Always Provide Accurate Estimates
Estimating how long a task will take is one of the hardest things you’ll face in your career. Sometimes you’ll be asked to provide estimates on things you’re unfamiliar with or with incomplete information, and despite this telling your boss “I can’t give you a proper estimate” just doesn’t typically work, so what do you do? Simple, give them an accurate estimate. Don’t worry I’ll explain.
Estimates aren’t fixed periods of time
One reason people have such difficulty estimating how long something will take is the see it as “this task will take X hours” the problem is, no task works in a fixed time. If I were to provide you the exact same task at different points in your life, the time it would take you to complete the task would still vary…
Instead tasks have a range and when providing estimates a range is a more accurate response. This can give your boss a better idea of the best / worst case while giving yourself a little wiggle room to absorb those unexpected snags you’re expecting to bump into.
Not enough information just means a broader range
I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had a boss pull me aside and say, “I want to make a website that _____… How long would that take you?” In other words you’ve been provided such an absurdly low amount of information that your chances of an accurate fixed point estimate are so close to zero you’d have better odds of winning the lottery… multiple times in a row…
When your boss comes up to you with the vague “make me a website that…” as always you’ll say you’re going to need more information and try to get more details, eventually though you’ll hit that point where the boss just wants a number, likely to report to their boss. This is where you give your range. Typically the first time people do this you’ll hear something like “between 15 minutes and 15 years is the best estimate I can give without some more information” then proceed to ask things that would help you narrow down that time.
Not everyone will be one board with this idea
Some offices may not take kindly to this approach. Just the same as it’s hard to break yourself from giving a single specific time, it can be challenging to accept one. If you explain the reasoning for the range many people will come around.
Other offices understand bad estimates can be a VERY costly thing depending on the nature of your business. It also helps people understand the potential cost of trying to have someone actively working on a half-baked idea. Just taking a little extra planning time can get you more information to provide a better estimate.
Have fun with it
When so little information is available that you can’t even give the vaguest of guesses as to how long it’ll take you can have fun with your boss by having fun with estimates. For example I one gave the estimate “Based on the limited information I currently have it’ll take somewhere between 30 minutes and the heat death of the universe to finish” (you probably should make sure the individual has sense of humor before you do this though)