Project Management

Too many projects, not enough resources

From the The Money Files Blog
A blog that looks at all aspects of project and program finances from budgets, estimating and accounting to getting a pay rise and managing contracts. Written by Elizabeth Harrin from

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Categories: portfolio management, ROI

You’ve got a big pile of projects to do, and more requests coming in all the time.

There’s not enough money or people to go round.

What should you keep?  What should you scrap?

Take a look at the existing projects. Are any of them underperforming?  What can you cancel?  Can you salvage the work in progress to get something out of it before it’s cancelled?

Are there any in-flight projects that can be suspended until more resources are available?  Can you speed any of them up to make people available for other work more quickly?

Look at the new requests.  What can you reject straight away?  What’s a good project, but can be deferred?

Posted on: December 23, 2010 05:01 PM | Permalink

Comments (11)

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Hi Elizabeth

Especially with the economic climate many project had to be shelved, it is all about prioritisation which projects are deemed to be company critical the ones that are crucial for example CIS [Customer Information Systems] that brings in the bacon! yes projects that could increase the revenue is a must, anything else that can wait for another 6 months to a year is usually shelved. As for shortfall of resources the contracting world right now is thriving, the expertise is bought from outside it reduces the overall headcount of the organisation by not permanently recruiting and although it is expensive initially longer term it will save the organisation thousands of pounds in salaries, N.I contributions, Pension etc.


Hi Vasoula - contractors are a good way of adding short-term capacity to do those extra projects, but they are often funded from a 'project' budget in comparison to an operational budget, so they can bump up the costs of projects overall.

Agree, it is accepted and understood there is no other way!

Hi both, I agree and disagree to an extent to the contractor option as I am currently working on projects where there are a huge number of contractors (I am one too) to meet integration projects' timelines. Hiring contractors have definitely given the organization to meet the deadlines but on the flip side in trying to hire large numbers, the quality is definitely taking a nosedive and outputs/ deliverables getting impacted. Though the long term costs might not be impacted but in short term the costs have gone over the roof and panick has kicked in certain quarters to bring down costs. So I think there are pros and cons with hiring contractors and getting the work done.

I still think considering there are projects always kicking in and with the lack of desired workforce organizations need to take stock of priorities like mandatory/ regulatory stuff which cannot be neglected. I think ROI should be the key after that mandatory stuff and if required existing projects if not delivering the desirables need to be shelved as most of the time you will find projects which actually do not manage to deliver the exact initial output expected.

Happy to be shot at :-)

Hi Sunando

Yes, there are pros and cons - in my opinion I do think the selection and quality of Project Managers on contractual basis is crucial to the success and by recruiting the right level required will minimise the resource costs longer term; depending on the projects in question perhaps a Projects Director or even very Senior Project Managers are required to head projects to ensure project deliverables meet the business and stakeholder requirements - it is an expensive way of resourcing and does depend on the organisations whether they deem specific projects crucial to running their business. In many cases and I do know a few business projects are being managed and delivered through PMO's that really do recruit Senior Project Managers with vast experience; usually when these projects ends so does their contract.


If I may I will post an entry from my own blog at the end of November that may resonate. It went under the title "It is "Slap my forehead" time; we are all prioritising change portfolios - again!"

Here it is:-

Nearly everyone I know who is involved in planning and managing change is currently partaking of the annual portfolio prioritisation ritual. This is something I have seen year after year, yet still seems to come as a surprise to senior management, causing stress and uncertainty for much longer than necessary. I should stress here that I am talking across financial services and not just a single company.

I plan two posts on this. The first will be an analysis of why this happens, year after year. It is slightly enhanced (simplified in places, emphasised in others) in the hope that the reader can recognise and empathise with the situation. Please do tell me if it is way off.

The second will be some practical thoughts on portfolio prioritisation, based on a number of years doing this at a corporate level and forever trying to fight the dreamers on the one hand and those hell bent on spurious precision on the other.

One thing I have learnt is that we waste so much management time trying to create something, ie a change agenda, that will at best be only ~60% correct when reviewed with hindsight. The other 40% will be changes in plan, genuine errors, and unforeseen and unforeseeable needs and events. If we recognised and accept this truism we might find that Q4 each year can be made into a much more productive period.

Part 1

The root causes are, I believe, pretty simple.

STEP 1: A planning process that starts from the bottom up, with business units/lines generating more of a wish list than a strategic plan. Rarely is anything co-ordinated across units, relying instead on untested assumptions and supported by little more than the most basic data. If there is any articulation of benefits, it is usually optimistic with only limited understanding of the sensitivities and alternatives.

This happens despite the best intentions of many who draw up templates, guidelines, etc. and try to run an integrated process. There is something of a kid in a candy store mentality that descends when it comes to building most business driven change agendas.

