We all do it. Engineers do it more than most. Managers do it more than almost anyone. Project managers reach a point at which it is almost second nature. Some of us do it more than we should, and others need to experiment and do it a bit more. A few do it for recreation, but most often it is part of the job. Though we might sometimes be unaware, it is one of the most common human activities. And it is often as much a curse as it is a blessing. Estimating, that is.
We hear it during the early contract negotiations and throughout the course of the project. How many times are we asked for a "ballpark estimate"? As unprepared as we might be to supply such a guess, the reality is that clients and other stakeholders depend on our professional expertise to frame their decisions within familiar territory. We can speak all day of kips, cubic feet, and degrees, but the common denominator of most decisions is (whether we like it or not) dollars, euros, and rupees. If we cannot provide the context necessary for a client to have an adequate frame of reference, the entire relationship is at risk. But it is not a one-way street.
Whenever I’m asked for an estimate, whether by a client, colleague, or the public, my first reaction is, "Who wants to know and what are you going to use it for?" It is just as important for me to trust the recipient of the estimate as much as they should trust my experience to provide it. Let’s look at this mini-negotiation from both sides to see if there is any way we can improve on a difficult predicament.
From the consultant’s perspective, the client is putting us in a tough spot—especially if we are in the midst of a contract negotiation in which any figure that is thrown out will "anchor" the rest of the discussion. Too high of an estimate and we risk running the prospect off. Too low, and we must face the future questions and incredulity (even if we have qualified, disclaimed, and otherwise beaten the "this-is-only-an-estimate" horse). We scrape for any bit of additional information that may help our cause. We might stall for time, even if it’s a precious few minutes to "check with a colleague." We may try to rephrase in technical terms what the client is really asking for, hoping that he will understand that this is not an easy estimate to provide off the top of the head.
Regardless of the tactic, it is important to remember that any of these approaches is perfectly acceptable, though one may be more appropriate than another depending on the client. What the client really wants, though, is to evaluate mentally the estimate and its consequences in the context of others that he may have received or heard about.
The professional is expected to faithfully present the requested information, insofar as it is within his or her area of expertise. But it is also completely ethical to refuse to provide an estimate if the professional believes that it will be misused, misunderstood, or otherwise used against him or her.
So, what can the client do to raise the consultant’s comfort level enough to provide a worthwhile estimate? First, as noted above, there is a minimum level of trust required. If you have cold-called a consultant for a ballpark estimate without any prior relationship, do not expect to get very meaningful feedback. At best, if your request is somewhat typical, you may receive a range of values, which if you are lucky, will remain within one order of magnitude. More likely, you will be asked for a great deal more information than you actually have. This happens quite often during a due-diligence investigation and the caller really doesn’t know that much about what the project will even be. The consultant, however, is attempting to visualize the project in the context of others with which he or she is familiar, and which will provide some basis for the estimate (sound familiar?) Without some leeway on one side or the other, there will be a stalemate.
For better or worse, however, the burden most often falls to the professional. The client or prospect has come to the "expert" to get some answers. It is the professional’s job to know which questions to ask to frame the problem properly. But the professional also must know to back away from digging himself or herself into a hole by assuaging someone who may not grasp the limitations and consequences of any "ballpark" estimation.