two months later, as the project progressed, the client realized that I was right all along. 

My experience is this is a common issue, where a client wants a 2-year project completed in 6 months, for example, and they won’t consider changes to scope or resources. What’s the best way to handle presenting a resource or schedule estimate to a client when you know that estimate is significantly larger than the client imagines?

Perplexed PM in New York

Dear Perplexed PM,

It's hard for consultants to tell our clients "I told you so." Especially if we want to keep our jobs. And our jobs can be summarized by one sentence: Make the client look good.

That often conflicts with what they are telling us to do: in your case, determine a realistic estimate for a project. You provided it and the client didn't want to hear it at that time, even though the estimate was correct.

I had a similar experience when a client asked me to estimate how long it would take to put all their Design History Files in order, including creating all the data that was missing. I used careful parametric and analogous estimates to determine that this would take 20 man-years to complete. I was also not believed, the project ended and several years later an employee was hired and given this task. His estimate: 5 people for 4 years!

So what can you do? You are being paid good money to use your expertise to estimate a project. You come up with a number using all your skills. You believe this is a higher number than your client is expecting. What are your options?

  1. Tell them a number that meets their expectations. This will work on the short term but will always cause trouble for you and the client in the long term. Unless you are six months from retirement and don't care about your reputation, steer clear of this tempting option.

  2. Reveal the true number with a flourish in front of a lot of people, including your client's boss. This is a surefire way to embarrass the client and get yourself fired.

  3. Get grass-roots support for your estimate before showing it to the client. Build support amongst the people who agree with your analysis and will have to do the work when it comes along, then go to the client with them backing you up. Wow! That sounds like an even easier way to get fired for being a trouble-maker

No, here is what I recommend:

Show the client your analysis in a safe setting. Sit down with the client and you and a lot of data. Avoid the 'bottom line' until the end. Sit down with them and show the assumptions you used to come up with your estimate, getting agreement or corrections to these assumptions as you proceed. This will require you to have your presentation in such a state that you can make these corrections as you go along. After the client has agreed to all the assumptions, show her what this adds up to. The bottom line that the two of you created together.

If she disagrees with the answer, ask her which assumptions were incorrect. If she believes certain tasks take less time or effort than you estimated, bring her with you to the source of those estimates.

You also need to give her a face-saving way out of this awkward situation. Does this huge project mean that other priorities won't be worked on this year. Does it blow her entire budget? Think of ways that she can work on part of the project now and save other parts for later. Can the scope be cut dramatically to meet the budget she had in mind.

When you are proven right in the long run, someone will remember and your reputation will remain solid. And that's really what matters, isn't it?

PM Advisor

Send me your questions at Bruce@RoundTablePM