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Video: 2020 Virtual Conference Strategic Resource Planning without Perfect Project Schedules

July 15, 2020 | By Samantha Varner

Tempus Resource 2020 Virtual Conference Recap: Bob Blackburn, Henny Penny

Many thanks to Bob Blackburn for his detailed and engaging presentation, which you can watch in full below:

Knowing that there’s no such thing as perfect scheduling across any organization, the central question for PPMs and RPMs becomes this: What tools, techniques, and best practices will help maintain strategic perspective without perfect schedules?

As a former PPM, Bob Blackburn of Henny Penny thinks a great deal about scheduling, and he shared many crucial questions in his presentation at the Tempus Resource 2020 Virtual Conference. He wonders, for example, whether resources should be allocated before scheduling or whether schedules should build up your allocations. How much time should a PM spend polishing a perfect schedule vs. leading the project? And, since Agile doesn’t use critical path scheduling, how do you get resource allocation out of agile teams?

In coming up with answers, Mr. Blackburn notes a few key truths:

  1. Some of the best project leaders are not the most detailed schedule keepers
  2. Project schedules that are useful during planning can quickly become inaccurate during execution when issues arise
  3. The ultimate goal of RPM is to stay aligned with strategic business goals

Further, he observes:

  • There are often hesitations to plan/forecast without perfect schedules
  • Not all projects will have schedules or be run by PMs
  • Not all schedules have accurate allocations
  • Not all schedule changes are material to RPM
  • Agile teams say they don’t need Resource Planning

Creating efficient project schedules

In light of all this, how does one create a project schedule aligned with goals? And more specifically, a project schedule that shows what Mr. Blackburn considers the most important component of any schedule: percentage allocation at the task level.

The answer he offers comes in the form of several Tempus Resource tools:

  • Opportunity Maps that offer a “directionally correct, management-level strategic view and decision-making tool” when estimating how many resources may be available for a given project
  • Resource Requests Process that allows for easy communication and alignment among project managers, functional managers, resource managers, and portfolio managers
  • Demand planning by role, which shows demand for a particular role across projects along with capacity
  • Project templates (also called proposal projects) that create the profile of a project with typical phases, resources, and duration to be used in early planning phases before a PM is assigned
  • Planning by phases so that when resources and allocations shift by phase, you can see how those resources are needed by phases and how allocations will change
  • Using a tool like JIRE Portfolio for Agile release planning, product road mapping, or Agile portfolio planning.

Among resource management best practices, many of which can be found at the Resource Management Institute (RMI), Mr. Blackburn specifically recommends that PMs should be updating their own projects with their own data while understanding the goals of RPM and letting go of perfection. Additionally, functional managers should be asked to focus on the workload of their resources and not the overall project.

Ultimately, Mr. Blackburn advises against waiting to plan until you have “perfect” schedules or data. Ambiguity and the “good enough” can successfully lead to strategic decisions that need to be made quickly and add to the overall strategic value of the business.


Transcript: Strategic Resource Planning without Perfect Project Schedules

Thanks for having me and hopefully today we will talk about some really interesting topics and maybe provoke some thoughts, debates, etc. The topic that I chose today is a very interesting topic to me. It’s rolling out Tempus and working with other customers that use Tempus. We often get into the topic of how do we bring in project schedules and whether we have schedules or not or how much we rely on schedules. So being a project manager for much of my career, it’s of a lot of interest to me. That’s the reason I picked this. Hopefully, it’s the same for you guys.

One thing I’ll just throw out there, kind of the chicken and the egg concept. Then I’ll often talk about the debate, do we allocate resources and then schedule them so we provide project managers with the resource pool of percentage allocation and then schedule within those parameters, or are we pulling data in from schedules, from project managers, from all other sources and then that builds up our allocations. Or do we do both? Often what I find is it’s a combination.

