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It’s an often heard mantra – “be lean and mean”. An admirable objective – for the operational side of the business driving for reduced costs, increased revenue and increased profits. But, this attitude does present risks for the project side of house.

One of the consequences we’ve observed of lean, and sometimes, too lean organizations, are programs and projects started with insufficient resource capacity. Lean and mean can also result in little, if any, spare capacity for emergencies. Overtime will then be used to keep things going. When along comes an unplanned project (or two, or three), the situation is then fodder for overtime becoming a regular occurrence, projects taking longer than expected and stressed out employees.

In the spirit of embracing Project Management best practices, though, and being proactive (not reactive), what can we do to eliminate or mitigate resource capacity issues, and ideally, even prior to project startup?

Let’s first examine a real-life case study and the reactive approach it forces, and secondly, let’s see some proactive responses to mitigating such occurrences.

Project Work Sometimes Plays Second Banana

My Lead Business Analyst had just returned from a canceled workshop: “So we had booked the morning with them to document and validate their existing processes. They were great all last week, now this morning they don’t show up. They say they’ve got other work to focus on, and they don’t know when they can meet with us again. We’re not going to make our milestones this way. They won’t commit to anything – so I’m escalating.”

Well, the first thing I did was thank her for coming to me immediately. If I don’t know about your problems, I can’t help you solve them. Let’s nip them in the bud.

In situations like this, a ‘lean’ organization might consider engaging temporary contract resources in lieu of full-time resources to solve this problem. It will help but it will not necessarily provide the best solution to the problem. Care must be taken in engaging contract staff when full time staff, the Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) of the organization, is what is really needed to ensure a complete solution and a successful project. Full time staff / internal SMEs have knowledge of the company’s business that a temporary or new employee will not, and can better predict the potential impact a project will have on the company. It is the fulltime staff alone can provide that last bit of polish and completeness to Project Management documentation – the Business Case, Project Charter, Business Requirements, Work Breakdown Structure, and Risk Management plans. Now, can you cultivate SMEs from temporary staff? Yes, and if you have available contract staff you’ve used before congratulations. Otherwise, realize this requires knowledge transfer of your operation to the newbies brought on board and unavoidably the time of your internal SMEs.

Why is the Project Coming in Second?

Back to our case study. The Project Manager is forced to be reactive but is empowered to remedy the situation (PMs – you have as much power as you believe you do). What can be done? Start by meeting with the Functional Managers of the unavailable employees.

  • Ask – what work has displaced the project commitment? How is this higher priority?
  • Ask – was this a unilateral decision on the part of the employee, or under the direction of their Functional Managers, or other Senior Stakeholder?
  • If the former, the Functional Manager has an issue to resolve with his/her staff unilaterally deciding what they will work on, and not escalating workload issues.
  • If the latter, the issue is more serious – the lines of communication are broken, the project priority has been downgraded in somebody’s eyes. Time for a meeting with your Project Sponsor to exert some influence and get the project back on schedule. Be prepared for these discussions. Document the impact of the forecast delays on the Project Schedule and Project Costs within a DRAFT Change Request.

In hindsight, a lean organization plus unplanned projects plus overloaded SMEs are not ingredients for project success. But it happens often, so be prepared to deal with it. Nothing is constant but change in areas like market share, financial situations, strategic direction which spawns or impacts projects. Even if you are not a Project Manager, you are going to unavoidably be involved in projects during your career – as a Team Member, as a Functional Manager, Project Sponsor – and it behooves you to mitigate situations like our case study as much as possible.

So you’re not the PM? What can you do?

“But I’m not the Project Manager, what can I possibly do?” you might ask. “Isn’t it the PM’s job to take care of these problems?” Remedy them after the fact, perhaps.  But before the project is initiated, before the PM is assigned, while the project portfolio is being established, surprise! It is not the Project Manager, but the other Project Stakeholders in the company who, on an ongoing basis, are positioned to be proactive and help the organization mitigate project resource issues.

