Project Management for Humans
A note from the editors: We’re pleased to share an excerpt from Chapter 6 of Brett Harned’s new book, Project Management for Humans, available now from Rosenfeld Media.
I loved the game Tetris as a kid. I played the Game Boy version for hours. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the concept of little shapes coming together in a logical way to clear a goal. The pieces complement one another, yet they all naturally work in different ways. The game has stuck with me since I was a kid (and, no, I’m not a gamer). I now have it on my phone and iPad and find myself playing it when I’m on a flight or bored, waiting for something to happen (which is never these days). Whether I’m playing the game a lot or not, the idea of making tiny boxes fit in neatly and clearing out rows of work is ingrained in my brain. It’s the project manager in me.
But here’s the thing: What project managers do on a daily basis when it comes to managing resources or staffing is similar to Tetris, and it’s a big project management challenge that we all face. The biggest difference between resourcing and Tetris? The team members we’re trying to assign tasks to aren’t blocks. They’re human beings, and they need to be treated as such.
Your Team Are People, Too!
Let’s move away from calling people “resources,” please. We’re really just staffing projects or assigning tasks. We’re not using people to just get things done. We’re asking them to solve challenges that are presented in our projects.
Set the Stage for Organized Resource Planning
The challenge of managing a team is making sure that they stay busy and working on tasks, yet are not completely overbooked. It’s a difficult balance to find, particularly when your projects require a variety of skills at different times, which seem to change all too often.
At the most basic level, you want to set up a system for tracking your projects and your team members’ time on those projects (see Figure 6.1). A simple goal is to ensure that you can confidently commit to deadlines on projects with the knowledge that your team is actually available to do the related work. It seems like a simple goal, but it’s often a difficult one to keep up with due to changes on projects, changes in personal schedules (hey, life happens), and an influx of new work and requests. But it’s not an insurmountable challenge. In fact, a simple spreadsheet could help you, particularly if you’re managing a smaller team. At the core, you want to track these items:
- Projects (List them all, even the non-billable ones, or the other things that aren’t projects but end up taking a lot of time—like business development.)
- People (List every person you work with.)
- Estimated time (Track hours, days, weeks, etc. Make your best guess—based on your timeline or calendar—on how much each person will spend on a project or a task.)
Figure 6.1 Use a Google Spreadsheet, Numbers, or Excel to input your project and team data.
A couple of notes on how to use a spreadsheet to forecast team availability:
- This should be set up on a week-by-week basis to minimize confusion (use tabs in your spreadsheet for each new week).
- Always consider the “nonbillable” things that people must do (like stand-up meetings, internal tasks, sales, etc.).
- The final cell contains a formula that tallies the hours for you; if the hours go over your typical limit (think of a 40-hour work week), it will turn red to notify you. You’ll want to have a good idea for just how “utilized” someone should be (32 hours/week is usually a good target).
- You can input the actual hours logged in your time tracking system if you’d like. It could help with future estimating. (If you’re not tracking time, check in with your team on time percentages to get a gut check.)
- Check your estimates with your team to make sure that the hours actually align with their assessment of the task (This might help with avoiding that red number!)
- Communicate these hours to the entire team each week. Making sure that everyone “is in the know” will help on any project. Discussing it with individuals will help you understand effort, blockers, and possibly even different ways of working.
The landscape for project management tools is changing constantly. There are a number of tools in the marketplace for helping you manage and communicate this data. If you’ve working with a team of 10 or more, you might want to abandon the spreadsheet approach for something more official, organized and supported. Bonus: Many of these tools handle more than just resourcing!
Here’s the thing—it’s not just about numbers. The issue that makes estimating a team’s project hours difficult is that everyone works differently. There is no way to standardize the human factor here, and that’s what makes it tough. Forget the fact that no one on your team is a robot, and they all work at their own pace. Think about sick days, vacations, client delays, changes on projects, and so on. It’s a never-ending flow of shapes that must fit into the box that is a project. Be sure to have an ongoing dialogue about your staffing plans and challenges.
Match Resource Skills to Projects
Projects only slow down when decisions are not made. In that magical moment when things are actually going well, you want to make sure that your team can continue the pace. The only way to do that is by connecting with your team and understanding what motivates them. Here are some things to consider:
- Interests: If you have a team member who loves beer, why not put that person on the beer design site? Maybe you have multiple people who want to be on the project, but they are all busy on other projects. These are the breaks. You’ve got to do what is right for the company and your budget. If you can put interests first, it’s awesome. It won’t always work out that way for everyone, but it’s a good first step to try.
