Matthew Birken, PMI-ACP, Future Colossal, New York, New York, USA
Right resources at the wrong time?
Both can cripple project momentum—and send shock waves across the project portfolio, even threatening the organization's bottom line. And the talent stakes remain high: 32 percent of CEOs point to availability of key skills as a threat to growth, according to a 2020 global PwC survey.
As more organizations embrace agile or hybrid, there's a common misconception that resource allocation will be more challenging, says Matthew Birken, PMI-ACP, experience producer, Future Colossal, an innovation lab that provides immersive experiences, New York, New York, USA. “In agile, you're planning a few weeks ahead, deadlines are broken into sprints and delivery is made every two weeks, versus potentially months in a waterfall system,” he says. But the greater emphasis on short-term needs can be a real strength, as teams are primed for flexibility.
To deliver stronger results through better resource planning, consider these five insights from seasoned project managers.
Don't Stop Iterating
When mapping out resources, keep in mind that “at most organizations, a resource is not dedicated to one project at a time, but partially assigned to multiple projects,” says Syed Waqar Hussain, PMP, senior project manager, TPS Worldwide, Karachi, Pakistan.
—Syed Waqar Hussain, PMP, TPS Worldwide, Karachi, Pakistan
Mr. Hussain accounts for that in his resource plan, noting, for example, which developers might have 30 percent of their time allocated to other initiatives. He also builds in float time so that he can adapt to external demands placed on his team. On a two-month project to deliver a financial mobile app last year, he added a half month of float time. When a developer had to leave the project briefly to address a production issue for the client, Mr. Hussain had built-in time to spare.
The resource plan becomes a living document—one that gets revised throughout the project. And that plan tracks not only availability but also productivity. For instance, if team members are available eight hours a day, they won't be productive that entire time. They'll take lunch and other breaks. So their productivity might be 70 percent of their capacity, and the capacity plan should indicate as much.
Project managers might be tempted to load up on resources to mitigate the risk of losing them later to other projects. That can backfire, Mr. Birken says. “If you're constantly overestimating your resourcing needs, that's not a good plan because then you're creating inefficiencies, which wastes time and money and could impact your deadline, or worse, your end goal.”
Overestimating resources also takes a bite out of the portfolio: “It's important to look at all the projects as a whole because my needs are not more important than anyone else's,” Mr. Birken says. To ensure the right balance of resources, keep an eye on the burn-down charts, which show the work left to do and the amount of time left to do it.
At the same time, cultivate cross-functional teams when possible. A diverse skill set means greater flexibility to meet project needs, “and that minimizes reliance on resources outside the team,” says Noha Shaban, PMI-ACP, PMP, director and project manager, Value Driven Project Consultancy, Melbourne, Australia.
Thread the Needle
“Normally with agile projects, the main constraint is time,” Ms. Shaban says. When the schedule cannot be budged, project managers can apply resource smoothing, or adding resources.
However, agile projects can face resourcing challenges when a particular skill set is not within the agile squad and specialized resources are required, either on the bench or through the client, she says. In these situations, traditional approaches of resource smoothing and resource leveling can be applied. For instance, Ms. Shaban worked on a project to implement a human resources tool for a healthcare client. The project involved a legacy tool that the client had to decommission at a certain time or else pay to renew it. There was an analyst required, but they were not part of the agile team and had to be engaged through the client.
By contrast, project managers apply resource leveling—or moving the work of limited resources further down the timeline—when the project's schedule or feature delivery dates can be flexible.
For instance, while working on a project for a client in the education sector, there was a requirement to integrate with its finance system. But the client's finance analyst wasn't available when that user story was scheduled. So Ms. Shaban discussed the situation with the product owner, who decided that because the feature did not have to be released to market at a particular time, the project could accommodate the client's resource and schedule work on that feature later in the timeline.
“You use resource smoothing when you have a time constraint and you cannot change the milestone or release schedule,” Ms. Shaban says. “You use resource leveling when you can be flexible with timelines or release dates.”
—Noha Shaban, PMI-ACP, PMP, Value Driven Project Consultancy, Melbourne, Australia
Spike as Needed
Because agile teams work in a self-organizing fashion, they can collaborate to determine the complex or exceptionally large user stories that will have greater resourcing demands. When a team spots those situations, it might decide to try a spike—a test in which the team gathers information and conducts research to find out what exactly it will need to deliver that sprint's solution. In that way, the team can determine its own resource allocation.
Defend the Demand
At Future Colossal, project managers and production directors meet several times each week to review their projects’ talent needs. “We're a small company so we all share talent and everyone has to jump on different projects,” Mr. Birken says.
When the talent needs outstrip the talent supply, Mr. Birken and his colleagues each have to make their case. They present verbal and written documentation of their upcoming milestones and the resources they need to achieve them. “With constrained resources, it's always important to prove the resources you need and when,” Mr. Birken says. “You have to stand up for your project's needs. If you don't say what you need, you won't get it.”
For example, on a project to deliver an interactive experience for a client, Mr. Birken explained to his production director that one of his key developers had conflicting commitments: a weeklong vacation, work for a vendor and another project deadline. “I explained that if I don't get an additional resource, the client can't approve the project and the install date will be delayed. Not getting an additional resource was not an option,” he says. Mr. Birken ended up getting the resource his project needed. PM
In project management parlance, “resource” can mean anything from a person to a piece of machinery. But people aren't robots—and both their capacities and their capabilities can be heavily influenced by things like leadership styles and team dynamics.
“As project managers, we assign resources according to their capabilities, but we also have to care about the team's chemistry,” says Syed Waqar Hussain, PMP, senior project manager, TPS Worldwide, Karachi, Pakistan. “If they don't have a good bond, they won't deliver on time.”
On a project last year to deliver a QR code mobile payment app to a bank, Mr. Hussain's team consisted of members with varying levels of agile experience. “The developers didn't understand the business analysts, and the quality assurance people didn't understand the developers,” he says. “They all had different mindsets.”
So he asked the CEO to sit down with the team and deliver a motivational speech on the value of a cross-functional team working together to achieve the project's benefits. That one executive-led meeting made all the difference. “For the next few months, we worked as one team toward one goal,” Mr. Hussain says.