This post was originally published on September 20, 2019, and updated most recently on July 7, 2020.
Every project involves resources — whether it’s something small, like baking a muffin, or something huge, like a company rebrand. The key to project success lies in successfully allocating your resources, which is just a fancy way of saying ‘figuring out what you need to get the job done’.
What is resource allocation?
To really get to grips with resource allocation, we first need to understand what a resource is. A resource is an asset that a person or organization can use in order to function effectively.
So resource allocation is about organizing your resources (people, tools, deadlines, budget) across different tasks to work towards completing the job.
To use a real-world example, let’s pretend you’re creating a new website. You need to know who’s available to do the writing, designing, and coding required to get the job done. You also need to know what tools they need and what their availability is, so you can get everything done by the deadline.
The project manager or program manager is usually responsible for resource management and allocation. In a large company, they’ll ask for reports from department heads, which they’ll then use to create their allocation plan. In smaller businesses, the PM might just informally ask employees how their workload is looking, then get approval from their manager and make it official in the company tracker.
How are resources allocated?
Before you start, it’s a good idea to get to know your resources. What tools do you have at your disposal? What’s your budget? Who do you have on your team, and what are their specialties?
Next, you need to define your project’s scope, then work out a timeline, starting with the final deliverable date and working backward. This will give you your work breakdown structure and schedule, which is based on the stages and phases of the project. Once you have this, you can start figuring out where people and tools will be needed.
- Work breakdown structure
- Resource allocation
Smaller organizations tend to do this in an ad hoc way, whereas larger companies often rely on project management software, which lets them see several workloads simultaneously and track everything in real-time. Something that’s especially important if there are lots of things going on at once.
5 things that can affect resource allocation
You’ve probably familiar with the cost-time-scope triangle. It’s essentially a diagram — like the one below — that shows how scope, cost, and time can affect quality.
Among other things, project managers need to be good at allocating resources in such a way that ensures overall quality, while factoring in things like constraints and dependencies. For example, if someone on the team is out sick, the PM needs to consider how that absence will impact project delivery. Change will happen. How you handle the change determines the success of the project.
Here are some common things to look out for:
1. Changes in project scope
Projects are fluid things, and while you absolutely should stick to the scope as much as possible, it’s also important to be flexible. Clients’ needs will develop and projects will grow and shrink. Sometimes, there’s no way to predict how long a certain job will take until it begins, but having an awareness of the shifting landscape will help you prepare.
The project manager should have measures in place to deal with these changes. For example, a PM working in a creative agency should have a list of freelancers on the books who they can turn to, should the team need an extra pair of hands.
2. Changes in resource availability
Employees get sick and go on vacation. Computers break down. Deliveries are late. Snow days happen. The key to dealing with these eventualities is — you guessed it — flexibility (and a healthy dose of forward-planning). Good communication is key here: if a team is one person down, speak to the impacted individuals to find out whether they can take on the extra work. If not, bring in freelancers or speak to the client and change the deadline.
3. Schedule changes
You’ll also need to keep a close eye on timings and events that push tasks back. For example, a client may take longer than anticipated to give feedback, putting the project on hold until they respond. In this instance, there’s not much you can do except wait, manage the client’s expectations (a potential delay in deliverable dates) and juggle your resources to work within a revised timescale without compromising quality. This is where a contingency plan comes in handy.
On the other side of things, sometimes projects take less time and you discover people are overbooked. In this case, the PM will need to adjust their course accordingly. Spotting this early on means you can let people know in good time — something that’s especially important when working with freelancers and contractors who may require you to give them a certain number of days’ notice.
4. Changing dependencies
Projects are usually made up of a series of interrelated tasks. If one is pushed back or delayed, chances are it’ll impact the rest of the project as a whole. Having a good understanding of the different types of dependencies will help you plan ahead and allocate resources accordingly. Again, communication is key here: speak to your team to find out how they’re getting on and whether they’re able to start tasks as per your schedule.
5. Balancing urgencies
Some tasks are more important than others, so there may be an occasion where you have to prioritize one job over another. This is usually a balancing act between urgency and importance. For example, an agency would usually prioritize a big client’s work with a fast turnaround time over all other tasks. They’d also throw their best team at it while letting the less experienced employees take care of the smaller jobs.
What is effective resource management?
It’s a balancing act, and there’s no one right way to do things. That said, there are a few tips and tricks you can employ to make the job easier. Whether the resources you’re working with are people, materials, or technology, a master resource allocator will be able to keep every team member from being over- or under-utilized and connected with all the tools they need to get the project accomplished successfully.
The successful resource manager will:
1. Use tools
Keeping track of your resources is no easy task. Project management software helps you stay organized through real-time project tracking, it creates transparency and helps you protect your team from stress or burnout because you can keep track of everyone’s workloads at once. Do your homework, and look into all of the great JIRA alternatives available to teams.
2. Check in with teams and clients
Communicate often once work begins. Ask your team how the workload feels and if they have any issues preventing them from working effectively. And remember to check whether they have any ideas for improving efficiency: they’ll often have a deeper understanding of their capabilities and processes, and could provide you with useful insider knowledge.
Alongside regular catch-ups with the team, you should evaluate the project as it progresses. If you notice you’re getting things done faster than anticipated, you may be able to bring the deadline forward (which is always a client-pleasing move). If you see certain jobs are taking longer or are being postponed, then be aware it will impact your final deadline. Spotting these issues early will help you plan ahead and manage resources accordingly.
3. Run a post-mortem
At the end of every project, hold an evaluation meeting (AKA a ‘project post-mortem’) to compare your original project plan to the actual project lifecycle. What went well? And what didn’t go so well? Take your learnings and apply them to subsequent allocation assignments. When it comes to planning for your next project, it’s as close to psychic as you can get.