How the Growing Lack of Resources Will Impact Your Projects and What to Do About it
It’s a well-known fact that resources are scarce.
And one of the scarcest resources that business owners are dealing with is people.
If you’re in an organization that is functionally led, this can cause a real dilemma for project managers.
Even in a matrix structure, the shortage of available people can cause tensions and issues between functional responsibilities and project requirements.
Fortunately, you can do a number of things to help your projects succeed.
Even with scarce resources.
But first, let’s briefly discuss the resource gap and why this is a growing issue that cannot be ignored.
It’s harder than ever for employers to fill open job positions.
According to a survey conducted by the ManpowerGroup, 45% of companies worldwide say they can’t find the labor talent that they need.
That’s up 5% from last year and is the highest it’s been since 2006.
Here are the categories that are the most difficult to fill:
Why can’t businesses find the right people?
Here are the top five reasons, according to the survey:
1, Lack of applicants
2. Lack of experience
3. Lack of required hard skills
4. Pay expectations are too high
5. Lack of required soft sk
While interesting, that doesn’t provide any insight into the root cause.
For example, are there too few applicants because you poorly advertised your job posting?
Because your company has a bad reputation?
Or for some other reason?
Is there a consistent underlying driver?
Well, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics, the unemployment rate for workers with a college education is only 2%.
Indicating that few educated, qualified people are in need of a job.
This has been steadily decreasing since 2009.
Great news for graduates.
Bad news for businesses.
Because it means each time you lose someone, it’s going to become harder and harder to replace them.
And there are no signs that the trend is about to reverse anytime soon.
This resource gap affects all industries, businesses, and professions.
Though, it affects some more than others.
Obviously, the more technical or complex the job is, the more you will suffer from resource gaps.
And if you’re a project manager in a functional structure, you’re going to struggle with this the most.
Because you don’t get to hire or control resources.
Functional managers care about the success of your projects.
But what if they’re short-staffed and can’t do everything?
They will likely sacrifice projects to keep the day-to-day operations running smoothly.
I’ve been in the situation where a critical resource was suddenly pulled off my project because he was needed to go handle the day-to-day.
With a matrix structure, a resource cannot simply be pulled without your say.
But you still face competing priorities from multiple stakeholders.
This is sadly a reality for many project managers today. If we don’t acknowledge it, and prepare to deal with it, our projects can go off the rails much too quickly.
So how do we handle a lack of qualified project personnel?
Well, the first step is to plan.
We will take a quick look at the three levels of planning.
Then we’ll go through ten tips on how to improve your planning when you know there is going to be resource issues.
Three Types of Resource Planning
There are three types of resource planning:
1. Strategic resource planning
2. Tactical resource planning
3. Operational resource planning
Let’s start with the first:
1) Strategic Resource Planning
Strategic resource planning focuses on the long-term.
What abilities and skill sets do we need to have onboard long-term, or for upcoming projects?
Often as a PM, you may have no involvement in this type of planning. But if you have a multi-year or multi-phase project, it may be part of your job.
Which roles will you need in the next Phase or Sprint?
What skill sets are going to be required six months from now? In two years?
2) Tactical Resource Planning
Tactical planning occurs in the medium term. You have an approved business case, or a signed project charter.
You know the project is coming, and you need to start planning resource requirements.
This is likely your biggest area of struggle.
Working with the Functional managers to find, allocate and secure the right resources for your project.
As mentioned, if their resources are already short, they may not be willing to hand over any resources, let alone their best and brightest.
According to Influencer Donna Fitzgerald, “If a PM can’t get the right team for a project – it’s probably best not to even start the project – because everything will take longer and be of poorer quality.”
Unfortunately, you can’t always make that call.
3) Operational Resource Planning
Operational planning is the lowest level, and shortest-term planning.
You knew you needed two developers.
Now you’re deciding which tasks each one does over the next two weeks.
If you didn’t acquire the right developers in the last phase, you might face unexpected issues here.
Such as you knew you needed developers, but now you realize you need one with a background in SAAS.
And that’s not who you have.
10 Tips for Improving Upfront Resource Allocation
Below are ten ways you can improve your upfront resource allocation.
1) Understand Your Scope
You can’t prepare successfully without fully understanding the scope of your project.
This may seem like common sense.
But it’s an easy mistake to make.
Especially when you’re feeling pressure to request resources as soon as possible, so you don’t lose them to another project.
And the easiest resources to miss are often the scarcest.
For example, if you leave your planning too high level, you may not realize until too late that you need someone with a very specialized skill set.
I once took over a project that was about six months in.
I discovered two people were working around the clock trying to read through 40,000 lines of data because a database resource wasn’t available.
It was missed in the early stages, when the sheer volume was unknown. And once it was discovered, no one was available for at least two weeks.
So be careful to plan the project down to enough detail in advance, to avoid important misses.
2) Identify Resources
Once you have analyzed the scope of your project and understood it, you need to list down what you will need.
