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Estimating Projects with Uncertain Activity Times

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  • 0:03 Recognizing Uncertainty
  • 1:47 Strategies
  • 2:09 Identifying and…
  • 3:54 Applying Probabilistic…
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Masood Faizi

As a leader and innovator in the IT industry, Masood has leveraged his mastery of business execution to oversee multi-million dollar initiatives to success.

Effective management of uncertain activity times will improve the quality of project schedules and reduce surprises down the line. A practical 2-step approach can be used to derive better estimates.

Recognizing Uncertainty

One of the most frustrating moments of the human experience is waiting for the cable guy to show up. In most cases, rather than providing a specific appointment time, customers are given a range of 4-8 hours for the technician to arrive. Once on site, there is no guarantee all the equipment or parts necessary to complete the task will be available. So, what's missing link? In effect, the cable guy is not adequately managing his schedule's uncertain activity times!

Schedule is one of the three pillars of project management, along with its cohorts of cost and scope. Typically, in a linear project, activities happen in sequence. Task A is prerequisite for task B, task B is prerequisite for task C. . . and so on, and so forth. In this scenario, project tasks are treated much like an assembly line where the deliverable, or the result from a task, contributes to methodically building a final product or arriving at a desired outcome. When the schedule of a project is well-understood with fixed activity time estimates, or durations, it said to be deterministic,

This approach works well in projects that have both well-defined and well-understood activities. Life, however, is not so straightforward. Often, when there is technology or some sort of innovation involved, the work packages (or groups of similar tasks) are not so clear cut. For instance, what does the project schedule look like for the creation of a new social media product or smart phone application?

Strategies

Two key strategies can be employed to produce higher quality project schedules when there is uncertainty around activity times:

  1. Identify work packages with unknown or uncertain activity times and break them down into a series of smaller work packages.
  2. Apply probabilistic scheduling methods to highly variable work packages.

Identifying and Breaking Down Work

The goal of work package decomposition is to maximize the amount of known, or well-understood, sets of work.

Consider the development of a new social media product for pets called BARK. The new social media empire would consist of a website, smartphone application, and devices attached to pets that live stream video. Investors like the concept, but they want to know when the team would be ready to go-live with a beta version. They have heard rumors of a competing product, scheduled for release within the next 12 months. The investors ask, 'Can BARK go-live in half that time?'

Breaking down the components of BARK is fairly straight-forward. A few things the product will need include a user management system to sign-up new accounts, a database to track user actions, and a simple user interface with a catchy logo. All of the common tasks can be easily identified and estimated based on experience or other industry references.

The major unknown, challenging the success of the BARK, is how the live-streaming of animals being cute will actually be executed. There is no existing wearable device that is specifically designed for dogs or cats to record video - let alone live-stream content.

Constructing the pet wearable device should be treated as a work package. Drilling down into it further showed the team that two-thirds of the development would involve bringing together known technologies familiar to BARK engineers, such as incorporating a mobile phone camera and WiFi communications. The key element that would differentiate the device would be centered around advanced stabilization.

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