Estimation not only for production departments. The benefits of planning our internal workflow

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15th May 2020

Good planning is at the heart of effective project delivery. Estimating the difficulty of tasks and the time required to perform them is the basis for the determination of the date of project completion and product launch.

Each area, stage, or feature can be assigned an hour-based estimation or — if we work based on the Scrum methodology — a relative estimation, a “score”, e.g. the number of story points awarded on the basis of complexity of a given task, the effort it takes, and the unknowns (e.g. possible risks or work-hindering factors).

Determining the duration of each stage (in the case of hour-based estimation) or sprints (if we use relative estimation) is essential to setting a realistic date of project completion and estimating the budget necessary to carry out the project.

But what if aspects like project cost or date of completion could be determined for internal projects as well? Is there any reason why you shouldn’t know the cost your company will need to incur to onboard a new employee, to prepare for an industry conference, or to find another accounting firm?

The benefits of implementing estimation into back-office structures

At Webini, we’ve been taking advantage of estimation for quite a few years now, and not only in the departments handling client projects but also in our back office — HR, Analytics, Sales, Content, as well as in our development teams working on our internal projects. Meaning those whose work is crucial to the stability and development of our business. Today we’re going to share some insights we’ve gained from employing estimation practices in departments that manage projects carried out not for our clients, but for our company. What benefits have we discovered?

1. A controlled and predictable growth of the company

Growth is a self-regulating system. You need balance and appropriate planning to develop a company or a department in a stable and predictable manner. Growth is made up of many activities — both small and big. Many projects are interconnected — you can’t proceed with one if those that precede it haven’t been completed.

Let’s assume your company intends to launch a new web page. This involves a range of tasks and steps — from designing the graphic layout through copywriting and creating the source code to tests. By making estimations for each of these stages and by deciding which of them can proceed simultaneously, you’ll be able to tell the date when your clients are able to see the outcome of your efforts at its loveliest.

2. Effectiveness in numbers

Attempting to measure the time needed to have a given element ready and checking the progress of work achieved in the assumed time frame is the first step to improve effectiveness. When you have numbers, you’re able to tell if your team works according to schedule and delivers on time. Estimation practices will also help you become more aware of your team members’ strengths and weaknesses — and determine the competencies of particular individuals. You may find out that Jo, who is a copywriter, finds it hard to write jargon-ridden texts, but is well-able to create captivating short forms that will work well on a landing page or in social media. Trying to express tasks in numbers will let you realize how long it takes for different people to carry out particular activities.

3. A way to improve your everyday workflow

As mentioned above, the first step to make changes is to analyses what you wish to improve. Numbers will provide you with information on your team’s performance. You can compare the expected estimates with the actual time to completion. If the work has taken longer than expected, write down all the obstacles you’ve encountered. If it has taken less time than initially assumed, look for the factors that have made it possible. Is the outcome in line with your estimates? See what has made it possible for everything to go according to your plan.

An analysis of successfully completed tasks will help you remember your good practices and eliminate any mistakes you’ve made — identify the obstacles you’ll be more aware of next time. 

At the early stage of utilization of an estimation-based framework to plan completely new tasks, expectations will definitely differ from reality. This can result from a mistake made by the estimator, but with time (and once you get to know your strengths and weaknesses better), the differences will get smaller.

4. Greater motivation to deliver

If you assume a specific time frame to carry out some activity, the motivation to deliver on time will grow automatically. Estimating and monitoring the passage of time teaches humility and acting according to an order of priorities. If Meg from HR allots three hours to pre-select candidates and is aware that the time is running out, she’ll most likely try to get things done right away instead of cleaning up her desk or organizing the contents of the file cabinet.

5. Breaking down huge projects into smaller stages

Task estimation encourages you to split big stuff into manageable parts. It’s easier to run a project composed of two-, three-, four-hour modules from start to finish than even proceed with a task estimated to take 70 hours to complete. Besides, these 70 hours are made up of smaller activities that need to be estimated separately each. De-composing the work to be done, i.e. breaking it down into smaller parts, will help you improve the very process of project implementation.

6. Methodical work and peace of mind

Making estimates supports planning. Both you and your employees know how much it will take to complete a given project and what the realistic date of completion is. Given the above, nobody will expect to have something done yesterday. 

Let’s assume that Jill and Jack from the marketing department are working on a presentation about your company. They’ve divided their work into stages, shared the tasks to be done, and know how much time each of them needs to carry out particular activities. They’re working in an organized way. You know the workload of each of them and are able to easily check if everything goes according to the plan. Adopting an estimation framework improves also delegating tasks — thanks to estimates you can see that Jill is busy the entire week and Jack has a slot in his schedule so you can give him some additional work to do.

7. Easily determinable ROI

Some prefer working with external agencies because they don’t have to guess the exact cost of service. Establishing the cost of maintenance of an internal department is much more difficult. Especially if we talk about departments whose work contributes to the internal development of your business. And it may turn out that it’s more cost-effective to invest in in-house employees than work with third-party service providers. You can calculate the actual price your company pays for an hour of work of a person holding a given position. Here, you can also consider the knowledge or skills of particular individuals, or the profit they generate for your company. Knowing the actual hourly rate of an employee, you’ll be able to determine the cost of a particular project. When estimating a project set to take several dozen hours, you’ll know the cost your company will need to incur and will be able to tell if it’s profitable.

8. Tasks completed faster

If you break down big undertakings into smaller stages and estimate each of them, you’ll be able to determine the expected date of completion. And this date can be adjusted. You can, for instance, divide work among particular individuals and shorten the time to completion. If you know your employees, their experience, knowledge, and skills, if you remember that Anna is an Excel wizard and Chris is a go-getter on the phone, you can run the project as smoothly as possible.

How to implement estimation within your company?

Adopting an estimation methodology is not that difficult. In fact, we all make estimates as to how long a given activity will take us. When should I leave home to make it to the movies on time? If the line for popcorn is long, how long will I have to stand in it? Is it better to book a table in a pub at 8 pm or 9 pm? 

To implement estimation processes in your back office, all you need is an Excel or a Google Sheets spreadsheet and a time tracking solution — like, say, Toggl. If you work in teams, you can plan your work together at weekly or biweekly intervals. Use the spreadsheet to list the tasks to be carried out — including cyclical tasks. Share the tasks among you and see how much time it takes to carry out each task. In a Scrum framework, which is a model most software development teams work in, estimates are not expressed in hours. The usual practice is to take advantage of relative estimation, the effect of which is assigning story points or T-shirt sizes (XS, S, M and so on) to each task. But in the case of internal, in-company projects, you can use hours as well. Apart from a standard estimate, make assumptions also for a minimum estimate (best realistic time frame) and a maximum estimate (upper limit). If some tasks is going to take more than 8 hours to complete, try to break it down into smaller parts.

After a certain period of time (a week, two weeks, a month), do a follow-up — see what has actually been done, which estimates have proven correct/incorrect, and what obstacles you have come across.

Employees might feel uncomfortable with time tracking, especially at first. They may feel under pressure and try to cut corners only to stay within the set time frame. Make it clear to them that it’s not the point. That it’s about checking how long certain tasks actually take to complete. Tell them to proceed with their work as usual and that in a week or two you’ll see if their performance is as predicted or not. The findings will be the starting point to search for ways to make improvements. 

Everything planned? Then activate a time tracker and let’s get down to business! 🙂