8 September 2014

How Successful Project Managers Manage Scarcity

Not enough time. Not enough staff. Not enough budget. Such is the lament of project managers around the world. 

Most of us will face scarcity in some form as we progress through our careers. It is a challenge but one that can be managed with the right perspective. 

The Psychology of Personal Scarcity.

When you lack the necessities in life, fear takes over. 

Your focus rapidly shifts to the short term – finding today’s meal. Thoughts of long term strategies to improve your life fade away. When you’re worried about dinner, it’s difficult to think about retirement savings. It is an uncomfortable place to be. For this discussion, we will assume that your personal needs are not under threat.

What about the other kinds of scarcity you face in life? Time scarcity is a persistent problem for many professionals (especially those with long commutes to manage). Scarcity of energy and willpower are a second important source of limits. After a tiring day at the office, it’s more difficult to rein in our bad habits on the way home – such as picking up yet another chocolate bar.

Scarcity does not have to be a project killing challenge. There are strategies for coping with it. In time, you may even come to appreciate the hidden benefits that accrue from scarcity. After all, if you are accustomed to responding to any challenge with “spend more money on it,” your problem solving skills will gradually wither and die.

Two Ways To Approach Project Scarcity

The Engineer Approach: Scarcity As Just One More Variable

Credit: Library of Congress (1939)
I find that engineers have a very valuable perspective on scarcity. In fact, they use a different word – constraints. Some constraints occur due to physical laws – the melting point of stainless steel for example. Other constraints are manmade – the project’s available pool of skills and staff. Engineers look at constraints as just another factor to include in their plans – there is nothing overwhelming about it.

We can illustrate the creative ways engineers respond to limits by considering challenges set for engineering students. During their studies, engineers are frequently faced with very limited resources and tight deadlines to deliver projects.

  • The American Society of Mechanical Engineers.The 2014 student challenge involved building a lighter than air Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV). The challenge included this important constraint: “You cannot purchase and modify an existing commercially available vehicle.” A prohibition on adapting existing equipment acts as a spur to the team’s problem solving capabilities.

  • Canadian Engineering Competition.“Teams are given four hours and are provided with material to construct a solution to the problem and will present and demonstrate their prototype to a panel of judges.” – Canadian Engineering Competition Rules. In this competition, teams of engineering students face two significant challenges – limited time and materials. This dual form of scarcity is an excellent simulation of the limits that project managers face in their daily work.

  • Design/Build/Fly Competition (AIAA).                                                                                         The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) runs an annual contest for students. For the 2013/2014 contest, one third of competing team members must be Junior, Sophomores or Freshmen. In addition, the aircraft is required to use over the counter batteries for power.

In these three contests, scarcity is an important factor. Interestingly, the competitions also include limitations on team members. 

Let’s consider the Design/Build/Fly competition rules for a moment. Like other competitions, the AIAA sets restrictions on materials. What sets that contest apart from others is the staff regulation. What if your next project had a requirement to include at least one intern or junior employee? Would you regard that restriction as depriving you of experienced talent? Or would you instead regard that rule as an opportunity to seek new ideas from younger staff?

You can reframe scarcity on a project. Simply imagine that your project is part of a larger competition. And any competition worth its salt has rules and regulations. Seen in that light, resource scarcity is just another rule.

The Alternative Uses Solution to Scarcity

Follow this classic creativity exercise to shift your perspective on scarce resources. Rather than panicking when told about cuts to a project budget, this exercise helps you to focus on what you do have. Consider two examples to help you think about creatively employing your organization’s staff and technology.

Alternative Uses For Staff

Staff are the most important aspect of any project. What can a project manager do when faced with scarcity? Look for alternative uses of project staff. Here are some ideas to get you started.
·         Project staff connections.

Informal connections yield valuable insights but only if you explore this idea. Asking your project team about their connections and the possibility of requesting favours can help your project.

·         Reviewing Skills.

In the technology world, many professionals acquire varying levels of skill in many different technologies. A software developer may be best known for his C++ programming skill. At the same time, he may also be knowledgeable about Visual Basic for Applications (VBA).

When scarcity deprives you of your preferred solution (e.g. a specialized vendor), ask about your team’s skills. In a technology project, you may be able to create a workable solution using VBA or Microsoft Access. Who knows – an improvised solution may yield better results!

Alternative Uses for Technology

Many large organizations provide a large suite of applications and other technology to their staff. On any given day, how much of this toolkit do you actually use? Speaking for myself, I generally use only three or four applications per day (Excel, Word and Outlook). By investigating your organization’s technology, you can work around a limited (or non-existent) technology budget.

·         Research existing software options.

Contact your organization’s IT department and ask for a complete list of applications available to you. Some applications will be “free” (i.e. an organization wide license was obtained) and others may have a low cost. A ten or fifteen call to the IT help desk can help you discover plenty of alternative uses for your technology.

·         Contact other technology project teams about their technology strategy.

Does your organization have a project management office (PMO) or other project teams? If so, those groups can act as a resource. Review a list of current and recently completed projects at your organization (including regulatory projects). Once you find a few examples of projects with similar aims, reach out to the project manager and ask how they did it.

Bio. Bruce Harpham writes about project management training on the Project Management Hacks website. His experience includes leading projects at financial institutions.

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