Prioritization: Why people are so much more than resource


At the heart of every planning process is, in all probability, a model that classifies people based on the days they will work, and the implied backlog of tasks they’re meant to complete. While this is practical and powerful, it should not be the whole story.

Paper cutout figures holding hands

Empowering People for Innovation and Strategic Alignment

These ‘resources’ are people, and if your process only considers them as numbers in a tracker then you are going to lose a great deal:

  • Project ideas can come from anywhere in your organization… but rarely come out of a spreadsheet. Engaging with front line teams helps generate innovation.
  • Subject Matter Experts are key for providing sensible estimates but are rarely the people in charge of preparing the business case.
  • Buy-in for work boosts focus & productivity, so involving people early will make them more inclined to engage when it’s their turn to deliver. Put another way:

    “Often our productivity struggles are caused not by a lack of efficiency, but a lack of motivation,” - Adam Grant

  • Strategic alignment is important. In 2005 research from Kaplan & Norton showed that 95% of employees don’t understand their company’s strategy. This is a huge miss in terms of building shared commitment to positive outcomes. Since then, a lot of growth has gone into top-down corporate communications (think CEO blogs or company all-hands) but how relatable are these updates? Connecting strategy to what people are working on day-to-day is huge opportunity for employee engagement.
  • Capturing live feedback from the frontline is key to keeping on top of projects’ risks, so that they can be managed proactively. Think whistleblower before the trainwreck rather than after.

Connecting Strategy and Employee Engagement

As we touched on the importance of strategic alignment and how research has shown that a significant percentage of employees don’t understand their company’s strategy, it's crucial to find ways to make strategy relatable and connected to daily tasks for genuine employee engagement.

If you’re looking for practical methods to achieve this connection, the 'Collaborative Strategy Making in a Hybrid World - a Digital Interaction Approach' webinar by Chris Carter is an invaluable resource.

In the webinar, Chris explains how to integrate stakeholder voices, including those of employees, into strategy making, thereby directly linking their daily work with the overall goals. Through this Digital Interaction approach, you can foster a culture where employees not only understand the company’s strategy but are also actively engaged in its execution.

Rethinking Estimates and Scheduling in Project Planning

Back to the ‘data’ on project effort. This data is both critical and wrong, a challenging combination which makes investing time in improving estimate quality a highly recommended step:

  • Quality estimates must be team projections. Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman showed us how software engineers’ estimates varied by 70% from one expert to the next. Consider that for a minute. How long do we spend debating the details, when the core metric for our project might be 70% wrong?

    Conversely get a group together and their collective insight will reduce this Noise, cutting 50% of it with just 3 people working together. Adding in an extra step to planning may feel painful, but the benefit case for quality is overwhelming. Read more about Noise in Decision-Making.
  • Carry buffer in one place. Murphy’s Law tells us that things will go wrong no matter how well we plan. Accept this in your model and build buffer to absorb it. Be honest - don’t hide small pockets in lots of projects. Simply set utilization to (say) 80% and use that balancing 20% to cope with the totally predictable unexpected curveballs. Failing to do so is simply not fair on your delivery teams.

Finally, let’s get back to the whole ‘resources are actually people’ theme again to think about delivery.

Allocating 1/16th of someone’s time means about one day a month. Consider that day. It’s lunchtime by the point they’re up to speed, then into a project update for a couple of hours… so it probably means actual work can only happen if you put in overtime…

The fancy term for this is paradigm switching. We’ve all been there and can see it’s stupid, but when it’s the only way to get the Gannt chart the CEO wants to see...surely, it’s OK?

No. If you cannot get your plan to fit into a schedule that is deliverable by people then it’s not a plan – it’s an accident waiting to happen. Take the hit up-front and solve it, rather than putting your head in the sand and hoping that 1/16th guy bails you out again by missing out on dinner with their family.

All this points to something we all know deep down. The organization you work in might be talked about like a slick production line. Plans go in one end; amazing projects pop out the other. However, back in the real world, your company is an organic kind of messy entity, where magic can happen, but only if you’re willing to embrace the innate humanity of the ‘resources’ in your spreadsheet, and build a prioritization model designed to empower, rather than dehumanize, the people who do the work.

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