The company is on fire. Figuratively speaking, of course. Projects are at risk of derailing and employees are threatening to quit. Important key resources are sick or unmotivated, or there are simply not enough hours in the day. Important milestones are not going to be met, which means another broken promise to the customer.
This is not just a made-up intro to a blog post, but this is the reality of everyday project life for many companies. I know the situation well, as I did project work myself for a few years. The consequence of this negative spiral is that you get into the mentality of just putting out fires. The fires are extinguished, but there is no time to find and fight the source of the fire. How does this downward spiral happen? How can we do more than just put out the fires?
The Downward Spiral of Bad Resource Management
You very well may find yourself in this "downward spiral" as the consequences of poor resource and capacity planning spiral upward. A chain reaction of negative effects can happen very quickly affecting the entire team or even the entire company.
Imagine how, at the beginning of the process, employees are assigned to a project, but not their true capacity isn’t really considered. Milestones are set based on pressure from customers, sales and the market, without anticipating potential decreases in capacity. This lack of resource management can quickly trigger delays in the project. The overly optimistic milestones cannot be achieved. The increased pressure on the employees results in reduce the quality of work. Processes are ignored or rushed, and work packages are started without the necessary deliverables or quality assurance. Keeping to the project schedule is already impossible.
For me, it was often the case at this point that I already knew that the project was about to derail. Yet, I always had the hope that everything will be okay. You know the thoughts: “if we can just get Nina to support the project team for the short term, or if we pull Bob off of that other project, then surely we can make it work.”
Capacity must be added to get the project back on track - both in terms of scheduling and quality. That means additional employees are called in to barrel through the most important work packages. This manpower will either come from other internal projects, or from an external source. There are problems with both. External resources are expensive, and they often take longer to organize and train, which can delay the already crippled project yet again. The biggest problem with reallocating internal resources is that they have to be taken off other projects, and that reduces the capacity for those projects. So, you may end up making many fires out of what was originally only one fire.
Extinguish Resource Management Fires
If employees are always moved from one fire to the next anyway, prioritization of all projects pays off. If all projects within the departments or value streams or even globally are prioritized, resources can be pulled from lower ranking projects. Nevertheless, the result remains the same, only employees who are there can be distributed. This means that the "net capacity" for current and planned new developments decreases. To tackle problems in a current project, new or ongoing initiatives fall by the wayside.
Do you cancel low priority projects – those that are high risk, low return on investment, and have low strategic contribution? Get rid of them, even if it hurts. Just because a project is already 60% complete does not mean that it has to be completed.
Use Resource Management for More than Just Putting Out Fires
In the best case scenario, there is no mentality of using resource management just to put out fires. With a few principles, a lot can be achieved:
- Creating transparency: Which employees or which role actually has capacity when? Meisterplan uses histograms to help with this visualization.
- Think globally: Planning projects and resources must be enterprise-wide and across multiple projects. A PMO can provide this management view.
- Plan resources realistically: Employees should be scheduled for a maximum of 80% of their working time. Time off for vacation and illness can be anticipated.
- Fewer projects: Assign employees as experts to fewer projects, rather than as support to many projects, which reduces the risk of additional fires.
- Prioritize projects: The capacity for projects depends on their priority. Projects for which capacity is no longer available will go under the “cut-off” line and will not be done.
- Keep processes lean: Lean PPM keeps processes in project portfolio management lean and the company flexible, so you can react much faster.
A firefighting mentality for crisis-prone projects only seems a good idea at first glance. The impulse to put out the fire, no matter the cost, is very human and understandable. However, it can quickly cause collateral damage. Realistic and transparent resource management can prevent most fires. And when a project does catch fire, project prioritization helps redistribute the right capacity.