Don’t just choose job titles.
For example, you likely don’t need just an accountant.
Narrow it down as far as possible.
Do you need a tax accountant?
Someone who knows audit and compliance requirements?
Someone with training in the software you’re upgrading?
An accountant who’s completed project testing in the past?
You may not get your perfect person.
But if you leave your requirements too general, in an environment where resources are competed over, you’ll likely get the least qualified person.
The one who only meets your needs and nothing more.
3) Avoid Over-allocation
You got 50% of a person for the next month. The rest of their time is going to another project that has them 50%.
But suddenly, you run into an issue.
You tell them what you need, and when you need it, knowing it’s going to push them well over 50%.
This means one of three things happens in the short-run:
1. They can’t do it, and your project slips.
2. They do it at the expense of the other project, and its timeline slips.
3. They work overtime to do it, and nothing slips.
All three of these outcomes will have even worse long-term consequences if this happens too often.
The first two should be obvious. But what about the third?
When you have highly-skilled, highly-motivated people, it’s easy to rely on them in a crisis and ask for the impossible.
And they deliver, by giving you 110%. Or more.
Nothing slips, and the day is saved.
So you turn to them again, and again.
Until they burn out and either underperform, or quit.
Asking someone to go above and beyond happens. But if you’re doing it regularly, it’s a recipe for disaster.
Especially if it’s happening because you failed to adequately plan.
4) Be Realistic
The opposite mistake is to under-allocate your team on purpose.
You know you need one developer, but they’re really hard to come by. So you ask for two, in case one gets pulled.
This is unfair to all the other managers needing the same resource, and it’s an unnecessary hit to your project costs.
When you know it’s a struggle to get quality people, wanting to stock up is a natural urge.
But it’s a mistake.
One that can quickly lead to bad relationships, if you become known for it.
5) Look at the Big Picture
Be aware of the state of your resources.
Know whether there are possible disruptions like an upcoming vacation.
Also, be aware of what else is going on in the organization.
Is another project launching, that will require a lot of the same resources?
Is the marketing team about to start their quarterly promotion updates, and you’re about to need two of their staff?
The more awareness you have about other projects, and your company as a whole, the better you can plan.
6) Use Tracking Software
I love project tools.
Resource management tools, scheduling tools, collaborative sharing tools.
There is such a thing as overload, of course. But using software is a great way to keep everyone on track and highlight resource risks before they become problems.
Something like Microsoft Project or Primavera is great at highlighting potential overallocation.
However, even a simpler tool like Asana or Trello can be great for managing tasks across resources.
And making sure you’re adequately staffed to meet your deadlines and requirements.
7) Track Project Actuals
Estimates are never perfect.
You’ll assume one task takes a week and it’s only half a day, because they were expecting an issue that didn’t appear.
You’ll plan another for two days, and it will take two weeks due to the discovery of a defect or malfunction.
This will shift resources. And if you don’t track it, you could end up with idle people one week and a lack of people the next.
Sometimes there’s nothing you can do about that.
But often, you can rejig the schedule to smooth this out, if you notice it in time.
8) Make Sure Planning is Ongoing
Resource planning is not a one-and-done activity.
You will need to routinely revisit your estimates and updates based on project performance, as well as other factors.
Making it a standing schedule item can ensure it doesn’t get overlooked in the heat of the project.
For example, we used to have a weekly manpower meeting every Wednesday.
It allowed us to meet and review project requirements, upcoming overtime expectations, scheduled vacations, and anything else that could impact our resource needs.
While the meeting was weekly, we tried to look out at least four weeks.
9) Get to Know People
Sometimes you can ask for an individual to be on your project.
Sometimes you can’t.
But either way, it pays to get to know who you’re working with now, as well as who you may work with in the future.
For example, I may learn I have a perfectionist on my team.
Which means that it’s ‘done enough’ three weeks before she’ll deal me it’s done.
Knowing this, I can manage it.
But if I wasn’t aware of her drive for perfection, when she keeps telling me it’s not done, I could end up just continually pushing out the schedule.
Another perk of knowing your people is loyalty and engagement.
If we like, trust, and respect each other, guess what happens when I do have to ask them for 110%?
They do it.
Or if they have competing pressures between my project and their other responsibilities?
They’re more likely to find a way to still deliver, if they feel a loyalty and connection to me.
After all, in a functional organization, as a PM, I don’t hold much positional power.
Being able to motivate and engage becomes that much more important.
10) Avoid Procrastination
It’s easy to focus on just the next week.
In fact, when things start to go south, it’s each to be focusing on just the next few hours.
But when you go to someone and say ‘I need someone right now,’ they will likely ask why the request didn’t come up before.
And if your answer is that you were too busy… well, good luck.
This goes back to the importance of planning.
After the Fact Solutions
Sometimes things come up that you couldn’t have planned for.
There are three major types of problems that you may encounter due to lack of resources.
1) Competing Priorities
Competing priorities happen.
It may be due to numerous projects, or just projects competing with day-to-day tasks.
