Everyone Should Estimate, Including Marketers

Posted 12/18/2014 7:20 PM by Jeff Julian

Do you estimate your work?  In the area of business I come from, software development, the answer was typically yes.  If the next question was, “Are you good at it?” I would often hear no.  Now that I have transitioned into a marketing role and our customer base has transitioned to the marketing department, I hear the question being asked far less.  In fact, I have found most people just don’t estimate their work in marketing.  If we are going to be good at marketing, or any career we pursue, we have to be good at estimating our work.  The benefits go far beyond just our interactions with our boss; they can help streamline entire organizations.

How much does a car weigh?

Don’t Google it, but how much does a Toyota Prius weigh?  I am not a car guy and even though I used to own one of these, I have no idea.  When I think about weighing something, I typically pick it up.  Since that is not possible, I am left with an uneducated guess at this point. 

There is another approach; instead of taking a wild guess, instead of pulling the number from thin air, let’s break it down into parts.  We know a Prius is a hybrid so it has a large battery, transmission, and a gas powered engine.  We know it has 4 doors, a back hatch, and a hood.  The car has 5 wheels including the spare and seats 5 people.  We can assume it has a smaller gas tank, but we should weigh it as if it was empty.  Also, the whole thing is held together by a frame. 

I am sure some car guy out there could list off a few hundred parts I am forgetting, but we have hit the major pieces.  If we look at these individual pieces, we can start to match them up with other things in our life that we do know the weight of.  We might also have experience changing a tire or two and can remember how much that weighs. 

Now as we put this list together after we made a more educated guess based on smaller chunks, we would have a pretty good idea of how much this car weighs.  It might not be exact, but it most likely be better than our first guess.

The work we are asked to estimate is very similar to this example.  It is made up of smaller tasks that we accomplish during our days that we know with pretty good accuracy how long they should take. 

This blog post for example is not just one task.  I have to create the copy, determine the headline, find an image to represent the topic, create images for social sharing, review the draft, have someone else review the draft, publish it, and schedule social content.   Each one of these tasks is relatively small and I have a good idea about how long they should take.  After I roll those numbers up, I have a pretty accurate estimate on how long it should take me to create this blog post.  After I do this with a few blog posts, I will have a pretty good idea how long it typically takes me to write a blog post.  Now when I am asked to estimate how long it will take me to work on a bigger task that has three blog posts associated with it, I can estimate those three post much easier and start working through the other pieces associated with the larger request. 

Yes Virginia, creative people can and should estimate!

Stuffing items on an editorial calendar is great for setting up priority, but it does nothing to determine if it is possible to complete.

I have heard in my career over and over that creative people cannot estimate.  Unfortunately, that is just an excuse.  I agree, it is hard to estimate; but I have yet to see in any creative field, people who are doing an amazing job estimating. 

As we start developing more content, we can get better at estimating, but the ability to measure throughput becomes more important.

We all want to contribute to the company, but overworking causes a lack of performance even though we think we can get more done.  If you are always behind on a deadline and you did not have an estimating process you were part of to set the expectation, you should not expect to find a pace you can sustain.  Your home life, sleep habits, and stress level will be affected.

Finding your sustainable pace

In Agile, estimates allow us to determine timeframes for delivery of work and that is important.  However, the most important aspect is helping us determine a sustainable pace.  Sustainable pace is a rhythm of your work that can be repeated for a very long time.  Finding the right amount of work for you to meet the performance requirements and allow you to not become exhausted.

A good analogy is running.  If you have ever watched a big city marathon on TV, you see the front runners holding a pace around 5 minutes a mile.  It is like they set cruise control after the start and hold on until mile 26.  If they jump the gun and try to go faster too quickly, they will burn through their energy stores and lose the race.  These runners are in tune with their bodies and know the exact point of exhaustion to maximize performance. 

You and I are most likely different from these runners and we could barely hold their pace for 30 seconds where they hold on for a little over two hours.  In fact, if we start running today for the first time, we would fail often and will need to break out a run then walk strategy.  After a few weeks of running a few minutes, walking a few minutes, we will start to be able run for longer periods of time.  It is not sustainable, but it is getting closer.  Then when a few months have gone by, with enough practice we should have defined a pace that we can maintain and run for a few miles.  This is our sustainable pace.  The more we work at it, the more consistent this pace will be for us.

In marketing, we have this same gearing system.  Many of us know how to walk well but to due lack of energy or motivation, we only run when we are told and do so for a short period of time.  At the point of exhaustion, we stick our thumb out and hitch a ride somewhere else.  Some of us just keep walking even though we are asked to run and take the hit from management when pressure comes down. 

There is another answer.  If we know we are going to be asked to run, we can start to establish our sustainable pace.  We can tell management what is possible now, give them a plan of attack to up our performance, and start doing the work.  Once we have found our sustainable pace, we can give more accurate time of arrival at the finish line and set goals and expectations that align with our known performance.

Enough about running, how do I get started?

If you have never applied an estimate to your work or you are just bad at it, start small.  Tackle estimating the tasks you perform in a day instead of what is on your entire plate.  When you arrive to work every day for a few weeks, create a list of known items you will be working on for that day and  estimate each one; you can use an hourly scale or 30 minute blocks to get started. Don’t use smaller chunks of time than that as you will quickly get in the weeds and forget about disruptions.

After a task is complete, highlight it and write down the actual time it took, in the same time scale used to estimate.  If an item comes up during the day that is new, use a different color pen and write it on the list with an estimate.  Using another color will allow you to track how well you prepared your day and how much others effect your work.

At the end of the day, set aside some time to review and reflect on the tasks you accomplished.  One added benefit of this process is you should not go home feeling like you accomplished nothing, you will have a list proving otherwise.  Review the actuals versus estimates and if you were off (under or over), review the criteria you used to determine that estimate and make any adjustments to your baseline.  Next time you have an item that is the same or similar, you will have new information about how long it should take and will be able to make a more accurate estimate.

Closing remarks

Estimating is essential to everything we do in the workforce, but most of us are not good at it.  I will continue producing articles in this series to help you develop new techniques to get you out of the run-walk technique established with daily estimates.  For now we should start practicing.  If you need some advice, please feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn.

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