- Skill sets: It’s as simple as getting to know each and every team member’s work. Some people are meant to create specific types of designs or experiences. It not only has to do with interests, but it also has to do with strengths within those tasks. Sure, I may love beer, but that doesn’t mean that I am meant to design the site that caters to the audience the client is trying to reach.
- Moving schedules: Projects will always change. One week you know you’re working against a firm deadline, and the next week that has changed due to the clients, the needs of the project, or some other reason someone conjured up. It’s tough to know when that change will happen, but when it does, how you’ll fill someone’s time with other work should be high on your mind.
- Holidays: People always extend them. Plan for that!
- Vacations: It’s great to know about these in advance. Be sure you know your company’s policies around vacations. You never ever want to be the PM who says “Well, you have a deadline on X date and that will conflict with your very expensive/exciting trip, so, um … no.” Ask people to request trips at least a month in advance so that you can plan ahead and make it work.
- Illness: We’re all humans and that means we’re fine one day and bedridden the next. You’ve always got to be ready for a back-up plan. It shouldn’t fall on your client stakeholders to make up time, but sometimes it has to. Or sometimes you need to look for someone to pitch in on intermediate tasks to keep things of track while your “rock star” or “ninja” is getting better.
Align Plans with Staffing
When you’re working hard to keep up with staffing plans, you’ve got to have updated project plans. A small change in a plan could cause a change in staffing—even by a few hours—and throw everything else off.
Save Yourself and Your Team from Burnout
If you’re busy and not slowing down any time soon, you want to keep this spreadsheet (or tool) updated often. If you’re working at an agency, knowing what’s in your pipeline can also help you. Stay aligned with the person in charge of sales or assigning new projects so that you can anticipate upcoming needs and timelines. In some cases, you may even want to put some basic data in your spreadsheet or tool so that you can anticipate needs.
Good Resourcing Can Justify More Help
The value of tracking this data goes beyond your projects. It can help business owners make important decisions on growing a company.
No matter what you do, be sure to communicate about staffing as much as possible. If you’re in an organization that is constantly handling change, you’ll know that it’s a tough target to hit. In fact, your numbers will often be slightly off, but you’ll find comfort in knowing that you’re doing everything you can to stay ahead of the resource crunch. At the same time, your team will appreciate that you’re doing everything you can to protect their work-life balance.
Stakeholders Are Resources, Too
When you’re working on a team with a project, you have to consider the stakeholders as decision makers, too. Let’s face it—no one has ever been trained to be a good client, stakeholder, or project sponsor. In addition to that, they are likely to be working on several projects with several people at one time. Life as a client can be hectic! So do everything you can to help them plan their time appropriately. In general, you should let the stakeholders know they’ll have to plan for these things:
- Meetings: You’ll conduct a kickoff meeting, weekly status updates, deliverable reviews, etc.
- Scheduling: You’ll need stakeholders to wrangle calendars to get folks into said meetings.
- Gathering feedback: This sounds easy, but it is not. You will need this person to spend time with all of the stakeholders to get their feedback and collate it for you to make sure there are no conflicting opinions.
- Chasing down decisions: There are points on every project where one person will need to make sure there is agreement and decisions can be made to keep the project moving.
- Daily ad hoc email, phone calls: Questions and requests will pop up, and you’ll need timely responses.
- Operations: You might need invoices to be reviewed and approved or change requests to be reviewed and discussed. The stakeholders will need to make time to operate the project from their side of things.
This is a lot of work. And just like PM work, it is very hard to quantify or plan. If you’re in good hands, you’re working with someone who has good PM skills. If not, give them the list above along with a copy of this book. But seriously, if you can assist them with planning their time, it might be as simple as including action items or to-dos for them in a weekly email or in your status report. Just remember, they are busy and want the project to run smoothly as well. Help them make that happen.
Managing projects is hard enough, but being the person to manage who works on what and when can be even more difficult. However, if you don’t keep track of this basic information, you’ll likely find it hard to meet deadlines and wrap up projects without major issues. Here are some simple things you can do to make sure your that your team stays busy, yet not completely overbooked:
- Set up a simple spreadsheet to forecast projects and hours per team member.
- This data should be based on what’s included in your project scopes and timelines—be sure to double-check that.
- You may want to check out one of the resourcing tools that are out there now.
- Be sure to account for a number of factors that you can’t necessarily control in this process—for example, interests, skill sets, moving schedules, holidays, vacations, and so on.
- Account for your sales process if you’re in an agency and stay ahead of new project requests.
- Remember that you’re dealing with people here.