Often in my career I have to make an estimate about the so-called "level of effort" (LoE) to do a thing.

  • What's the LoE for me to do a demo for this customer?
  • What's the LoE for me to help respond to this RFP?
  • What's the LoE for me to participate in this conference?

The critical metric by which I usually have to measure the LoE is time. People, equipment, venue, materials, and location are rarely ever a limiting factor. Time is always the limiting factor because no matter the circumstance, you can't just go and get more of it. The other factors are often elastic and can be obtained.

And oh how I suck at estimating time.

As soon as the question comes up, "What's the LoE for...", I immediately start to think, ok, if I am doing the work, I can do this piece and that piece, I can read up on this thing and get it done with slightly more time invested, and then yada, yada, yada... it's done!

What I don't account for is the human element. The unexpected. The fact that we're all different and team members will go about their work in their own way. In other words, the soft, non-technical aspects of doing the thing.

Along these lines, here are 9 things that I would be wise to consider when making time estimates in the future.

Day-to-day interruptions and responsibilities

I mean, duhh. Life goes on even if you're working on a project.

Action: Assess the baseline of work and commitments I have now and what can reasonably fit alongside them by way of new work. Also consider what needs to be reduced, rescheduled, or removed from my schedule while the doing a thing work is underway.

Time needed for follow-ups, action items, and retrospectives

This one hurt me hard recently. I had accounted quite well for the time needed to attend all of the project meetings but had not pre-allocated any time at all for the inevitable follow-ups and action items. Sometimes these are non trivial! Especially in pre-sales, follow-ups often equal research and digging for answers.

Action: Include a dedicated allotment in the time budget for follow-ups, either after each meeting or as a chunk of time once a week.

Organizing teammates

On big projects, it's a foregone conclusion that I will work with others to get things done. In the best case (i.e., the lowest LoE), this will require meetings, calls, or emails to keep the team in sync. In the worst case (highest LoE), I may be on the hook for organizing the team and acting as the team leader. Do not underestimate the time commitment necessary to form, organize, and launch the team on the project. I recently got burned on this one as well where I did not account any time for organizing the team. The people I attempted to recruit were busy with their own responsibilities and projects and some had to decline my invite. Others could only offer part-time help.

Action: Build time in at the start of a project to properly recruit and form the team. Expect to have to ask more people than needed on the team in order to fill every seat. On top of that, budget time for communication and briefing of new teammates to get them on-boarded.

The pace that teammates work at

Another duhh moment: everyone is different! We all have different strengths, experience, and skills and that leads us to work at different paces. Not everyone will cross the finish line at the same time.

Action: Try to ascertain the level of experience of the team and adjust the timing of activities accordingly. Pair up someone with less experience with someone more experienced to help get the job done on time. Anticipate that not everyone has the same level of skill and experience.

Iterating on work & quality control

Everything is done perfectly the first time, riiiight? I know I have a hard time putting out something that is "less than finished" and then iterating on it to move it forward; put another way, I tend to wait until things are "perfect". A result of this is that I assume others do the same and that there will be no need to iterate on work output because the first version will be very high quality.

Action: Fixing the root problem of dealing with my perfectionist tendencies would be ideal :-) But at the very least, budget time to review work output and anticipate the need to iterate multiple times in order to achieve high quality.

Unexpected events (such as changes in scope)

This is about as basic as it gets. "The only constant is change" and all that. Still, I too regularly fall into the trap that when I'm told "we need to do A, B, and C", that thing "D" and "E" becoming part of the scope is as likely as me waking up tomorrow as a star basketball player. ("Do you play basketball?" "Ask me again tomorrow." ⛹️‍♂️)

Action: Continually reinforce the habit of planning for change; it's inevitable.

Potential sacrifice of personal time

When things go screwy and committing more hours to do the thing is required, where do those hours come from? You don't really need to cut the lawn, be home on time, have a quiet day with your family, or do unproductive things like sleep, right?

Action: In this case, I don't want to plan for this but instead want to consider how to avoid this as a regular course of action. There can be give and take here, but that's different than repeatedly taking from personal to give to professional. I think if I do a better job at the other items in this list, this one will be implicitly taken care of.

Communication issues

I'm a big believer that most of our interpersonal challenges—both personally and professionally—are a result of poor communication, lack of communication, or miscommunication. When this happens, two results are likely: 1/ Problems start to develop but go undetected because of the communication issues. The work at hand moves ahead with these problems getting woven into the work output, impairing the results. 2/ When (and hopefully there is a "when") the problems are finally surfaced, time is consumed to determine the scope and impact of the problems and then devise a plan to correct them. Additional time is consumed in correcting the problems.

Action: This may be the simplest action yet: plan to communicate! This might mean any or all of: budgeting time for meetings, phone calls, discussions, lunches, coffees, reports, or emails.

Lack of organization

On this point I'm talking about scenarios where I'm brought onto a team when the doing a thing work is already in flight and organizationally, i.e., documentation, processes, schedules, project plans, collaboration, and so on, the team just isn't there. In scenarios like this, the only recourse is often to interview other team members to find the information I need in order to get involved. I would argue this takes longer than just reading the project plan or the project's wiki because I need to actually find a moment when the right teammates are free to speak with me; I can't self-serve. It's also far less efficient. Instead of the team members being productive, they're on the phone or writing instant messages to me in order to answer my basic questions.

Action: Do a proper job up front of asking questions and understanding the organization of the team. Simple questions like "can you show me the documentation this team has generated?" can tell a lot. Make no assumptions to the level of organization! Less organization means a higher LoE.

The application of these points is more art than science. It will take practice and refinement. And not all of them makes sense in every situation. But like many things, awareness is the first step to improvement and keeping these points in mind will allow me to do a better job at estimating LoE with an outcome of less stress, more enjoyment of the work, and high quality results.

In order to aid my memory, I built this simple infographic as a quick reference to use when estimating LoE.