Work overload

what can we do about it?


by Jay Christensen, PMP

Take the time to make decisions upfront that can prioritize the project workload and help ease the project manager's stressload.

IN TODAY'S PROJECT ENVIRONMENT, project managers and project team members are frustrated and dissatisfied with the quantity and quality of project results. A primary cause of this situation is that the organization has released more projects than there are people to work on them effectively. In addition, priorities are not set to help people understand which projects get their attention. Let's discuss a number of alternatives to address these problems. The techniques are intended to be used by project managers and project team members.

This is terrible! This can't go on!” Mia thought to herself as she walked down the hall to her manager's office. Getting to this point had taken her eight months of internal conflict, arguing with herself about whether a workload discussion was appropriate or whether it would be a bad career move. She had now decided that the time was right to have the discussion.

“Looks like there is something troubling you. Is there anything I can do to help?” her boss asked as Mia sat down in his office. Larry, her boss, ordinarily had a brisk, impatient, let's-get-on-with-it temperament.Today, she thought she heard compassion and caring in his voice.This triggered a willingness to be open, forthright, and thorough in her description of the situation.

“Yes, there is,” she said. “I have way too much work! I feel rotten! I haven't had a good night's rest for a week and a half. I obsess over the details and problems with the projects I am working on. My projects are behind, and my operational support activities are suffering! My family is constantly complaining about the amount of time I am at work. I am exhausted, worn out, and burned out. I have too many project responsibilities. Coupled with my operational requirements, it is just too much. I need help.”

Larry leaned forward, hands clasped, putting his arms on the desk. From the way he looked, she thought he was about to go ballistic. She had totally misread the situation. After a pause, he said, “Mia, this behavior is not like you.You have always accepted your responsibilities without complaint. All of us are too busy. Yes, the workload is heavy. That is the way it is.You are one of the most talented people we have. The organization is depending on you to manage these projects successfully. And, in your operational area, you are the most knowledgeable person. No one else can support the customer as well as you.Yes, the situation is challenging. No question. I can approve several days of vacation for you, but beyond that, there is little I can do.”

Do either of these people sound like you?

A Most Prevalent Problem

The described scenario is one of the most prevalent problems that project management trainers and consultants hear. Organizations are staffed extremely lean, yet the same mind-set is not applied to the number of project or operational assignments. Movement of projects through the pipeline and the delivery of results are severely diminished in this environment. Management erroneously believes that the larger the number of projects under way, the higher the number of results delivered. The problem is that people spend such tiny fragments of time on a huge number of activities that no significant progress occurs. And a portion of the time that they do spend is devoted to ramp-up activities; that is, “Where was I? What was the last thing I did? What is the next thing to do?” Several proven techniques can help people find mutually satisfactory alternatives in this environment.

Completing Projects in an Uncontrolled Environment

Mia mentally reconfirmed her resolve to present not only the problem, but also several alternatives to correct the situation. She replied, “Larry, I have thought of several potential solutions.We can…”

Larry raised his hand, indicating that discussion was over. He said, “Are we finished? I have another meeting.”

We are talking about accomplishing project results in a chaotic, uncontrolled environment. Mia recognized the need to manage the project activity and suggested implementation of ideas or processes, without success.

Mia asked Loren, her associate in the same department, what he would do. His reply was pretty typical:“Increase the length of the your workweek and resolve to work smarter and harder.” Mia had already done both, which had resulted in increased work, decreased efficiency, and burnout.

I suggest a solution in which Mia has complete control and which she can implement immediately, on her own, without approval from anyone. It consists of four actions:

1. Using her knowledge and best judgement, pick the most important project. Consider the project as the No. 1 priority, whether or not it is.

2. Expound frequently on the benefits of the project.

3. Adopt a high-visibility profile.

4. Spend at least 15 percent of the workweek visiting resource providers (functional/department managers) reconfirming their commitment to provide the project with resources.

By considering the project as priority No. 1, the project manager is treating this project as more important than all others in the company and thereby reconfirming the project's importance to the company. What if the person has multiple projects? The situation is that the project manager is going in so many directions at once that nothing is getting done. Right? So, start with the best choice. Get that project organized, planned, staffed properly, and headed in the right direction. Then, work on the next, and so forth.

