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Estimating the Business Analysis Phase of a Project. Is it Even Possible?

Years ago I worked on a large effort to reengineer a distribution center for a major retailer. We provided an estimate for both the business analysis work and for the entire project, which would involve the organization’s first use of Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), new business processes, many software changes, and the purchase of new barcode scanners. The business analysis effort took far longer than we anticipated, and at the end of it we refined our estimate for the total project. When we reported the new estimate to the president of the company, he literally pounded his fist on the table and asked, “How did we get to this point? Why didn’t we know sooner? You’ve already spent all this time on the project and what do we have to show for it? Nothing! Absolutely nothing!”

I have always thought of business analysis as the most ambiguous and the most fun of the project phases (by phase I mean phase, increment, or iteration). However, for many years it was my least favorite phase to estimate. I felt like I was guessing, simply pulling numbers out of the air. No wonder we were so far off.

Estimating the business analysis phase(s) is not easy. It is not hard, but it takes a willingness to think about exactly what work will be produced, and many business analysts do not have the patience. So for those of you who do not have the “stomach” to spend the required time to estimate business analysis, here are some tips.

  1. Break the effort into manageable pieces. We can estimate a whole lot better when our business analysis phase(s) are small.
  2. As we progressively elaborate our requirements, we can progressively elaborate our estimates. We go from Rough Order of Magnitude (ROM) to budgetary (deliverables identified) to definitive (requirements defined to a low level of detail).
  3. It is helpful to use a variety of estimating techniques. When we’re first asked how long business analysis will take, we really cannot be precise. We use analogous estimating, or experience with a previous project. If we have good history, we might be able to use parametric estimates. For example, if we know that it takes two hours to model a business process and we have five processes to model, it will take ten hours to model business processes. Providing detail on each of these techniques is beyond the scope of this blog, however.
  4. I have found it helpful to brainstorm with the people who are actually going to do the work. They usually have a more realistic idea of what needs to be done and how long it will take. I also like yellow sticky notes, since they can be easily added, taken away, and moved.
  5. But here’s the real key to estimating business analysis. Identify all the deliverables (work products, artifacts) you will produce during the business analysis effort. It is essential to first identify the approach you’re going to take, whether plan-or change-driven (Waterfall/Agile). It is also helpful to use the BABOK knowledge areas to identify which work products will be completed. During the course of an Elicitation event, for example, we might send out an agenda (one work product), update our traceability matrix (another deliverable), create an “as-is” process model (another deliverable), and update our list of issues (yet another deliverable). Next we think of the tasks needed to complete each work product, and finally how many hours the task will take.

Of course the real, real key is having the courage to communicate bad news. Which brings me back to the president pounding his fist. What I should have done was reported the plan vs. actual of the business analysis effort regularly, rather than surprising him after months of work.

What a lesson learned!

Elizabeth Larson, PMP, CBAP, CEO and Co-Principal of Watermark Learning ( has over 25 years of experience in business, project management, requirements analysis, business analysis and leadership. She has presented workshops, seminars, and presentations since 1996 to thousands of participants on three different continents. Elizabeth’s speaking history includes, PMI North American, EMEA, and Asia-Pacific Global Congresses, various chapters of PMI, and ProjectWorld and Business Analyst World. Elizabeth was the lead contributor to the PMBOK® Guide – Fourth Edition in the new Collect Requirements Section 5.1 and to the BABOK® Guide – 2.0 Chapter on Business Analysis Planning and Monitoring. Elizabeth has co-authored the CBAP Certification Study Guide and the Practitioner’s Guide to Requirements Planning, as well as industry articles that have been published worldwide. She can be reached at [email protected]

Elizabeth Larson

Elizabeth Larson, has been the CEO for Watermark Learning as well as a consultant and advisor for Educate 360. She has over 35 years of experience in project management and business analysis. Elizabeth has co-authored five books and chapters published in four additional books, as well as articles that appear regularly in BA Times and Project Times. Elizabeth was a lead author/expert reviewer on all editions of the BABOK® Guide, as well as the several of the PMI standards. Elizabeth enjoys traveling, hiking, reading, and spending time with her 6 grandsons and 1 granddaughter.