Even the most seasoned project management professionals can draft estimates that miss the mark. When they occur they’re usually off by just a little, though occasionally they’re off by miles. But because so much of the project management process relies on these estimates, even a minor flaw can have large impacts on the team’s ability to achieve success.

Dealing with estimating errors is often difficult. With everything the Project Team has on its plate, taking time out to do a thorough investigation into the causes behind an inaccurate estimate is often a low priority. Egos can also sometimes be a barrier, as people might be hesitant to admit when they’ve made a mistake or concerned their coworkers may be unhappy with them.

Unfortunately, allowing these factors to stand in the way of finding and resolving estimating mistakes means they’re likely to happen again. Tackling the issue doesn’t need to be a daunting or uncomfortable endeavor. A handful of straightforward actions will help project teams overcome their worries and manage errors in a productive way.

Project management with gantt chart

Acknowledge the mistake. No good will come from either ignoring or stubbornly refuting that errors have occurred and the estimate is or was inaccurate. It isn’t necessary to grovel, but letting anyone affected by the mistake—stakeholders, others in the Project Team, the organization’s leadership team, end users, vendors, consultants, etc.—know about the flaw is prudent, as they may need to modify their own activities as a result. Be mindful to avoid turning the issue into a round of finger pointing, as that environment benefits no one. Mistakes happen.

Identify where the error entered into the equation. The first step in avoiding similar mistakes in the future is to figure out how it happened in the first place. Any number of causes have been known to inject incorrect data into an estimate, from simple calculation errors to miscommunications about information received from external partners. It’s also not uncommon for estimates to require tweaking as material availability or other factors change. Timeliness of the data may be the crux of the problem.

Determine what effect the error had on the estimate. Understanding the mistake’s impact on the final estimate is important because it may be helpful in spotting similar errors in future estimates. It’s also useful when the team begins working to undo any downstream errors that may now exist, or as support groups or outside vendors review their own data to see if changes will be necessary on their end of things.

Distribute a revised estimate if it’s still possible to do so. If an error is discovered early enough in the process, it may still be feasible to fix the mistake and redo the estimate. The important part of this step is distributing the revision to others who may have used the original information as a basis for their own activities. They may now need to update data or actions within their areas of responsibility. Be clear about which data the revised estimate replaces and let others know who to contact if they need additional details. This is not the time for haphazard communication.

Examine the Project Team’s processes and update them to avoid repeating the same mistake on subsequent projects. In the interest of continuously improving the team’s performance and ensuring repeatable success, any practices or processes that contributed to the error occurring in the first place (or being incorporated into the final estimate, depending on where the mistake originated) should be reviewed and revised. It may also be prudent to create a process for double checking estimates if the team is concerned about similar errors occurring again.

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