STEP 2: Someone (the PMO?) consolidates the data and, wonder of wonders, the total is almost certainly a serious multiple of what could be afforded and/or delivered in the current period. What reason is there to believe that the organisation has the capacity to drive and absorb 3x or 4x the currently acheived levels? We still ignore that basic sense check, time and again.

This is usually the first wake up call that it is not going to be easy. A common response is to challenge if it is all needed. The usual outcome is a minimal reduction by shaving some costs, a few per cent here and there, and removing those ideas/proposals that are clearly pure fantasy. This rarely solves the problem.

STEP 3: Put the inflated change apettite into the corporate mixing bowl and find that the financial targets that supposedly drove the planning from the start are unachievable. Now, as the circular logic hits home, the first signs of panic set in. Some management, usually the planning and financial teams, realise that the company can only deliver the sales, profits, etc if they address all that "change", but the organisation cannot afford it all and so won''t get the income which will make the ratios worse. What to do? It seems so easy when it is just numbers on a spreadsheet. When you have to deal with a diverse set of people/interests and consider many implications, not just monetary aspects, it is so much more difficult.

STEP 4: There is a realisation that the information gathered so far is nowhere near good enough to really assess and prioritise the opportunities or to understand the full implications of not doing any one item. Linked to this is the realisation that there is not enough time to start again - there are almost always external timetables that have to be met.

Of course there can be some subjective tinkering and whittling of the list, but this rarely has any chance of being enough. There are too many interested parties fighting for their own rewards. A little horse trading may occur, but the old adage of follow the money (ie who gets the best rewarded for what) is no more true than in this process.

STEP 5: Decouple the financial budget from the composition of a detailed change agenda, and set a change budget that fits the targets and allows a set of financial figures to be submitted - even if the full business implications are not yet quantified.

This leaves a situation where low level business expectations still exceed high level management promises and considerable uncertainty remains about what will be needed or indeed delivered in the year ahead. This is very uncomfortable for many and still needs resolving if the "planners" amongst the management teams are to do what they do, ie plan, for next year.

The language that is often used is "deferred (to later years)" or "phased" rather than "dropped" and one would hope that there would be a rolling programme of work that these fall into, but as often as not, next year is a new year, with new management and new business ideas.

In practice this experience will most likely be repeated again, despite claims that the organisation has learned and is doing something better than the last time. In scenes reminisence of the film Ground Hog Day most "actors" fail to recognise the repeating cycle.

This is where it seems many organisations are right now at the end of November.

Ian, I've heard that portfolio management works on a 7 year cycle, with companies taking an interest, creating a PMO, believing it to be expensive and better of decentralised, decentralising project management and then eventually going round the loop again.

As for prioritisation, I feel it should be an ongoing activity, not just an annual event.

It shouldn't be an annual event, but the new year is a great time to rethink how you approach your portfolio of projects.

I agree with Elizabeth, that prioritisation should be ongoing but it has to be driven from the top and align with the strategic goals of the organization. Attempts in my organization to prioritize without this approach have ended up becoming time consuming circular debates between business lines, eventually being abandoned.
As far as making decisions to keep the workload within capacity, here is how I see it played out in my environment:
There is an unwillingness to make a decision to 'drop' a project, 'deferring' or 'phasing' seem to be more acceptable. Dropping or cancelling an initiative or project can cause upset to parts of the organization which is avoided at all costs to avoid risking employee productivity or motivation. In reality, however, the result of this is that all employees are stretched too thin and so morale and motivation are at an all time low since there is little feelign of accomplishment and success as things move so slowly.

Trimming the number of projects, allowing employees to focus, move forward and succeed may have a short term effect of upsetting the status quo but long term gain for the organization, employees, and clients.

This is very possibly the result of being in the public sector and is most definately due to the lack of maturity in our portfolio management but I woudl hope there are government departments who are managing this better than we are.

An alternative scenario/challenge exists for those organisations where projects are customer driven. Here you have little control over a surge of new projects, how these are prioritised or when they come along. You meet short term demand with contractors. However, you risk quality and knowledge drain from the business. Often this is the only answer to a shortfall. However, the relationship you have with the customer is equally important as a tool. You need to bring them with you through the challanges you are facing. This means being open and honest and basically underlines the importance of managing projects together with the customer.


Seven years feels about right. I would agree that prioritisation should be ongoing, but two factors mitigate against that in my experience. The first is that management behaviour is driven by the corporate calendar, focussing on what is demanded now ie budgets in November (for the next year)' reporting inJanuary, staff appraisals in June, etc. As budgeting is annual so prioritisation gets it's main attention once a year.

The second is never forget self interest and there are large portions of the year when no one is interested in prioritisation when they cabe politic'ing and fighting over promotions, pay rises and bonuses!

Sorry to sound cynical, but I am over cyclical ie been around these loops too many times.

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