I can’t remember the number of times I’ve heard people tell me that a project was, “the corner of my desk.”
Meaning that their day job was their primary responsibility, and they were also trying to work on my project as they could fit it in.
Obviously, enterprise-wide planning can prevent this.
But many organizations are just not there yet.
So if you’re facing this problem already, what do you do?
Your best bet is to approach it collaboratively.
Meet with the resource. Then his or her functional manager, if necessary.
See what you can work out so that everyone wins.
2) Unskilled Resources
What happens if you’ve been provided with a team that is green, fresh and with little to no experience?
This can happen if your resource requests were too generic.
Or simply due to no one else being available.
But now that you have them, what do you do?
First of all, consider if you or anyone on your team can train them and coach them up to speed.
If not, is there anyone else you can pull in to help them learn on the fly?
This may mean you need to eat the cost of extra resources, or their manager may be able to temporarily provide support.
Another option is to request swapping them for other resources.
Of course, you may need to call in a favor to do this.
The final option is that you’ll have to revisit your project plan.
To accommodate the fact that your resources will likely take longer to produce the same quality output.
3) Unexpected Need
Sometimes an urgent need arises.
Your work team may tell you that they need the help.
They’ve run into a defect and need a system developer to fix it.
But you let your developer go two weeks ago to another project.
And now you’re going to be at a standstill without one.
When resources are scarce, it’s hard to allocate for people that you know you will need only if/when issues arise.
So what do you do?
One approach is to plan in advance by using a minimal allocation, such as 10%.
Base it on how many bugs and what support was needed on similar projects in the past.
When it’s too late for that, you’ll need to escalate. Fast.
Remember, you don’t want to be in the situation where you’re asking for someone last minute when you should have known weeks or months ago.
Your exact escalation process will vary depending on the rules and norms of your workplace.
In some cases, a change request is required.
In others, you can go directly to the functional owner, or the project sponsor.
If your project isn’t a high enough priority to pull a resource, then you’ll have to adjust your project plan.
Either change the timeline or the scope to accommodate the gap.
As a project manager, you should consider some outside of the box solutions as well.
Thinking Outside the Box
It’s not always easy to solve a resource problem.
Sometimes you need to be a little creative in your solutions.
1) Contracting Help
You may not be able to staff your project because the organization has vacant positions.
In this case, it can be quicker, and easier, to contract someone in temporarily for your project.
Of course, the project will have to eat the cost. But it’s an option for getting skilled labor quickly.
Especially if your company already has a relationship with a staffing or consulting agency.
You may even sign an agreement stating that you’ll purchase x-amount of hours to be spent over the next six months.
Then you can allocate that bucket as needed, when shortages come up.
I’ve seen this done before, and it can work well.
If you have a regular need for an in-demand skill set, and usually have at least a week’s warning that you’ll have a gap.
Another option is to try removing the manual requirement by automating some or all of the process.
Can you have a script written to complete the first round of testing?
Is it possible to run a validation report that screens the entire database, and then only check 10% with humans?
The more you can standardize and automate processes, the more you can potentially reduce the labor requirement.
3) Looking for Resources in Other Areas
In a large organization, it’s possible to find skill sets in unlikely places.
I’ve met all sorts of people with backgrounds I wouldn’t have expected based on their current role.
Such as a software designer working in retail operations.
A project manager working as an accountant.
An accountant working as a technology analyst.
So if a functional department tells you they have no one available with the skills you need, consider widening your search.
The HR department can often check their systems to identify people with certain skills based on their resumes, training, and performance reviews.
4) Consider Alternate Solutions
Once we needed a SAAS developer to build a report for us.
And the entire team was incredibly short-staffed. We’d be lucky to get one in the next three months.
So we had to re-review the requirements.
The solution was getting a BW developer to design a temporary version of the report, that could be used until we could secure a SAAS resource.
It meant the report was a little less user-friendly, and didn’t update instantly.
It also meant a hit to the budget and schedule for the rework required.
But we got the users something when they needed it.
Sometimes, you’ll need to adapt your requirements, or think of other ways to meet them, in order to still deliver on time.
5) Combining Projects
If there are two projects going on, with similar resource requirements, sometimes you can combine them.
We had a project team harmonizing costs, and another harmonizing pricing.
The two had to work hand in hand anyway, to keep margins stable and to minimize impacts on retail operations and customers.
Plus, they had a lot of the same resource requirements, and the milestones were tied together.
Yet one project was always screaming for resources.
So they merged.
It didn’t completely alleviate the problem, but there were a number of tasks that were eliminated, or reduced by combining forces.
Almost half of all companies are struggling to meet their resource requirements.
And the skilled labor shortage is expected to continue to worsen.
If you don’t want it to derail your projects, you’ll need to plan for it in advance.
Know your options, and be willing to think outside of the box when you’re suddenly facing a lack of qualified team members.
When’s the last time you found yourself missing a key project resource? What did you do about it?