Expounding on the benefits of the project means connecting project results to significant improvements in the operational environment. Or relating the project back to an organizational goal, which, when the project is completed, will either accomplish or contribute to the accomplishment of the goal. Examples of goals are introducing new products, increasing market share, reducing operating expenses, improving service delivery, and increasing customer satisfaction.

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Adopting a high-visibility profile means letting everyone in the organization know what the project is about, what is the major deliverable, and who is the project manager. The organization is more likely to support the project if it knows why the project is being done and what the benefits will be. This means advertising all of the beneficial reasons for doing the project.

By staying in front of the resource providers, the project manager is letting them know that the project is still under way, the organization still expects results, resources are still needed, and the project manager is being persistent in completing the project. This also allows potential problems to surface early and in advance of impact, enabling the project manager to resolve the problem with little or no impact.

The actions above represent a major “squeaky-wheel solution,” which can help. Now, let's assume that the organization is willing to consider additional processes. Another option is project prioritization.

Prioritizing Projects

The squeaky-wheel solution is intended for use in a nonprioritized project environment. Of course, the remedy is to prioritize projects! Can project managers do this? Sometimes. They can always recommend that a prioritization process be established and can suggest several prioritization alternatives. Here are a couple of guidelines:

Creat a complete list (inventory) of projects. In a cross-functional environment, the list contains projects from each major level within the organization, such as corporate, division (or group), and department.

After the inventory has been compiled, prioritize the projects using a whole number (1, 2, 3, …). The whole number removes any ambiguity about which project is prioritized over another. A high, medium, or low scheme will not work! If two projects are classified as high priorities, which one gets the resources? Prioritization also implies which commitments will be met and which will not.

Since everyone has an agenda and his or her favorite project, identify a referee to oversee the prioritization process. This can be a prioritization committee, the chairperson of the committee, or an individual. If this is the organization's first attempt at prioritizing projects, then use the simplest, most straightforward approach. Priorities should be reviewed about every 30 days. There are exceptions (“emergency hot” projects), and they need to be addressed; however, the idea is to gradually reduce the volatility of the prioritized list. Otherwise, the organization will resume the school-of-fish behavior where everyone swings to the priority of the hour.

After projects are prioritized, draw a capacity line on the prioritized list. Projects above the capacity line will be staffed appropriately; those below the line will wait for resources to be freed up as projects above the line are completed.

When projects are put on the list, log the date of entry and project name. This allows aging of entries on the list. If a project never moves above the capacity line after a specified period of time (for example, a year or 18 months), it is not attracting sufficient attention or interest to warrant further consideration and is a candidate for removal.

Individual Workload Planning


Exhibit 1. An individual planning sheet is representative of the amount of work that a person has on his or her plate in three categories: projects, operations, miscellaneous.The purpose of the document is to enable a meaningful and productive discussion with a person's manager regarding workload and priorities. It also can be used as a starting point for resource loading and capacity planning across the department or organization.

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Where is the capacity line drawn? Just below the last project that the organization can staff properly. Where is that? When prioritization is first being implemented, the capacity line will probably be an educated guess. As the organization gains experience, a better grasp is developed of the number of projects that can be undertaken concurrently. This is especially true if the organization implements the companion processes of resource tracking, loading, and capacity planning.

The priority list should be widely distributed and communicated throughout the organization to let everyone know which projects get the resources and which projects get the resource problem. In this way, many resource contention issues can be addressed at the project level.

Resource Loading at the Individual Contributor Level

Mia hadn't achieved an acceptable solution to her situation, and she accepted the fact that she would need to remain persistent to get relief.

Is a full-scale prioritization process, for now, unacceptable for the organization? Here is a simple, project-level approach to serve until the time is right for a more sophisticated strategy.

If the company wasn't going to be a part of the solution, Mia would take matters into her own hands. She assembled a complete list of her activities and separated them into three categories: projects, operations, miscellaneous. She estimated the time she spent on each and spread these hours over the next three months. With her best judgment, she arranged the projects in order of importance.

