The Focal Point Blog // Operations Best Practices // Tom O'Neill // July 27, 2022

Calling All Project Managers: It’s Time to Decouple Project Management and Resource Planning

There are a million+1 factors to consider and align on when scaling a digital services company.

Far too often, however, when expanding from a few entrepreneurial founders to a larger team, once-smooth processes, systems, and other best practices quickly become fragmented and muddled, and the work itself starts to feel more like a Level 10 game of Tetris than a strategy. 

The unfortunate truth is that the people who bear the brunt of fragmented processes are project managers, who are expected to be the central hub for the team, resources, projects, and individual tasks. They’re balancing designated teams with project tasks; they’re held accountable when timelines aren’t on track; they’re expected to have the technical expertise needed to understand how the project is progressing and proactively address risks. And they’re on the hook for project health assessments based on the burn-down in tasks against the burn-down in budget. We could keep going, but you get the picture – it’s a lot. 

As a company grows then, the combination of a traditional task-based approach for project management (i.e., assigning individual tasks and small allotments of time needed to complete them) paired with resource planning (i.e., managing the finite capacity of individual contributors), leaves project managers with a next-to-impossible role. They’re expected to not only keep all the plates spinning within complex projects that often have hundreds (if not more) tasks or points, but they also have to figure out how to allocate the human resources on growing teams for future work. It’s simply not scalable.

How about – and just hear us out – we don’t break our beloved project managers? Let’s dive into our recommendations for successfully scaling the business without burning out project managers (or anyone else within your org). 

The pitfalls of the task-based approach

First, let’s cover task-based project planning and pricing. This is when teams break down each project into a series of tasks and subtasks, and they estimate how much time it will take people to complete each task, then assign a fee to each task based on the billable rate of the person assigned to it. They total everything up to determine the overall project budget.

This might sound standard, but in practice, task-based management is a dated approach that comes with various challenges for digital services companies: 

  1. It’s difficult to scale: In the early stages of a company, it’s easy to have a small group of people share the responsibility for a small body of work. Each person has a sense of responsibility, and everyone is pitching in and up for dividing and conquering the work. Shifting that responsibility across larger teams and more clients, however, can be difficult. Again, this leaves project managers to manage complex projects and tasks, while also figuring out future resourcing needs, and it’s far too much ownership and responsibility for one role. 
  2. It’s too granular: Task-based workflows are incredibly time-consuming because it focuses on individual tasks at a granular level and 15-minute increments of time. When the client list starts to expand – or the project size starts to grow – suddenly there can be hundreds of individual contributors and a lot of overhead and time to rigidly manage if everyone’s tasks are tracked in small increments. Plus, this typically goes against the grain of creative practitioners – don’t expect them to happily bounce through hundreds of small tasks in 15-minute allotments with peak creativity for each.  
  3. It doesn’t account for context switching: It’s difficult for a project to land perfectly on budget through a rigid task-by-task approach, as it quickly becomes expensive for individual contributors to switch between projects. The often unexpected, unaccounted cost for context switching across six or seven different projects and clients tends to kill some of the time allocated for each task. Designers or developers, for example, might have to spend 15-30 minutes getting back up to speed when they switch from one project to another, and they’re doing this multiple times a day. That time has to go somewhere – it’s either chipping away from their work time, or it ends up killing budgets, forcing teams to either eat the overages (sacrificing margin) or increase client budgets. Neither are ideal. 

It’s time to pivot to duration-based planning

In place of task-based project planning, digital services companies should implement a duration-based approach. This is when a certain percentage of each role or a person’s time is allotted to client projects. Rather than assigning a certain amount of time for each task (1 hour for task A, 3 hours for task B), duration-based management assumes the employee will spend, for example, 50% of their time on a project for client C and 50% on client D. The expectation is that the employee will complete all tasks they’re responsible for during that time, and communicate with their manager or project owner if they need a longer window. Project managers can still manage the individual tasks or points that need to be addressed and completed, but budgets are not dictated based on the rollup of the small allocations of time across all of these individual elements. (Read more on duration-based planning here). 

