How Project Managers Can Allocate Resources for Competing Projects

How Project Managers Can Allocate Resources for Competing Projects

Project Managers distribute resources across their projects and teams within the project but allocating resources can be a minefield.

Project Managers distribute resources across their projects and teams within the project but allocating resources can be a minefield.

Project managers are often responsible for distributing resources across projects and teams. This seems simple enough at face value, but can actually be a company minefield, where employees vie for additional resources and PMs have to decide if these requests are approved.

As projects grow increasingly complex and companies look to tighten their budgets, PMs might find that two projects are competing for the same resources. This leaves the project manager to decide who gets what, if anything. How can this be done objectively?

Here are a few expert tactics for successful resource allocation and project management for competing teams.

Resource Allocation is Essential in Project Management

Without proper resource allocation, teams can fall apart. In an article for SaaS-based predictive project management platform LiquidPlanner, technical writer Will Kelly clearly defines resource allocation in relation to management: It is the process of assigning team members and assets to meet the competing needs of a team. Management determines the best use of those resources for maximum effectiveness.

There are two elements at play here. The first is determining which projects are prioritized and which ones get the most resources. If you assign too few people to a project, then it will likely never be completed (at least not on time). The second element is the efficiency, or choosing the right resources for the right tasks. A technical genius might be a strong asset to a company, but choosing a creative lead for a project could tap into their skill set and let them thrive.

Resource allocation starts in the project development process. Teams and team leads need an idea of exactly how much time, money and tools are required to complete a project.

Kate Kurzawska at project management software company TimeCamp has the following tips for successful resource allocation:

  • Develop an accurate scope of the project and its needs.

  • Identify resources you need or already have.

  • Don’t just look at the big picture, but rather dive into the details of what you need.

  • Avoid over-allocating.

Failure to allocate resources effectively means you could waste money by under-allocating, or lose money by missing deadlines and going over budget because your team is over capacity.

Over-Allocation Leads to Competition for Resources

The rules of supply and demand apply to the workplace. Poor resource management leads to over-allocation, which occurs when one resource (typically an overworked employee) is spread too thin, rendering it ineffective.

Greg Bailey, vice president of resource management at ProSymmetry, explains that project managers have to review the state of their resources and make adjustments when over-allocation occurs. Steps they can take include:

  • Adding additional resources to reduce the overall burden, which might include more team members or better tools.

  • Delaying low-priority tasks to lighten the current workload.

  • Reduce the scope of the project, which will decrease its duration and the amount of resources needed to complete.

Now let’s look at tactics project managers can use to improve resource allocation and how they get teams to compromise and adjust their resource requests. 

Teach Team Members to Clearly State Project Goals and Needs

Successful project managers will set up strategies to evaluate projects based on their needs and goals.

Successful project managers will set up strategies to evaluate projects based on their needs and goals.

Successful project managers will set up strategies to evaluate projects based on their needs and goals. This starts with the teams requesting resources. If your staff members know how to submit requests clearly and with enough detail, then PMs can clearly evaluate what is needed to complete various tasks.

“Taking up valuable resources without clearly articulating why can lead to a workplace culture that resents the drain your project has on the company,” Ben Aston writes at the Digital Project Manager. “It’s important to demonstrate the value that your project adds so that internal teams better understand why you’re taking certain resources and what the pay-off is in the long run.”

Teams vying for resources need to tie their project to the value it provides. Project managers need to choose projects based on the value added and explain their decisions objectively.

Some project managers ask their team to develop their project plan against the six most common corporate constraints. These factors help PMs clearly understand what is at stake and what is needed for success. PMP coach Shiv Shenoy examines these constraints and why they are important in project planning.

  • Risk: what can go wrong and what can be done about it?

  • Resources: who and what is required to do the work?

  • Quality: how close is outcome to expectations?

  • Scope: what is the expected outcome?

  • Time: when are the deliverables expected?

  • Cost: how much money is available?

By examining each issue, project managers can make strategic decisions. For instance, a low-risk project with the potential of a high-quality outcome might be passed on in favor of a few projects that take less time, cost less and take up fewer resources.

Develop Strategies to Evaluate Project Requests

Once your team members submit project proposals, the project manager in charge of resource allocation has to approve them. This is where decision making can become tricky. For most teams, all resources are essential, and few people will be willing to change their plans.

Michael Stanleigh, CEO of Business Improvement Architects, provides a methodology PMs can follow to ensure projects are approved systematically and with the same criteria. These steps include:

  • Maintain an inventory of your current projects.

  • Make sure each project has an approved scope and project plan.

  • Establish criteria to determine the impact of each project.

  • Rank each project’s priority level.

  • Bring in senior management for a second opinion.

Having a process like this in place prevents project managers from feeling overwhelmed by the resource allocation and evaluation process. They don’t have to worry about approving a project if the scope and project plan has yet to be submitted.