The topic of perfect schedules, that’s very debatable. It’s a very good question. What is a perfect schedule? How much time should a project manager spend polishing schedules, making them perfect, versus leading a project? That’s a very interesting question. What’s more important from a project manager’s perspective? Having all the work, all the dependencies, tracking completion, getting the project completed meeting the objectives, or getting their allocations so that the portfolio group of PMO or resource management team can do their job. Some of the best project leaders (notice I used the term project leader; I often shift to that) are often not the most detailed schedule keepers, which is interesting. Many times project schedules are really a good planning tool and then sometimes I notice that when the project gets into issues, risks, problems, changes, a lot of times schedules can come apart during the execution phase. How much time should a project manager be spending on that making it perfect? Then here’s the trend over the last ten years probably. Agile you know doesn’t use Critical Path Scheduling. So how do you get resource allocations out of your Agile team and I’ve often heard Agile has dedicated teams so resource management doesn’t matter, which I don’t believe is the true answer. I like to step back and, if you’re doing resource portfolio management, before you dive too deep and get into the details just remember there’s the strategic element and the strategic goals. We’re really trying to forecast resource for future needs and looking at roles and skills, looking six months out, looking a year out. The other thing is that we’re often trying to answer questions with these 20 projects running, this new project that’s just come up, a new business need, when can it start? What roles and skills should we be looking to hire or make contracting decisions on or major decisions of an organization? We are really trying to focus our resources on business strategy execution so with all the resources we have, how do we make sure that we are feeding those most strategic projects? We’re also trying to optimize its allocations across very large resource pools, and we’re trying to react to business change. All that being said, there’s this balance we need to do to have this very strategic view and this very detailed view when it comes to building schedules and pulling that scheduling data into our resource portfolio management. So some more observations, just kind of what makes me want to talk about this topic, is I often have seen in my own personal experience or having discussions with great hesitation to even try to plan or forecast before we have complete compliance and all projects have schedules and we’re running those perfectly, I don’t believe you need to hesitate. I think the earlier you can begin, the more strategic you can become quickly. And there’s the fact that not all projects have schedules or not all projects are being run by true project managers. I think it would be rare in an organization where that it’s pure. Not all schedules have accurate allocations and I’ll just dive a little bit deeper to talk about that topic because I think that’s one of the key areas of schedules and resource planning come together. Detailed schedules often change but you often may not be material to the overall strategic view. Then of course again we’ll talk about Agile teams that may or may not believe that they need resource planning because of the dedicated teams where everybody’s 100 percent on a team.

So just to dive into a very kind of granular discussion yet very important discussion, you know when you look at a true project schedule, Critical Path project schedule, you know you’ll have duration, you’ll have resources assigned to the task and then you need one element that I often find even in the best schedules, the best project managers, is the ability to have what we’ve got highlighted here on the right-hand side of the screen is at that task level, every task, every assignment, does it have a percentage allocation? I often find that’s not the case throughout the schedule and that’s usually where it breaks down. So the approach that I take and kind of try to frame this and maybe help guide how you deal with all this. There are really two lenses that I look at for every project and in total across all projects. It’s phase. What phase is the project in because that would be very different and very important. And whose perspective and who is providing the data? Project managers? Resource managers? Portfolio
managers, etc.? So from a project phase standpoint you must consider which phase it’s in and the three main groups that I break this into are the project intake or portfolio planning kind of the big picture early stages. Then there is specific to each project going through a project planning phase. I know Marc talked about and I like the concept that the demand factory kind of aligns with that. And then there’s the project execution phase. So you really must know when you’re looking at a project and whether you should have the scheduling data or the allocation data. You really need to know what phase that project is in. So we’re talking about the project intake or portfolio planning phase. You typically don’t have PMs assigned and in a lot of ways you don’t have a schedule. You certainly don’t have a detailed schedule. You probably have a lot of either named resources or probably more demand planning or generic resources by role. You have a lot of uncertainty of your demand potentially if your project intake is customer projects. Timing, whether it’s going to go forward, the probability of it going forward, etc. And then there’s the planning horizon. You know it probably kind of a bit depends on what you know, if you’re professional services or IT, but I would say a lot of times I’m dealing with six months or two years out so it’s a longer planning horizon.