We highly recommend that people only work on two or three clients in a day, otherwise they’re too easily bogged down by checklists and short-sighted tasks that break the budget. Say someone is assigned 30 tasks (or points), and the sum of the hours on all those items is 200 hours. That person has 200 hours of billable work to complete within perfectly timed tasks that are aligned to the budget. Again, what about the time it takes for context switching? Where does this person put the time it takes to ramp up on each new task if they’re juggling more than two or three clients? That extra time impacts budget, but with a duration-based approach, companies significantly reduce time for context switching and can start being more thoughtful about how time is spent – and ultimately, better set up their teams to win. 

There are other benefits of the duration-based approach beyond cost and time savings. A large portion of today’s workforce is feeling burnt out, and that feeling is exacerbated within digital services companies that often have an always-on mentality. Essentially, everyone is working way harder than they need to be or should be, but it’s not always reflected in their timesheets. Developers, designers, and other individual contributors could be feeling overworked and stressed out, yet their billable utilization could say 60%. That’s because, with a task-based approach, they’re likely hiding time or only recording portions of it to avoid the backlash from project managers for going over the allotted time and therefore negatively impacting the budget. It’s a lose-lose situation for both the contributor and the project manager. This type of environment eventually impacts a company’s attrition rate, but a duration-based approach can help ease that timesheet stress.  

The case for decoupling project management and resource planning 

Duration-based planning is a step in the right direction, but digital services companies also should be decoupling project management from resource planning altogether. They should sell and plan work based on duration, not tasks, and create more checks and balances as projects are in flight to better set project managers up for success and help teams stay on track. 

When these two operational elements are conflated, teams become heavily reliant on the project manager, expecting them to be a unicorn who can both estimate time and budget for the work and hold people accountable to those estimates. Unfortunately, there’s almost never a discussion at the end of the week to assess how many tasks are left versus how much time and budget is left in the resource plan. If those weekly checkpoints don’t occur, there are often surprises as projects wrap up – either regarding team frustrations, budgets being blown, or deliverables falling short. On the other hand, if the project manager takes on a micromanagement approach to ensure everything and everyone is on track the entire time – while they may be recognized and rewarded for running a tight ship – it’s not sustainable for them, and it’s not scalable for the business. Strong talent, then, burns out quickly, and they will likely search for a new role or a new company sooner than later.  

Here’s what it can look like when project management and resource planning are decoupled: The project manager sets expectations for three team members to work 50% of their time on the project from date A to date B. There is a clear expectation and agreement that these team members can complete their tasks in that period of time. The project manager checks at least once a week to see how hours are tracking, which tasks are completed and which are coming up, and will regularly assess if the tasks left are reasonable for the time and budget left. This checks/balances approach essentially creates a mechanism for greater visibility and consistency, shared responsibility, reduced tension, and fewer surprises. Ideally, there also would be someone (i.e., a resource manager) for the project manager to partner with who can own resource adjustments for the project as needed, so the project manager can remain focused on the project itself. 

With this approach, digital services organizations can more easily scale and start to operate at a more mature, streamlined level that doesn’t break their people. All it takes is to 1) adopt a duration-based project approach and 2) decouple project management with resource planning. 

Go deeper

Want to learn more about making the business case for decoupling project management and resource planning, as well as pursuing duration-based planning? Stay tuned for part two of this series and an upcoming webinar where I’ll explain why and how digital services companies can mature their operations by adopting these practices.

Have questions? Let’s chat 

We’re passionate about this because we’ve all lived it. We believe duration-based project planning is a best practice for operationally mature organizations, and duration-based resource planning helps teams stay focused on a few projects at a time while delivering more value to clients. This helps resource managers more easily visualize resource allocation, and project managers more easily deliver more value. It’s truly a win-win. 

And while Parallax supports various pricing and agency resource management methods, our solution works especially well with duration-based pricing and planning. Resource planning features allow teams to assign a percentage of each employee’s time to a project, making it easy to visualize resource allocation. At the same time, PMs can continually watch for shifts in project variance – looking at projected start and end dates, the burn down in tasks, and the estimated time to complete the projects. If things start to get off track, project managers and resource managers can act quickly and strategically, together. 

So – are you looking to scale with ease? Do you want to create an environment for your workforce that has less friction and stress and more success and room for innovation? Parallax can help you achieve your business and your peoples’ goals – let’s chat