Not Enough People And Too Much to Do? (Are You Being Too Ambitious?)

Not Enough People  And Too Much to Do? (Are You Being Too Ambitious?)

Worked in the project management field for a few years? The headline of this article probably resonates with you. An overwhelming majority of project team members we work with have encountered projects that are biting off more than they can chew. Being too ambitious with a budget, deadline or deliverable is so common for organisations that a lot of project managers simply expect blowouts at some point in the project’s lifespan.

Ambition and pushing the boundaries aren’t necessarily bad principles in a project. Unfortunately, though, there is often a missing link between the available resources and skills and the objectives outlined in a project plan, leading to goals that the team are destined to fall short of. It’s critical that steering groups and stakeholders constantly improve upon their frameworks for scoping and budgeting a project.

Projects aren’t just successful if they deliver the projected outcomes. The journey of delivering the project itself needs to be positive, productive and engaging for the team involved in it. This builds faith in the organisation’s ability to deliver and resource projects sensibly, supporting buy-in for future projects.

Doing the homework ahead of project kick off

While there’s no substitute for real-world data to learn from, a project can be far less tumultuous when the upfront homework has been done. This means focusing on a number of considerations before any resourcing takes place:

  • Identification of the exact outcomes of the project
  • Potential risks to that project (what could derail it)
  • Scope of work as part of this project
  • What’s not in scope
  • How much budget the organisation has
  • What platforms or technical skills are going to be required
  • The timeline of delivery

As these questions start to get answered, a project team can start to be resourced. Too many delivery project team members brought on before these questions are answered brings the risk of underutilised or misspent budget.

Unrealistic expectations of individuals

A lack of resources can be the result of a steering committee or leadership team’s optimism bias of how much a certain role or team can actually deliver. Even the biggest superstar on a team has limited hours within the day to deliver. Pushing members of the team beyond what’s realistic (say 6-8 hours of productivity), can backfire through staff attrition, happiness, engagement and performance. Put simply, don’t burn your team out otherwise your project will have some big obstacles to contend with. Heroic project delivery – doing everything (un)humanly possible to deliver to unrealistic goals – is nothing to be proud of.

When planning expects over and above performances from staff, it’s banking on a lot of continued goodwill from people. This isn’t a good default to run from. A project should be resourced based upon an average level of output from individuals each day – that way some fat can be built into the budget and hiring to allow for things that come up (technical challenges, sickness, turnover etc).

Remember, the resource isn’t ‘resource’, these are human beings contributing to a project. Make sure your project considers the human factors when planning the number of people you’ll need.

If expectations are unrealistic, it’s the organisation that ultimately suffers through loss of good talent and missed deadlines. Make the hard calls early, so there’s fewer of them later in the project.

Tight budgets for the size of project

We love seeing budgets that have been formulated from a number of data points including the projected benefit of the project’s completion. Arbitrary budgets are unfortunately part of the industry as well. A certain % of the budget may be apportioned to the delivery of certain outcomes – say 25% of the budget on planning activities for example. These offer some parameters to work within which can help when determining scope – but this will often require compromises to the delivery in some way.

One of the big compromises is in headcount. Talented, specialist skills are not cheap (nor should they be), meaning decision-makers may need to trade-off between $100k of platform functionality or $100k worth of resources. This is a really tough position to be in, given talent and tools combined are what makes many projects work. Many project teams will push on their human resources to drive more value when budgets are tight, as opposed to negotiating more functionality from platforms and vendors – although this is very project-specific.

If an organisation has the means to budget a project based on the potential benefits, project leadership is afforded far more leeway in resourcing decisions. Without people, we can’t deliver good work. It needs to be a priority.

Breaking projects in smaller pieces

The danger of divided attention from project staff

Ambitious organisations will regularly split up their people’s time between more than one project. It’s very tempting to leverage the skills of talented people in your team, but divided attention comes at a massive transition cost and quality hit.

When your delivery staff are thinking about more than one set of objectives, they aren’t usually able to give everything 100%, rather than 100% gets divided up – sometimes 50/50, or maybe 80/20. How this attention is split up isn’t typically guided clearly, meaning the decision making about prioritising work falls on the shoulders of the individual doing it. Their prioritisation can be swayed by their own interest, skill preference and the management and team associated with each project. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease. At this point, the productivity of your resource is heavily diluted – totally the opposite outcome of what an organisation would hope for by getting their best people on multiple pieces of work.

Hiring enough resources for a project protects an individual’s time, brainpower and effort, leading to a better overall result for your organisation.

Missed milestones snowball

Talk to any senior leadership team about whether they’d prefer to save on resources or miss business milestones and objectives and you’ll probably hear the same thing – failure to meet goals is the absolute last outcome anyone wants. In fact, delivering change and improvement is a big part of why a senior leadership team exists. This becomes a matter of which conversation is harder – negotiating sufficient resources across your portfolio of projects or explaining the reason behind missing milestones.

When resources are not handled realistically, missed milestones will pile up. While in a sprint or stage originally scheduled to focus on certain work, hangover work will also require completion. Your team can only deliver so much in a workday. Failing to meet key dates and objectives while the budget is burned through can ultimately lead to project failure.

The team loses interest (the project becomes ‘an insurmountable task’)

Yes, your hired resources on a project are there to do a job. But let’s remember – their enjoyment of the work they do has a big influence on how engaged they are. Happier staff work harder, helping your project deliver to its objectives on time.

A particularly big risk for longer-term projects, staff can lose trust and interest in a project that’s not progressing or is distracted by poor governance. Pressure from the top will typically reach the delivery team in some way, even through the most seasoned project managers. While good talent won’t be afraid of the odd time where they need to turn the effort up to 11, the moment this becomes viewed as the default expectation is when your staff engagement will start to wane.

A project’s success isn’t just of interest to the senior stakeholders. Those working on the project too have a personal interest in its success as their work on this project can open up opportunities for future work. Don’t underestimate this risk – talented people may decide to jump off what they consider a ‘sinking ship’ if the rhetoric around a project is consistently negative.

Is this project a priority? Resource it accordingly.

It’s a simple question. But we’re not convinced it’s asked 100% of the time. Nor does it come up early or often through a project’s lifespan. A project should not be managed in isolation – the business should have a clear view on its connection to broader business goals, and indeed where it sits in relation to other projects. IQANZ provides assistance in this space as well, through our Portfolio Assurance, designed to help ensure the processes and disciplines that organisations use to prioritise their projects and programmes are effective and robust.

If your project is business-critical, it must be resourced fully. There are few projects that are very successful when placed on the backburner with a skeleton crew. It’s hard to play pool with one hand tied behind your back!

When an organisation has business objectives and outcomes it deems necessary for future success, the project’s resources, scope and budget should be reverse-engineered from these outcomes, through a good business case. You can read more about business cases in our upcoming blog post on the topic.

Need help with getting your project back on track?

Talk to our team who can arrange an initial consultation and start providing guidance around making your project succeed.