Best Practices for Balancing Business as Usual with Projects and Programs

Published by Emma Hanes

May 26th, 2020

in Project Portfolio Management

Most people don’t enjoy walking a tightrope, yet this is what many companies do when trying to balance business as usual with new projects and programs. This delicate balancing act is quite difficult and becoming off-balance could cause serious problems. While there’s no secret formula for finding this balance, we can provide a few best practices and considerations so you can determine what the right balance is for your company.

Business as Usual vs. Projects

Business as Usual (BAU) refers to any work done by an organization that is necessary for normal operations. These are the things that keep the lights on. The easiest way to identify work as BAU is whether or not it has a start and finish date. BAU is ongoing and never really ends. Common examples of BAU work include a lot of administration activities (like running payroll) but can also include customer service activities, regular maintenance on machinery or any cyclical work an organization does on a recurring basis. Sometimes BAU is also referred to as Run the Business or RTB.

New Project Initiatives

In contrast, projects include work that aims to change or grow the business. Projects (and/or programs) help businesses reach corporate goals, enter new markets, explore new opportunities and evolve to meet market or customer demands. It’s easy to see how both BAU and projects are necessary for a business, but you don’t have an unlimited amount of time and workers, so you will have to do some prioritizing in terms of how much you will devote yourself (or others) to each one. Not enough projects and your company won’t grow, change or evolve, but not enough time for BAU and things start to fall apart. To find the balance that’s right for your company, try following these best practices.

Determining Your BAU

Before you can achieve a balance between BAU and projects, you will need to clearly define what work is BAU. Make a list of what work absolutely has to get done to keep things running. Be as specific as possible. The idea is that this list will be adhered to unless major changes occur. Do not put things on this list that you would “like” to be done on a regular basis, but things that “must” get done. This list will serve as a commitment so keep that in mind when putting it together. If you are a little unsure of exactly how much goes on this list, start with the most basic and crucial activities and add additional activities over time as your company grows or as your needs change.

Block off Your BAU

So, you have a list of things that absolutely must get done. Great! Here’s the part that people struggle with: you have to block off time and resources for this work to get done. Always staff BAU work first before projects and respect the allocations you’ve assigned. It may be tempting when you are in a pinch to pull workers off BAU work for other projects, but this should not be done (unless you are experiencing truly unprecedented circumstances). If you feel like you are spending too much of your time (or others’ time) on BAU, this could mean two things: (1) you need to hire more workers to accommodate your needs or (2) that there may be things on the BAU list that are not truly essential. Most of the time, the issue will be a lack of availability, rather than an exhaustive list of BAU activities. We encourage you to either manage your expectations for the amount of project work that you can get done or begin hiring so you have the extra hands needed to meet your project demands. Alternatively, you could move projects to a later date when workers are available.

Life After BAU

Outlining BAU work and giving it the appropriate resources is challenging, and it’s possible for tension to rise between BAU teams and project teams when they feel like they are at odds. The best way to prevent tension is to help everyone understand the importance of both BAU and project work and clearly define boundaries and expectations. Make sure you have clear lines of communication open so you can hear any issues that arise and address them quickly.

Balanced Project Portfolio

When you meet the challenge of defining and allocating BAU work, your remaining availability and budget are free to be assigned to project work. You can even create projects that would help reduce the demands of BAU work by automating manual processes or reducing redundancies. It’s a good idea to revisit your list of BAU work annually or at another regular (although not too frequent) interval. Ask for feedback from your colleagues regarding if they think the ratio of BAU to project work is successful. By continually revisiting and refining BAU, you will quickly become an expert in walking the tightrope.

Darrin McLaughlin

There is no other product that does what Meisterplan does in terms of portfolio management and resource management without unessential extra features. If there were another product that does what Meisterplan does, I would have found it, because I tried them all.

Darrin McLaughlin

Senior Vice President/Technology Officer | Interra Credit Union