Better Time Estimation: At-a-glance Solutions for Project Managers

In project management, timing is everything. Time is tied to the profits, process and productivity of every project and issue. Quality project management is your organisation’s first defense against budget blow-out and team burnout — but only if time is estimated accurately and at scale. If not, workloads can be made disproportionate and that’s where challenges begin to escalate.

The plight of the Project Manager is to solve all of these problems at once. Your ability to estimate time is tied directly to cost overflow, team productivity and business outcomes. How you estimate time depends on your team and the work you do, but the challenge is multi-layered.

Time Estimation: The foundational project management challenge

Some tasks are routine. DevOps teams, Engineers, Marketers and artists alike will know how long certain things will take. Especially with seasoned staff, it becomes easy for the project Manager to drive predictive analysis on who can handle what, in which amount of time. Other tasks are not so simple to predict, and issues that break out into multiple tasks can be even more challenging to estimate as a whole. 

Time estimation relies on an understanding of the three things: task demand, resource match and time for task.

  • Task Demand: What will this task require in terms of work input? Remember to include not only the time spent by the primary assignee, but also any help he/she sources or receives from other team members. Also, the demands of a task might include a QA process, a user study or a beta test that adds time to the project completion, but may require fewer or different times per task. This is also a good time to determine whether this task is recurring, whether it is urgent and its level of importance. Epics and User Stories help with this.


  • Resource Match: The human resources allocated to an issue may vary by its complexity to complete, but also by any collaborators, testers, staff users or outside vendors whose time-support may be necessary. To estimate time, it’s best to have a good idea of who completes each part of the project and in what order.


  • Time for Task: Once you have a picture of what the issue will require in terms of the work and the staff to complete it, it’s time to assign hours, days or weeks.

Five Time Estimation Frameworks

When it comes to estimating time, there are essentially five options for Project Managers to use to arrive at an educated estimate.

1. Historical Estimates

Many Project Managers will use prior estimates for similar work to drive estimates for new tickets that come in. This is a fairly precise model when a lot of issues are repeated, and the teams handling these issues are consistent. On new project types or with new teams, it would be difficult to use previous projects as a marker for future estimates.

2. Time tracking

If your organisation uses time tracking software, it can be valuable to record estimates vs. actuals for various types of tasks and projects. This is a more fine-lined approach to time estimation and works best for down-to-the-hour task types, daily productivity management and payouts for hourly workers. The downside of tracking is the potential for human error in tracking and recording, plus the ever-present challenge of estimating a new type of project that hasn’t been recorded as of yet.

3. Bottom-up Estimation (BUE)

Using the Bottom-up Estimation model, Project Managers first spend time breaking a project into its most granular parts or smallest tasks, sometimes leaning on a technical director for support. Once the project is compartmentalised, each small section can be estimated more predictably or precisely, and re-combined for a total completion estimate. Of course, this requires total visibility into a project and the hierarchy of the tasks within it.

4. Resource-first Estimation (RFE)

With Resource First Estimation, projects are broken into tasks and assigned to employees first. Then, estimations of completion time are based on each team member’s own estimate or average time for the tasks assigned to them. The primary challenge for this type of estimation is that tasks can be re-routed to other staff members for a variety of reasons and total availability and timeliness isn’t always consistent. Plus, some teams may not be able to assign work before total completion time has been estimated, to account for the budget to hire.

5. Last-plus estimation

For teams recording actual completion times for projects and tasks, last-plus is a good option to quickly round out a proposed timeline for a project. Simply put, a Project Manager will go back in the archive to find the last most relevant project, collect the total time for completion and estimate a similar amount of time for the project at hand. Sometimes, Project Managers will add a safety net of additional time to account for changes in policy, standard or staff since the reference project was completed.

Data Organisation is a can’t miss Project Management Skill

Accurate time estimation is dependent on quality data and the dynamic visualisation and interactivity of that data. Project management decisions often need to be made quickly so that planning doesn’t become the obstacle to doing and moving the task forward.

When you can clearly see how long previous projects have taken and correlate patterns between projects and tasks current and past, you’ll be more familiar with the inputs, outputs and outcomes of every project that comes through your teams and systems. Smarter decisions can be made about personnel and performance when data is accurate, findable and fair.

Epic Sum Up offers total data visualisation and custom fields that can focus on time as a metric against money, people, productivity and project completion. With bright colored progress bars and quick summaries in visual form, Epic Sum Up aids in data management for all kinds of project management challenges, including time estimation.

Time is money

In fact, when you’re doing business, time is everything. Timing is the difference between a deal done and a deal dumped. Time reduced means profit increases and time spent at work turns into years and careers. As Project Managers, you’re harnessing the power of time as a function of productivity. Visualisation of relevant data is the most important tool you can add to your toolbox when it comes to estimating time for projects.

Thanks for reading! Do leave comments, and connect with me on Linkedin if you would like to have a chat about anything related to project management in Jira.

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