Project managers and team members can individually compile a list of projects on which they are working. Using individual perspective, knowledge of the organization, and their workload, project people can prioritize their list. There will probably be a capacity line here, too. After all, even if a person works 20 hours a day for seven days a week, the amount of work he or she can do is still limited. Is this reasonable? Of course not. Fifty to 60 hours in a five-day workweek is a more realistic threshold—at least a limit toward which to aim.

Present the individually prioritized list to your manager.

Mia presented her list to Larry. She said, “This list represents my assignments—projects as well as operational activities. From my perspective, I have arranged the list in priority order. Given the amount of time available, these are the items I can work on (above the capacity line).”

Project Pipeline


Exhibit 2. The pipeline is a mechanism for filtering projects in order to select the best and most appropriate projects for available resources. Each decision gate is an opportunity to either suspend further expenditures for a project or allocate resources for the next phase. As the project moves through the stages of definition, risk and uncertainty are reduced while resource allocation increases.

Larry replied, “You have Priorities 2 and 3 reversed. Sorry, I should have told you sooner, but my boss lost interest in Project 4 weeks ago.”

By getting the project list documented and reviewed with the manager, informative interaction occurs, which helps to establish priorities.

In a recent consulting assignment, a client company developing training materials for the software market realized that it had far too many projects in progress, with no priorities. About 400 people were in the company and approximately 25–30 engaged in activities spread over 60 active projects. Management was frustrated and dissatisfied with the quantity of project results. In order to quickly obtain relief, each person was asked to submit a project list to his or her manager. The managers compiled all of the individual lists, eliminated the duplicate (and canceled) projects, and forwarded their list, with priority and capacity line, to their mid-level managers, who took the same action.

When the CEO received the list, he took immediate action. All but three projects were put on temporary hold. A prioritization team was established and chartered to publish an initial priority list within a week and establish a priority process within a month. The initial list was delivered, and project work resumed with a dramatically smaller number of inprocess projects. The CEO's bold actions yielded very positive results.

Collecting and synthesizing project and operational workload at the individual level can be the start of a resource loading and balancing mechanism. Once a project and operational activity list is developed, estimates of time allocated to each item, by time frame, can be added.

Filtering Projects

Another possible cause for the too-many-projects situation is that there is no filtering mechanism to weed out projects that are not a good fit. For example, an idea is generated, it is expressed (or not), and a project is launched. The organization moves from idea to implementation with no thought as to whether or not this project makes sense. Can it be staffed properly? Do the ROI numbers work? Does the organization have the technical expertise? Will cash flow be available?

Also, many times resource providers are not in the project-staffing loop. Their resources assign themselves to a project as a result of a “hallway conversation.” Or, people are conscripted to be team members. As a result, people become loaded with an incredible number of projects, which are in addition to the operational support activities that maintain the revenue stream.

A project life-cycle process needs to be in place, with phases and decision points at the end of each phase. At each phase end, a decision is made to go forward to the next phase or drop the project. Each phase successively drives out more risk and uncertainty. As the project becomes better defined, more resources (people, dollars, time) are allocated. The intent is to limit expenditures and cancel the project as early as possible if it is warranted for sound business reasons.

The number of phases in the life cycle varies. A reasonable number is five. Sometimes companies will have only two or three. Or one—Just Do It! The problem is that too many hours and dollars may be spent on the project before the cancellation decision is made. The argument: “We've spent too much on this project to cancel it now!” Because people have invested large amounts of blood, sweat, and tears in the project, they may continue to justify the existence of the project beyond the time when it should have been cancelled.

You say that you have a product development process with phases and decision points? What about the projects that have nothing to do with a product or service? In these cases, there is no life cycle, and therein lie major opportunities for problems.

Dealing With Demand From Operations

Many workload problems are caused by the continuous, random, unpredictable, and unknown demands from ongoing operations. Progress on many projects is severely hampered because people are being continually pulled back to work on operational activities and firefighting. This situation is different from operational events and other project activities that are known and can be planned. Here are suggestions that can help.

