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3 Ways to Improve Project Management In The Time of Labor Shortages

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As part of starting my technology career, I augmented my undergraduate degree in computer science with a minor in economics. Over the years, I began to appreciate more the inherent wisdom of the demand and supply relationships as it pertains to labor forces. In particular, the laws of economic supply and demand are playing themselves to new heights in these uncertain times.

We see it every day in the news: Jobs by the thousands of all types are going unfilled with nobody stepping forward to fill them. In our industry, we are seeing multiple factors converging to create difficult times for project and product managers. The exponential growth in technology, changing demographics in work forces as well as COVID-19 have all greatly impacted what we do on a day-to-day basis.

For project and product delivery, I am observing that labor shortages that impact our delivery efforts take on two different forms:

  1. For new projects and products, the ability to find new resources is extremely difficult. Staffing durations are taking longer and it’s ever more challenging to find skilled, experienced team members.
  2. In addition, existing project and product resources are being consistently overcommitted, which leads to multiple negative outcomes—including their potential loss as they explore other options due to burnout.

As a project and product manager, these market conditions create a confounding set of risks that need some refreshed thinking in order to mitigate their impacts. Here are a few of my thoughts on ways we can manage around these challenging times:                                                           

1. Up Your Game on Scope, Schedule and Resource Management
One of the hallmarks of a great project manager is their ability to synthesize threats to scope, schedule and resources. They rigorously examine and take action to curtail creeping scope, aggressively monitor planned versus actual schedule progress, as well as frequently check resource utilization.

In addition to giving more emphasis to these areas than ever before, project managers need to look beyond their project for external threats. By taking more of a portfolio manager mindset and looking for external threats including other projects, they can better anticipate and address challenges to their own delivery commitments.

For high-speed, iterative agile product delivery, labor shortages make for even more challenging times. One of the benefits of a dedicated set of resources for an agile product team is that over time they reduce the learning curve and improve decision-making efficiency. Swapping resources in and out of agile product delivery due to labor shortages creates damaging disruption to both schedule and quality. This environment compels agile product managers to be even more vigilant when it comes to managing scope, schedule and resources.  

2. Get Back to Basics
As the complexity of project and product delivery grew over the years, the amount of supporting reporting, analysis and review meetings grew in lockstep. In addition, the complexity of indicators, metrics, narratives and other project metadata increased as well—the intent being to quantitatively identify delivery volatility before it becomes an issue.

While the increased frequency and depth of examination improves stewardship and has helped with early detection of delivery volatility, in these times there may not be enough capacity to warrant this level of detail.

To help mitigate impacts of labor shortages while not adversely impacting delivery, take a good hard look at the project and product metadata that is currently being produced. For the level of uncertainty and risk on your project or product, can the frequency of reporting, analysis and review meetings be reduced in order to spend more time on activities that directly impact delivery?

For the depth of metadata, explore simplified methods for conveying progress against a plan. For example, the use of additional done/not done milestones to measure progress would take less effort than gathering timesheets to calculate total effort. Rationalizing where it makes sense, the frequency and breadth of supporting metadata creates more capacity for direct project and product activities.

3. Restore Real-Time Individual Engagement as a Norm
People are both the most valuable and the most fragile when it comes to project and product delivery. One of my post-graduate professors in an organizational design class once shared, “The greater the level of uncertainty, the closer the level of interaction is required between people.” Loosely translated for modern times, this means: Don’t try to solve complex problems by email.

Pre-pandemic, there was a lot of personal interaction in an office or site; these days, we rely on online collaboration tools as a primary means of connection and communication. Despite the ability as a group to remotely connect audibly and visually through the use of these tools, difficulties remain in terms of the effectiveness and efficiency of personal engagement, especially at an individual level. Individual connection has always been a means of identifying both new ideas as well revealing challenges that may not arise in a group setting; all the more reason to make it an increasingly frequent activity when managing projects and products.

While modern times present new challenges, it’s still possible to connect on a person-to-person level. Outside of the normal cadence of group meetings, set up recurring individual connection sessions with team members. These can still be done with collaboration tools—but they have all the advantages of what private conversation can provide. I’m finding these individual meetings have a great propensity to really help us understand the underlying dynamics of project and product delivery. (If you happen to live in reasonably close proximity and abide by any local regulations, that doesn’t mean an espresso in person to stimulate conversation would be out of the question!)

These are indeed challenging times, the likes of which I have never before seen in my project and product management career. Labor shortages as well as volatility from resource overcommitments are all causing us to rethink our day-to-day activities on how we interact with people. While we can long for the days when walking down the hall in an office to connect with a team member was the norm, we as project and product delivery managers still need to take steps to overcome these challenges in our drive for successful delivery outcomes.

I welcome any comments on what others are doing to help reduce the impact of labor shortages with creative project and product management techniques. Share your insights below!

Posted by Kevin Korterud on: November 16, 2021 05:59 PM | Permalink

Comments (7)

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Dear Kevin
Very interesting theme that brought to our reflection and debate
Thanks for sharing and your opinions.
In your opinion, to what do you attribute this lack of qualified resources that you mentioned?
Did this situation already exist before the pandemic?

Hi Luis...I think given the exponential growth of technology I think we have reached a point where there is nearly no such thing as a "business project". We were reaching this point anyway before COVID and supply chain issues...but I do feel those factors accelerated shortages...

I really liked the reminder that we need to get back to basics and let people concentrate on the tasks that impact delivery. Metrics should be automatic and natural outcomes of the process. Tools can help with keeping a disparate workforce up to date... Slack and Microsoft Teams have potential to help with that if used properly.

Kevin,

Thanks for your comments. I agree with @Ann Baca for the need to get back to basics and focus on delivery. I have found that I need to be more flexible with process to allow for the disruptions in how our teams need to operate in this new environment.

Regards,
Mike

Hi Ana & Mike...thanks for the commentary and agree w your points. In addition to the challenges we see today there is even more of a need for vigilance across all project and product delivery.

One capability that has really come to the forefront during these different times has been the need for a highly engaged PMO; enable delivery tools, analyze an integrated schedule to look for conflicts across projects as well as be watchful for resource overloads.

Thanks, Kevin, for sharing the considerations. Notably, "Get to the Basics" reminds me how delegating is key in this debate; certain types of reporting such as financial impact, project outcomes vs project charter & business case, may be delegated to functions that are usually managed by stakeholders that are not part of the project core team.

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