One Project Evaluation Strategy

Companies often develop their own methodology for analyzing projects and even provide numerical values to the various risk factors involved. Annegret Widmer at Meisterplan gives one example in which project managers assign numbers to projects depending on the time required for the work to see their value:

  • 0: Never. The project will never pay off

  • 25: Very long. The project will take more than two years to provide ROI

  • 50: Long. The project will take more than a year to be completed.

  • 75: Medium. The project will take six months to a year to complete.

  • 100: Short. The project will only take a few months to complete.      

Naturally, the timeline is adjusted by company, and time is only one factor in a project. However, if each constraint has a numerical value with a weight scale, it’s possible to give projects scores and choose those with the greatest chances of success. 

Other companies give projects letter-grades, with A projects taking priority, or have their own methods of ranking projects to see which ones should be given priority.

Mediate With Team Leads to Divide Resources

When working with more then one team, allocation of resources can get complex and a little tense.

When working with more then one team, allocation of resources can get complex and a little tense.

While ranking methodologies help create a high-level view of a project, PMs often work with more than one team, each having high-priority projects that require resources. The allocation process can get tense. Peter Landau at even compares project resource allocation to peace negotiations, where management plays the role of a mediating third-party and two countries come to the table looking for a fair trade.

Managers need to establish ground rules, so teams know their resources won’t be stripped away and their project won’t constantly be placed on the backburner.

In some cases, project managers will turn to stakeholders to review their goals and project needs. To help in the negotiations, Grace Windsor at the BrightWork blog suggests following the stakeholder prioritization method. Through this process, PMs use the MoSCoW technique to determine what resources and elements of a project are essential:

  • Must have: Requirements for the project, team or department. These elements are non-negotiable.

  • Should have: These are high-priority elements that should be included if possible.

  • Could have: These are nice to have but not essential.

  • Won’t have: These will have to be postponed until another project or product iteration.

Some PMs ask stakeholders to complete this process before meeting with the team, and then work through the list task-by-task as the meeting progresses.

Unfortunately, often it’s only requests labelled high-priority or critical that get approved, Upland Software explains. Team members quickly learn to prioritize everything as critical in order to get it approved. Check your email inbox to see this in action. You likely have at least one person who flags every email as important and writes in all caps to get your attention, even if they’re just announcing that there’s donuts in the breakroom.

The project manager often has to work with teams to adjust their priorities and show what really is essential, versus what would be a nice addition.   

Resource Allocation is a Company-Wide Process

While you might feel the weight of the company on your shoulders when developing project plans, you can tap into stakeholders, leaders and employees during the resource allocation process.

“Prioritizing projects does not mean you have to do it by yourself,” Innovative Management Solutions president Jeff Collins writes. “Request feedback from your team members, upper-level management (if appropriate), and others about your list of priorities.”

This is especially important if you’re uncertain about what needs to be prioritized. Without consulting others, you could apply resources to the wrong plan and miss deadlines or important tasks.

Project Mediation is Uses Logical and Emotional Thinking

Project managers prioritize daily, using both logical evaluations and emotional feelings to make those choices, project management expert Antonio Nieto-Rodriguez explains. He shares the story of a postal company that encouraged employees to offer better customer care and operate more efficiency. These seem like two reasonable and objective tasks. But what happens when a customer invites an employee in to chat? Should that employee prioritize customer care or efficiency?

Balancing team workloads and resources is a delicate balance that can fall off the rails quickly, which is why PMs employ a variety of tactics to help the decision-making process.

Learn How to Adjust to Changes in Plans and Resources

Adjusting to change is sritical to being successful in resource allocation.

Adjusting to change is sritical to being successful in resource allocation.

Negotiating between multiple projects that are competing for resources isn’t a simple task, but rather a skill that PMs develop over time. Johann Strasser at The Project Group says that there’s no easy way to deal with teams competing for resources, and that human nature and conflict will always get in the way.

He also emphasizes that successful resource planning is impossible if project managers face new resource requirements on a daily basis and are expected to react to them quickly. Without time to research the impacts these changes will have, PMs won’t be able to allocate resources to maximum benefit. Like the peace negotiations mentioned earlier, resource allocation is based on planning and trust.

That being said, responding to change is an essential part of a project manager’s job. Employees quit, budgets are cut and tools break. Team leaders need to be able to respond and adjust to these changes.

“Prioritizing tasks is an ongoing process, even on the best-run projects,” David Goulden at work management software company Clarizen writes. “However, if you have a structure in place for evaluating and ranking new tasks, and you’ve established a collaborative environment among your team members, you’ll be able to adapt to changes without throwing the entire project off track.”

Fortunately, this adjustment process can become part of your prioritization methodology. Sanjay Malhotra, cofounder of Clearbridge Mobile, says that project managers need to anticipate the costs of setbacks and quickly adjust projects based on those costs. Knowing how to get a project back on track can help PMs reallocate resources and change project priorities to meet the needs of the company.

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