So then we go to projects that are maybe in the planning phase. They’ve been approved to move forward conceptually, you’ve got to get through requirements, but you typically probably have a PM assigned, but too you don’t know what the solution is. You don’t know what the details of delivery will be, the implementation phase. So you really don’t have anything but what it’s going to take to get through planning. Kind of the concept of your PMI, and you’ve probably heard of progressive elaboration so kind of a phase-based elaboration of schedules, mostly probably education based estimates at that point in time, not work based estimates. You’re probably dealing with the tasks that are more difficult to estimate, gathering requirements, things like that, architecture, project scoping, things like that are really difficult to estimate from a true scheduling standpoint. And the horizon is probably relatively speaking more in a three to six month range.

So then go to the true execution of phase of a project. This is where you optimally would love to have PMs assigned, the schedules are all detailed schedules, they’re all really nice schedules, work based schedules typically maybe with some duration based in there. The allocations can quickly change in this phase as you all know that as soon as your issues occur, risks occur. The schedules are probably changing very quickly and that’s where you decide how often do you want to get updates from that. And then there’s again the Agile delivery. I would say that it’s very predictable that you know teams and for a period of time that’s a really easy resource problem to solve so that’s actually some of the convenience of Agile teams and dedicated teams.

And the next perspective that we talked about is just who’s providing the data. Who are the project managers, portfolio/resource managers, depending on your organization, or functional managers. You always need to be considerate of who are you asking to provide data. Do they understand or appreciate what the goal is of resource planning versus what they might be doing on their level or on the team’s level. So project managers, I would say they really mostly care about their project only. They’re not as concerned about other projects and other resource demands. They view allocations within their single projects so often they’ll be looking at over-allocations within their project but not necessarily over- allocations of that research across a portfolio project. They just need to know who is available for them to schedule and that’s their focus. They care more about the tasks and the completion of the tasks than they do the allocation data that it might be providing to management or PMO, etc. And they really often, I find, don’t want multiple sources of data to update so they don’t want to update their schedule then update this allocation data separately, so you’ve got to solve that. They don’t always maintain their allocations as I showed in the detailed example at every task level. I’ve not often found that any schedule has that perfectly done. And they may focus on critical resources only so they might not be really showing all the resources in their schedule or really focused on all the resources in the project.

And then there’s resource managers or portfolio managers, PMO level really trying to look at the big picture across projects and trying to answer those strategic questions of when can this project start, what resource roles do we really need to look at, some of those big picture questions which is very different than a project manager at the detail level. I would say that some data is better than no data, that directionally correct is good enough sometimes, especially when it’s not material to the overall picture. And you need to understand the data quality of the PM schedules before you just start pulling all the schedules in and assume that that data is correct. Often you find that the data may not be best to pull in. It might be better to get summary level allocations from project managers that might be more accurate. The other thing is when these projects are in the intake phase or even sometimes in the planning phase, the portfolio manager or the resource manager may need to provide those estimates. How do you do that without a schedule? I’ll talk about that in a little bit.

Then functional managers. Functional managers are focused on their team. Who from their team is assigned and over-allocated or what projects they’ve been promised to and they’re often trying to protect, hopefully, from over -allocations but that’s really their focus as a functional manager.

So what I’d like to kind of shift to is what are some tools and techniques and maybe best practices that try to keep us at a strategic level and be able to deal with the fact that we may not have perfect schedules across our organization for all projects that we’re trying to do resource portfolio planning with. Some of the key tools that I often use within Tempus are opportunity maps. Very interesting concept because it even says this is directionally correct type of information, so the example I have here is if I could start this project and could only get 80 percent of those resources or 90 percent of those resources, I’m still interested in digging into that. So it’s not an exact science but it‘s a directionally correct management level strategic view and decision making tool, a wonderful tool within Tempus to get alignment of project managers and functional managers or even resource managers and portfolio managers in this resource request process. The handshake, the contract between the need of a project and the changes that are happening day in and day out or week to week, if you will, on projects can be communicated via resource requests. Great process and something that I found is very impactful to get everybody aligned.

