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Estimating actual project progress

Man-months are a poor gauge of progress, and Gantt charts don't always tell the whole story. Expert Bas de Baar proposes a different method for visualizing project progress.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

I have a wish for 2008. Not world peace. Not an improved climate. Who cares about gun control. I wish that everyone who is involved in projects finally gets the fact that just spending hours or money has nothing to do with actually making progress. You see, this is much better than a better environment.

Frederick Brooks already said this very elegantly in his 1975 classic, The Mythical Man-Month: "The bearing of a child takes nine months, no matter how many women are assigned." In the communication on the timing aspects of a software project, many mistakes are caused by the use of the unit man-month. Like the word says, it indicates actually "a month spent by one person." To determine the cost of the project, it is a fairly good unit: building the darn thing takes three man-months. You know what a guy costs per month, so you can do the math. But while the time passes, this statement will be shortened into "three months," either in written word, or in the minds of the people involved.

"How long does the project take?"

"I think around 6 months."

And now, for the entertaining part, watch the most likely response:

"We need to finish the project sooner."

"We'll add a resource. Problem fixed."

The problem with this kind of reasoning is the fact that some tasks cannot be split. I cannot because of sequential dependence, or just because it is not possible (like the birth thing). The trick is that a man-month is an indicator for cost, and not for progress.

Stakeholders surrounding project see progress as the coloring in of their Gantt charts. They look at those taskbars, and when the darn thing is half full, we're halfway.

For those that are new to this, a Gantt chart is an overview of tasks. You put weeks, days, or months at one side, and the tasks at the other. You draw fat lines to indicate the periods in which the tasks will be performed. Next to the task, put the name of the person who will do the job, and you come a long way. So, you see, you are only taking "time spent" into account.

I have thought about it for a while, and I finally come up with a way to explain this to managers. I tried shouting. I tried slapping. But I settled for something they recognize, an image they see the entire day during work hours (when they are "researching on the Internet"): The download progress bar.

It shows you how far along you are downloading a file. It tells you how far you have to go. It tells you how fast you are going. In the end it will be all you have to know.

It calculates the time based upon the total amount of bits it has to get in total and the amount it has downloaded until now. If it took you one minute to download 2 MB, the file of 4 MB will have a remaining download time of another minute.

Project management resources
Estimating project costs, writing project reports 

When software projects run over 

Forms of Software Cost Estimation -- Chapter 3, Estimating Software Costs, 2nd Edition

Next time when discussing progress, think "How many bytes of the dirty movie do I already have?" Don't think "How many seconds does Windows estimate to download the goodies?"

Ok. Now that I have fixed that once and for all, what does this Gore guy want with this climate stuff?

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

This was last published in January 2008

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