After the project manager has developed a detailed schedule for a new project, one nagging question typically remains: Will the resources required to execute the project according to schedule be available when they're needed? In the process of developing a project schedule, the average availability of resources should have been taken into consideration when activity durations were estimated. However, this estimating process does not guarantee the total workload on any given resource (person or functional group) from all projects will not exceed the availability of that resource during any future period.

When resource overloads occur, personnel are subjected to unnecessary stress, and project activities inevitably fall behind schedule. The quality of the deliverables produced is also likely to suffer. How can you avoid falling into the resource overload trap? By taking a proactive approach to managing workload versus personnel resource availability.

Anticipating resource overloads

The best approach to anticipate specific resource overloads in future periods depends on the number of simultaneous projects undertaken by the organization and the extent to which people are shared across multiple projects. If the organization undertakes only a small number of projects at one time — or if each person is dedicated to work on only one or two projects at a time — a “shortcut approach” may be employed. The easiest and most effective shortcut approach is to:

  1. Give each person a copy of the newly developed project schedule, showing only those activities in which that person will be involved.

  2. Ask the person to check the schedule against their personal calendar and other work commitments (including the schedules for the few other projects in which they may be involved) and report any obvious conflicts.

In doing so, a person may realize for the first time that, during a particular week three months in the future, they are scheduled to work on five major activities in two different projects while also participating in a two-day training program. Clearly, “something's got to give!” The key to this approach is that each person is given the opportunity and the responsibility to identify their own overloads.

However, if the organization shares resources (again, individuals or groups) across a significant number of simultaneous projects, shortcut approaches to the anticipation of resource overloads are inadequate, requiring a more comprehensive approach. To be effective, this method must capture the workload associated with all projects in which personnel are involved. Fortunately, most popular project management software systems support the comprehensive approach as described in the next section.

The comprehensive approach

The first step in this process is called “resource loading,” which occurs during the planning process for each new project. For each activity in the project schedule, the quantity of each resource required to perform the activity (typically measured in staff-hours for personnel resources) is estimated and entered into the project management software system. Thus, we might estimate that an activity called “install wiring on 3rd floor” will require about 30 staff-hours of supervisor Ron Baker's time and about 120 staff-hours of effort from a group called “electricians.” Because the estimates are attached to the activities, the project management software has the ability to determine when the resources will be needed, based on the scheduled start and completion dates for the activities. In other words, you now have a time-phased projection of resource requirements or workload for each resource (e.g., Ron Baker and the electricians).

The next step is performed periodically and must be centralized at the project-portfolio level rather than at the project level. For each resource, the time-phased resource requirements are summed across all projects within the project management software system. The resulting “resource profiles” can be displayed in graphical and/or tabular format. By comparing the total workload projection for each resource with the resource's planned availability, overloads during specific future periods become obvious. The above description makes the process sound easier than it really is. Here are some of the challenges to consider:

  • Developing, maintaining, and applying standard ways of identifying organizational resources on all projects.

  • Developing the ability, confidence, and discipline to estimate resource requirements for all activities on all projects.

  • Establishing the centralized infrastructure that supports the accumulation and analysis of total resource requirements across all projects.

Resolving anticipated resource overloads

Once a specific resource overload has been anticipated in a specific future period, explicit action(s) must be taken to resolve the overload. The action(s) will involve either increasing the planned availability of the required resource and/or decreasing the planned workload during the period of the overload. Common methods of increasing planned resource availability include:

  • If the overload is significant and long-term, hire additional personnel.

  • Plan to use overtime.

  • Plan to employ temporary personnel.

  • Reschedule vacations, training, etc.

Common methods of decreasing workload on the resource include:

  • Reassign work to other people.

  • Contract out work.

  • Cancel or delay the start of low-priority projects.

  • Delay the start of selected activities. Note: Most popular project management software systems provide algorithms for selecting/suggesting activities to be delayed. Typically, these algorithms will start by selecting activities in the lowest priority project that can be delayed without affecting the scheduled completion date of that project (i.e., activities with “slack”).

If the methods listed above cannot resolve the overload, two last-choice options that are legitimate (if authorized), but that should be avoided if possible, are:

  • Reduction in the scope of one or more projects.

  • Extension in the duration (scheduled completion date) of one or more projects.

The key to being able to resolve resource imbalances is the ability to anticipate them. Most of the methods discussed in this article require advanced decision making and preparation in order to implement them when needed.

The good news is that you are not required to anticipate and resolve resource overloads. Indeed, few organizations make any attempt to do so. The overloads will always be resolved automatically. The bad news is that if you fail to resolve the overload, the default solution will virtually always be the unauthorized application of one or both of the two options listed above that should be avoided — that is, some of the work on some of the projects will never get done and/or some of the projects will be completed late.

Clark is cofounder of Project Success, Inc. (formerly YCA), Atlanta. He can be reached at clarkt@yca.net.