Dirty Reality: When resources play hard to get

This article is part 1 of 1 of the series Dirty Reality

avatar-biberOnce in a while we will answer questions from project managers out in the field. Reality is not always following the textbook and the job can be tough. Our current topic:

It is always other projects getting the scarce resources, never mine.
In the company I work for there are many important projects. I am really having a hard time to advance my own project as some of those others always block the most important resources. I really need those guys from manufacturing to help, but they never have time for me!

Well, this is a very common problem indeed. First of all one has to ask if was the project planned and set up properly? If so, then sufficient resources should be assigned to it and in principle you should be able to get them. Since your project did actually start, it must be of some importance to the company. Some decision makers want this project and they hopefully want it to be successful. So there should be the resources available for it or they should made available. At least in principle. But this is a mean phrase, I know.

‘In principle’ describes it well! On paper I should have access, but in reality all I hear about is a temporary shortage of manpower in manufacturing. And right now, in this very moment, nobody has the time to help me. Each and every time I ask. I feel stuck!

Welcome to the real world of project managing! Of course, sometimes resources are overplanned, overstretched with 150% or 200%. Or management simply forgot to tell them, that they are actually assigned to the project. Of course this would be really bad – but it is quite common. Poor planning and poor communication are a threat to every project. In particular if it happens out of reach for the project manager.

Sometimes one also encounters a philosophy of company Darwinism, where management unconsciously assumes, that the most important projects will automatically win the battle for the limited resources. This might work in some cases, but is quite dangerous in general. Often it is not the most important projects, which benefit from this, but those projects with the most influential project managers, those who know and are friends with the key-players.
This is a good way for management to lose control over what is actually happening. And it is also a good way to create very frustrated project managers.

This is exactly my situation! There are the old boys, who always get what they want and need. I see no way to make my project a success in this situation.

I should make one thing clear: In such a situation it is your job to fight for your project! In an ideal world you would not have to, sure. But often the world is far from being ideal. You cannot wait for someone to rescue your project. You must do it. You must fight for those resources.

Tough words. But I still have no clue how to change the situation to the better.

Simple, but not necessarily easy. I often follow three steps:

  1. If the answer is along the lines of ‘Not now.’, ‘I do not have time this week’. And you hear this repeatedly or the situation is urgent, then explain this urgency. Briefly explain why your topic is important for the company.
    Stay polite. Often people are drowning in their every day tasks and prioritise themselves from what information they have. In that case giving them more information sometimes helps. If your project is a longer-term development project, explain that it might not have a direct effect today, but how it will help the company to survive the next two years.
  2. If the first step is not successful, you may try it more vehemently. Some people need some pressure to wake up from their world and listen to you.
    But always be respectful and keep some level of politeness! Always assume it is not the fault of the person you are talking to. In fact, way too often it is really not their fault, but a result of poor management.
    Sometimes applying pressure will reveal the truth: Maybe their manager told them not to be distracted by outside projects. Maybe their performance is assessed on totally different key figures than you and your project. Or maybe there are really some other and more important tasks. Do not assume a lack of good will right from the beginning.
    If people talk to you openly and tell you what their real problem is, then you are in the best position for stage 3.
  3. Escalation: If you hit a brick wall on your level of hierarchy, try the level above. Your management should have the means to resolve this problem. If the cause is poor planning on that level, escalation is often the only chance to resolve the problem. Play the problem back to those who caused it in the first place.
    You must make sure, that commitment and work for your project is not a question of goodwill, but that it becomes an official task for the resource in question. In your case manufacturing.

Great. And then all I will hear is that it is my job as a project manager to solve the problem, and I should not bother management with those things.

A very poor management might answer in that way. But in most cases people will think about the situation and look for solutions. If the problem is a structural problem beyond your reach, with contradictory prioritisation for different branches of the organisation, then you as a project manager cannot resolve it. Now is the time for your management to do their job properly and find a solution.

And if they won’t help? Then it will all fall back to me and trash my performance.

Then you must lift the red flag. Issue an official warning in time. Be straight: ‘This is the plan, here you see the required and promised resources. As I do not get them we will not reach the following project goals: …’
Make it official so you cannot be accused of hiding the problems later. This is all you can do now.

Maybe this would work, maybe not. But still: Why do I have to fight for my project all the time? It is not my job to find workarounds and compensate for the structural problems in my company.

I am afraid it is your job. Who else should and could do it if not you. Welcome to the real world of the project manager, far away from the idealised theory of the textbooks. I understand you are not in a comfortable situation now and it does certainly not feel nice that way.
Of course it would be better if upper management would solve these problems once and for all. Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. But they will certainly not restructure the company in time to save your project.

Alexander Blumenau (*1972) is a portfolio and project manager. With over a decade of international project experience he has been in charge as head of R&D in high-tech industries.
Originally Alexander started his career as a scientist and holds a doctoral degree in Physics. Besides his interests in project management, company processes and structures, he works as a free author and arts photographer.