And then, the other one I’m showing here is really demand planning by role so it’s really in net across aggregated across projects. What is the demand for a particular role in this example I’m showing the QA role and capacity and how do those projects stack up and where do we have problems, maybe by month is what I’m showing here so these are Tempus reports that I’ve just pulled that data, summarized it and looked at it by role planning and again you don’t need perfect data to make these types of decisions.

The other Tempus tool that I used typically to try to look at a strategic view of things is the use of project templates or proposal projects. I have on the right-hand side, you can see here just a small sample of just creating a profile of a project and typical phases, typical resources, typical hours of allocation or weeks of duration, etc. to use as templates especially in the early planning phases when we don’t have project managers but we can say this project is our typical six-month application project or large nine-month project. You can see here just an example of that in my Tempus scheduling tool that I’m using and then the other key thing and I kind of talked about it is planning by phases. Typically resources and allocations shift by phase so even if you don’t know the details of a project and you don’t have a schedule but you know the profile of a project, there’s a lot we can do with how resources are needed with each phase definition requirements, design, development and how those allocations change over time and paint that picture and use that for that type of project when we’re looking at it in the portfolio view.

Then lastly, well not lastly, but one of the other things is topics that often have been pretty discussed at a lot of conferences and especially in resource management, it’s a little bit confusing at times, is dealing with Agile. So in my experience I actually use a tool called JIRA portfolio, which is very much a more portfolio planning kind of higher level management tool that can pull data from specific JIRA projects information and start doing what’s called release planning or product road mapping or even what I would call Agile portfolio planning and, as you can see on the right-hand side, this is just a snippet of a visual just to kind of show you that even though they are dedicated teams, resources are a hundred percent in theory with allocated to a project. You know products have phases. Products have life cycles. There’s beginnings and ends, there’s spin up product teams and then there’s shifting of resources to other product teams so you should in essence be able to use that summarized view without getting in the details of sprint planning all the details that maybe go into individual JIRA project management and pull that into a higher level strategic view and get some resource data at that level because that’s really the level I think that’s important to resource portfolio planning.

And then the last thing I’ll put up there is that a more recent, at least for me, more recent discovery has been the resource management institute (RMI) and it is specific to resource management and it is a place that we can all kind of gather for best practices, and it has a lot of has a process called just-in-time resourcing, which will hit on helping how do you forecast, how do you do staffing, skills inventories and all that relates to how do you look at resource management, best practices across industries, be it professional services, be it enterprise IT, product development and then I believe agencies is a new that they’ve come out with so if you haven’t seen that it’s a really good source for white papers and discussions and that’s the Resource Management Institute.

One topic I have here that I didn’t talk about was that really I fundamentally think that project managers, when they are running projects, the data needs to come from them and the trick is how do you get them to understand the goals of resource portfolio planning and that perfection isn’t necessary for them to feed good data but they own the project, they own the details of that project so they should be the best source of information. That’s a tricky balance. And then folks know managers are really focusing on their teams and making sure that they’re managing the workloads of their teams and not necessarily sometimes will want to represent the projects themselves.

So in conclusion, I’ll just wrap up with hopefully the message that you’ve gotten is that you don’t hesitate to plan or to make strategic decisions until you have the perfect data or you’ve pulled in all the perfect schedules and then just learn to deal with the ambiguity maybe directionally right or good enough. When you’re looking at the aggregated data across large sets of projects and large sets of resources because strategic business decisions need to be made quickly and the business changes quickly and if you wait too long you might it might be too late.

And then the last point is if we want to be in resource portfolio planning, we want to be adding strategic value and need to keep an eye on that so the quicker that you can do that, the better it is for your company and yourself as a team.

With that, I’ll just throw out there my email. If you ever want to contact me talk about this, debate the topic, I would love to have more discussions. I think it’s a very important topic especially when you’re maybe new to implementing Tempus and you’re trying to figure out how do I pull in schedules and when do I pull in schedules and what if I don’t have schedules, etc.

Again, thank you for your time and hopefully this was valuable.

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