How to create more accurate project estimates

by Natalie Rohde

So you’ve just engaged a new client and they need a project estimate. Do you quickly think of some numbers that sound good, break them down in a spreadsheet, add some extra margin, and send it off to the client?

We didn't think so. You’re better than that!

Creative projects can be ambiguous and difficult to estimate, especially if you’re branching out into a new territory of work. But taking a data-driven approach to project estimation will give your organization confidence that you’re charging clients appropriately.

As you refine the process and get better at estimating the time and cost it takes to complete different types of projects, your team will gain a clearer view of what to expect in the future.

In this article, we're going to help you create more accurate project estimates in 10,000ft. No spreadsheets or random margin multipliers involved. We promise.

For data-driven project estimates, use the right tools

Historically, project estimates were mostly done in spreadsheets. But trying to account for all of your resourcing data in a spreadsheet is problematic because you're estimating in a data vacuum. A spreadsheet might help you outline what you think it will take to deliver the work, but you're missing out on how those resourcing needs map to critical details like your team's actual availability.

10,000ft makes this easy with a dynamic resourcing schedule and simple, predictive timesheets, so you can access accurate operational data in real-time and quickly find the answers you need.

Questions to ask before getting started

You need to gather some key pieces of information before you get started.

  • How high-priority is this project?
  • Do you have an ideal team in mind for the project whose schedules you’ll be planning around?
  • Or is there a hard start date, so you just need to find the first available group of people who have the required skills?
  • Are there any project requirements that you anticipate might take extra time? The more unfamiliar the type of work, the more likely that this is the case.

Whether the answers to these questions are determined by your team or they’re client-driven, understanding them early on is critical to creating an accurate project estimate.

Once you have these details locked down, it’s time to set up your project in 10,000ft.

Estimating a project in 10,000ft

1. Check your team's availability

First, pull up the People View of the resourcing schedule in 10,000ft to get a sense of your team’s upcoming staffing capacity. Here, you can either look at a heat map view of your team’s availability, or expand full details about upcoming project assignments, vacations, etc.

To hone in on a specific group of people, we recommend filtering down to see team members in required disciplines, roles, or other custom criteria like skillsets and office location (use Custom Fields to define these details). From there, pivot the schedule to see team members with the most availability during your project timeframe.

If it’s a high priority project where you’ll be moving other work around anyway, you can jump right into the planning phase.

2. Create a tentative project

Create a new project, set it as tentative, and start entering basic information like client name, project name, start + end dates, and phases, as well as any custom criteria you might want to include like the type of work, project lead, or client contact info.

3. Set your time and fee budget to zero

Determine how you’ll be tracking the time and/or fee budgets, at either the project level or phase level, and set both budgets to “0”.

4. Begin scheduling the new project

Then, add phases and start resourcing the project. As you assign team members to the project, you can adjust their allocations based on the type of activity and your best guess of how long it will take each person to complete the work. Don’t worry about making these assignment allocations perfect — you can always make changes later on.

Tip: If you don’t know all of the specific team members who will be doing the work, but you still want to carve out budget for a particular discipline or type of person, you can use Placeholder resources. We’ll go into more detail later in this article.

5. Check your future scheduled time and fees

As you build out the resourcing plan, the time and fee budgets under Project Status will update in real time so you can monitor the impact of each team member on the budget.

Keep in mind that because bill rates in 10,000ft should already be calculated to include your margin, the fee budget will represent the total you’ll actually be charging the client.

Note: If bill rates are unique for this client or project, you can either edit them in the discipline / role matrix when you first set up the project, or make per-person changes after you add all your resources.

6. Run a budget report

Once you've mapped out the resourcing plan in 10,000ft and the project is fully staffed, it's time to run a report to see the full break down of the project work. From the project page, click the Budget Report link.

7. Export the budget report

Are you ready to share your project estimate with your internal team or the client? Export the budget report in .CSV format to create the formal project estimate in a custom-branded document or third-party tool.

8. Update the project time and fee budgets

Now, navigate back to the Edit Project page and update the time and fee budgets from “0” to the new totals for each phase (or the entire project, if you’re only using a top-level budget). This is your project baseline.

9. Change the project type to Confirmed

Once the project has the green light to move forward, change the project type from Tentative to Confirmed.

Tip: If the project start date changes but the project length remains the same, shift the whole project (or particular phases) to maintain the phase lengths and assignment details.

Unexpected changes will inevitably come up throughout the project. As you iterate the staffing plan, your changes will map against that baseline you set in the beginning.

When your team members track time against the project, you can also see over/under budget projections in real time, along with reports on estimated time vs. actual time spent. The key here is to not change the baseline throughout the project, so in the end you can measure what went as planned and what took more or less time to complete compared to what you originally mapped out.

Estimating a project with an unknown team

If you’re starting from scratch and you don’t know who will be working on the project, add Placeholder resources to indicate the type of person you’ll need to do the work.

First, in Account Settings > Placeholders, you can define roles and disciplines like Senior Designer and Junior Developer (or just Designer and Developer). You can even include average bill rates or custom criteria to define specific information for each role. For example, you might have a placeholder for a Senior Designer in the New York office who has experience working with retail clients on branding projects (Role: Senior / Discipline: Designer / Office Location: New York / Skills: Retail, Branding).

If you want to include bill rates for Placeholder resources, follow the previous steps to create a project estimate by building out a tentative project.

As you get closer to the launch date or as the project becomes more defined, simply reassign the work from Placeholder resources to real people and adjust allocations as necessary.

Tip: This is also a great way to set up project templates for quicker project set up in the future. For example, you might know that a standard branding project takes two months and typically requires three designers at 75% capacity, two developers at 100% capacity, one project manager at 50% capacity, etc. All of these assignments can be added to a template as Placeholder resources. Then, when new branding projects come up, you’ll already have an outline established so you’re not starting from scratch every time.

Forecasting and estimating projects in the future

As you complete more projects in 10,000ft, you’ll gather valuable data to help you improve future estimates by understanding where projects went according to plan or where they got derailed. Learn more about reports you can run to get important insights about your projects.

At 10,000ft, we want to help you visually plan and manage your current projects easily, and help you quickly surface historical data so you can better predict future work and set honest expectations with your clients. By improving how you estimate and track project results, you'll gain tighter control over your organization’s entire schedule and project pipeline.