When developing duration estimates for activities in preparation for scheduling, assume that a percentage of the day (for example, 40 percent) will be devoted to operational activities. Document this assumption in the project plan. Let everyone know about it and negotiate the percentage if necessary. For example, when 40 percent of the day is reserved for operations, only 3.8 hours is available for project work—assuming an eight-hour day with 80 percent efficiency ((8 * 80%) * 60%). Little wonder that projects last longer than everyone would like. And little wonder why people put in 60–70-hour workweeks. With the assumption about the pull from operations calculated in the project schedule, demands from operations can be accommodated with minimal project impact. And tasks are more likely to complete when promised.

During the implementation phase of the project, the amount of time spent on operational activities needs to be tracked over a period of time for a couple of reasons: to verify or confirm that the assumed percentage allotted to operations is correct and reasonable; to get an early warning of a potential negative impact to the project schedule. Once the problem situation has been identified, alternative solutions can be developed, analyzed, the best selected, and implemented.

A reason for tracking the actual amount of operational impact over time (perhaps a week) is to get a “smoothed” view. There is little value in reacting to daily spikes or valleys; instead the value is in seeing the trend and taking corrective action, if necessary.

Some have said that they have difficulty distinguishing between operations and project activities. A documented project plan with individual team member responsibilities established at the task or subtask level would be a tremendous aid in addressing this problem.

Separating Ops From Projects

Another potential solution to addressing the impact of operations on projects is to separate people into two groups. One group only supports operations; the other group only supports projects. Of course, this division of labor should be strictly observed and maintained; otherwise, we are back to business as usual.

After a period of time (say, 8–12 months), people are rotated from one group to the other. Initially, which people are put into which group? A number of options are available. The operational support group is a wonderful assignment for new hires to learn about the company, the products or services of the company, customers, strengths and weaknesses of the products/services, company procedures.

If the person just hired is a recent college graduate, being in the support group will provide the opportunity for that person to gain critical practical experience. On the other hand, the “outside” perspective that the person brings to the project environment many times will provide a fresh, innovative approach to delivering project results.

Company employees who are product or service subject matter experts (SMEs) have a tough time maintaining focus solely on project activities. The organization develops a strong dependency on the expert knowledge that these people have in supporting operations. And since operations provides the revenue, there is an overwhelming motivation for everyone to continue to rely on the expert, regardless of the project impact or the “boundaries” established between operations and projects.

Yet, after an extended period of time, these folks grow weary of the constant operational problems, challenges, and crises. They need a break. They need to vacate this role, providing the opportunity for others to develop expert status and thereby lessen the exposure of having a limited number of SMEs. This can be a difficult transition for everyone involved. It needs to be planned and managed—like a project!

After Mia presented her project list to Larry and thereby informally established her priorities, her situation improved dramatically. She was actually accomplishing more than before! When she reported to work a month after the project list discussion, she received an e-mail message from Larry—“See me.” Mia went to his office and said cheerfully, “Good morning!”

“No need to sit—this will take only a moment,” Larry said in his usual get-to-the-point style. He continued, “In the President's Roundtable yesterday, there was a lot of discussion about workload and the number of projects under way throughout the company. To cut a long story short, a number of the execs felt strongly that the organization needed some sort of a project management methodology, including a prioritization process. And, further, they have been impressed with your performance and the dramatic increase in the results you have been delivering. They would like you to manage the ‘Project Management Methodology’ project…”

THE TECHNIQUES FOR DEALING with an overwhelming workload are fundamental. However, many times people look for complex solutions without going back to the basics. The techniques described here are intended to be additions to a project manager's or team member's toolkit. A person should have many alternatives from which to select the few that will fit his or her particular situation. These approaches to dealing with the workload problem represent more options. ■

Jay Christensen, PMP, vice president of CADENCE Management Corp., is a trainer and consultant in project management. His broad base of experience in many corporate environments and industries includes management and staff responsibilities in new product development, computer integrated manufacturing, sales, and marketing.

PM Network November 2000



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