  • As a Member of Senior Management

Take action by investing in an Enterprise Project Management Office to provide Portfolio Management. This EPMO can provide advance warning to business units of future programs and projects. This provides lead time to plan for additional resource capacity and establish the proper funding and infrastructure to support the project. (Example: with a project portfolio of $10 million, knowing that IT in your organization typically represents 60% of project budgets and your funding for IT projects is currently $4 million, you have very quickly determined there is a shortage of IT resource capacity.)

  • As a Resource Manager

Be aware of the company’s ambitions re: Programs and Projects, i.e., the Project Portfolio. Be aware of Enterprise Architecture and Technology Directions, and the skill sets this will demand. Monitor available resource and skill set capacity, and escalate issues to Senior Management. (Example, if there is a market shortage of skill set in XYZ Technology, advise Senior Management that this must be factored into high level project timelines.) Establish contingencies; project delays, resignations, leaves of absence, and surprises will impact available skill set capacity.

  • As a Functional Manager

Take action by ensuring each member of your staff has an up-to-date description of their operational and project roles and responsibilities. Apply this information to explore options when capacity issues surface. Be prepared to re-assign responsibilities, have some resources fully dedicated to projects while others focus on normal business operations, or hire temporary resources to perform the mundane administrative functions normally performed by your staff.

  • As a Project Team Member

Take action by keeping up-to-date documentation of your roles and responsibilities. This provides planning information when you are asked to take on additional work for a project. Example: if you already at capacity, what can come off your list and be re-assigned, or delayed, or even canceled?

Review the previous bullet points. Notice how much power resides in the various people in the company i.e., the future Project Stakeholders, even before the Project Manager is assigned, to proactively mitigate resource capacity issues.

And if you are the PM…

Now, if you are assigned as the PM (hopefully at the project’s start), what can you do to proactively mitigate a recurrence of our real-life case study?

  • Engage the support of the organization’s Resource Manager to source project team members. To the best of your ability, identify the Roles and Responsibilities, and Skill Sets required. Enlist your Project Sponsor to validate that the assigned internal resources have the required skill sets and are not just warm bodies coming off the bench. Remember, ‘availability is not a skill set’. If the company does not have a Resource Manager role, 1) engage your Project Sponsor to help – a must if you are a PM freshly arrived (new hire or contract) in the organization. 2) prepare for a possibly lengthy process of negotiating with Functional Managers for capacity from their people capacity to work on your project.
  • Gain commitment from the Functional Managers and their designated staff for their participation and their time on the project.
  • Assign each Team Member to evolve and document their Roles and Responsibilities for the project. Meet together with the Functional Manager to review and commit to this document.
  • Engage the Project Team members in defining the project work. This will also define the tasks in the Project Schedule that reflect the commitment previously agreed to. Obtain approval of the schedule from key Stakeholders.
  • Communicate and share this information with the broader project team. Everybody, including Project Sponsors, will then know what commitments have been agreed to. Publish the documentation in the online Project Notebook and advise all Stakeholders where this is located.
  • Produce and distribute a Project Organization Chart to all Stakeholders.

Notice a common thread in the above points – DOCUMENT AND COMMUNICATE!

With regards to being ‘lean and mean’: the dictionary defines “mean” as “selfish, cruel, spiteful, and malicious”. We respectfully suggest this is not an attribute you want your organization and project teams to aspire to. Let’s use ‘lean and keen’ instead. Keen – “enthusiastic, intense, marked by intellectual quickness”

The Bottom Line

For organizations, it is possible to be lean and keen (not mean), proactive, and better prepared to tackle your project portfolio. With all potential project Stakeholders embracing our recommendations, they will be better positioned to respond to project resource demands, even those that flare up unexpectedly. For Project Managers, you can take action to mitigate problems at the beginning and during the project. You do have the opportunity to evangelize the recommendations put forth in this article, and position your organization to be lean and keen.

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