The beginning of a project is an exciting time. Our team is looking forward to new challenges, and your team is enthusiastic about seeing their vision come to life. By this point, we’ve estimated the project and created a detailed SOW as well as a high-level roadmap, but everyone on both sides of the table will want to know a few important things:
- When will the project be done?
- Is the roadmap accurate or will it change?
- How do we know this project can withstand any changes and blockers that come up?
In our experience, breaking projects down into individual components and properly sizing them is essential to helping teams spread out effort, maximize bandwidth, and keep the project on track.
Here are some project sizing methods that help avoid overpromising and assist in predicting team capacity and velocity. Through these methods, the group can collect valuable project data that can help improve future sizing tasks and ultimately lead to a successful project—ensuring that both teams are happy.
Project sizing methods
There are three common ways to size works into manageable chunks, ranging from meticulous to more relaxed.
On one end of the spectrum, you have the Agile methodology with a strict set of rules and practices. With this approach, the project is broken down into individual tasks and assigned a numerical point value representing how long a task may take to complete. The more complicated a task is, the higher number of points it is assigned. The team then decides how many points it can accomplish in a defined amount of time, such as two weeks, called a Sprint. This process is refined over time to ensure a precise and accurate workflow.
A less rigid style is called T-shirt sizing. We’re all familiar with T-shirt sizes ranging from XS (extra small) to XL (extra large) and the initial concept is easy for folks to grasp. While less accurate than strict points, this method tends to be easier for new groups.
Start with a task that you know is very quick and easy, and assign this as an XS. Next, find your toughest problem to tackle—with the most unknowns—and assign it as an XL. Now that you have both sides of the spectrum defined, you can map out where each of the remaining project tasks land.
Whether we choose to go with points or t-shirt sizes, including some buffer time for unknowns is a best practice.
A third and maybe the most intuitive method is sizing using time buckets. Put simply, teams use hours and days to estimate how long a task will take.
Tasks can range from a couple of hours to an entire work week. Like T-Shirt sizing, these estimates should be compared to each other and not evaluated on an individual basis. This is the least formal method, but is also likely the most fraught with potential error.
Predicting team capacity and velocity
One of the main benefits of an accurately sized project is the ability to project a team’s working capacity and velocity. Capacity is how much work can be accomplished over a period of time, while velocity is the pace at which the work will get done.
Once this is a predictable—and most importantly, repeatable—measurement, it makes the rest of the project planning a breeze. Having this type of insight allows teams to predict the overall timeline more accurately, and ensure that the budget will cover all of the planned work, steering clear of any speed bumps in your path.
Avoiding the dangers of overpromising and underdelivering
Once we have accurate project sizing and greater insight into the project’s velocity, we can confidently have conversations with your team about what tracks of work need to be prioritized and how they fit into the upcoming plan. Once armed with this information, everyone can feel secure with the team taking on tasks, knowing that we’ll be able to hit the desired deadlines.
Over time, this process will also allow project teams to work more efficiently since they will have a sense of ownership during project task sizing. If everyone can agree about how much time a ‘Large’ task takes to complete, for example, there will be fewer surprises for everyone involved and greater overall predictability.
Using project data to continually improve sizing
It’s important to note that task sizing exercises, reviewing successful projects via retrospectives, and using historical data are all essential to improving this process for future projects.
A key element in the sizing process is having reliable project data, which allows us to look back and see how well the estimated sizes matched the actual working time. After each portion of work, we’ll look at how accurate our initial sizing was, compared to what happened in the project, and discuss it with the team to avoid that same pitfall the next time around. Continually making small tweaks to the sizes will help to increase accuracy and make this process repeatable—which is essential to successful projects.
Accurate sizing is your project’s best friend
Project sizing is not only a great tool but a necessary step when planning projects. It can set you up for success and help to create clear roadmaps and timeframes that will ensure we remain on budget. Project sizing is an iterative process, and when combined with regular touchpoints with our partners, it can help us accurately set and meet expectations.